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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Action Items”

March 28, 2008

Dear Michael,

I attended the Hector Olivera concert (delightful!) at Verizon Hall, Philadelphia in February 2008 and will attend Dame Gillian Weir’s recital there in early April. Mr. Olivera used the stage console for his entire show but I know the Dobson Op.76 also has a manual, tracker-action console as part of its design.
My question is, given a choice of the two consoles, when does the mechanical action console get played? I’ve read some of Lawrence Phelps’writings in favor of mechanical key action and wonder if Dame Gillian Weir plans on using the mechanical console during her performance? Maybe you could put in a good word?
My interest in pipe organs is fairly recent but it is keen and I appreciate all the wonderful content you offer through Pipedreams. I’ve learned so much through the site and look forward to each program. I especially enjoy your commentaries and interviews; they provide depth and soul to the music, musicians, and instruments.




Yours is a justifiable question, and I confess that even I am confused, to a degree. Compromise is involved, surely.
Yes, it is acknowledged that a mechanical playing action offers a type of responsiveness and connectedness that is impossible with electric action. However, the placement of a mechanical console is often not ideal as regards matters of hearing a large instrument in balance with itself or in coordinating a performance with an ensemble of other musicians at a distance onstage.
At Verizon Hall, the mechanical console is most often used when the organ is playing an ancillary role in an orchestral performance (in scores such as Respishi’s Pines of Rome or Also sprach Zarathustra by Strauss, or even the Saint-Saens Third Symphony) where razor-sharp coordination (such as the give-and-take in a concerto) is not a high priority. The mechanical console also has been used when the stage is set for other activities (a lecture series; the organist played prelude music from the upstairs console).
Particularly with large instruments (on higher wind pressures), the tactile advantages of mechanical action (as regards sensitivity) are diminished. And no one has convincingly shown that is it impossible to ‘make music’ with electric action, regardless of how ‘remote’ it may seem in both concept and actuality. Consider the splendid expressivity, in its way, of the Wanamaker organ just up the street! :-)
Large pipe organs also present the problem of hearing their sounds in proper balance, since the mechanical console is functionally either under or too close to many of the instruments sound-producing elements. One gets accustomed to this (as is a natural circumstance for all organists…accommodating to their situations), but it is not ideal. You trade a tactile closeness for an acoustical remoteness.
There’s no question that placing the performer front-and-center for a recital adds to the entertainment factor, and gives the audience a sense of connection (and this would be the case whether or not the Verizon video screens are used…which I think add an additional positive element to audience enjoyment).
You must also consider the matter of stage-access, and the labor necessary to move a remote stage console into position. Often, the stage floor is ‘busy’ with orchestra risers which require time and energy to reconfigure so that the organ console can be brought to stage center. The ‘easy access’ of the mechanical console (which requires no preparation…you just walk over to it and play) provides a convenience in some circumstances. The organist can rehearse, try sounds (though likely needing someone sitting in the house to judge balances) and get familiar with the instrument.
I’ve not asked Ms. Weir which console she will use, but I expect, given the limited amount of rehearsal time that any artist is allowed in a busy concert room (the Philadelphia Orchestra plays concerts there Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings!), it will be the stage console. If you attend the pre-recital chat at 2:15 on Saturday, you might ask that question (if I have not asked it of her already).
In the end, an organist must decide how best to serve both the music and the audience.
I hope this has not muddied the waters for you.





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