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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Electric Violin”

November 13, 2008

Dear Michael,

I enjoy Pipedreams a lot and listen faithfully, but find your statement about pipe organs (accompanying “Concert Organs Abroad”) somewhat desperate, and possibly out of line with your constant and worthy advocacy for organ music, players and importantly public recognition of the organ in general.

Who cares what an organ costs per pound as compared to a violin? The size of audiences for each and the frequency with which concert halls book them suggests the violin is more valuable in more ways than one. And how do you know what anyone would suggest to Zuckerman? The idea of him playing on an electric violin is a really exciting one, and probably the more so to a younger person who doesn’t even know who Zuckerman is.

It always seems that you’re such a strong advocate for the survival of the instrument, so the seeming implication that somehow pipe organs should continue to be built (even though they’re laughably expensive, take up lots of natural resources, electricity, valuable concert hall space, and endless maintenance), seems to imply that therefore electronic instruments should not fill their role.
What about the countless people who have heard artists like Jean-Luc Ponty, Laurie Anderson, Boyd Tinsley (of Dave Matthews Band), and of course Vanessa-Mae, who all play electric violins? What about my two teenage daughters, who never have given two seconds to any organist or organ music, who paid their own money (along with me and about 1700 other people, most of whom were under 30) to hear Cameron Carpenter at UCLA a couple weeks ago? They could care less about the pipe organ, especially the disappointing one at Royce Hall, but they’re rabid for Cameron Carpenter, and each have his recording on the virtual pipe organ.

I don’t mean to be offensive; I’m a fan of yours, too. But I hope you won’t lapse into the position you so often seem to adapt whenever the mailbag deals with younger culture, pop references, or the emerging generations and what they consider “cool” - which is that you’re too much of an old fogey to know, or be held responsible for knowing. You are the only significant broadcaster of the organ in the world! You should be advocating for everything that gets people - YOUNG PEOPLE - involved, and in today’s increasingly green and increasingly broke world, the pipe organ is less and less viable.

If it isn’t, then why are the supposedly great concert hall organs sitting (with the possible exception of Disney Hall, and Meyerson for the first-ever concert by Cameron) unheard, or heard by organ fans who all seem to know each other from PIPORG-L?





I figured I’d tap a vein with my somewhat outlandish posting. I’ll not speak for Zukerman and the rest, but though they well might be interested in trying out a hyper-fiddle, you can bet that they will not trade in their expensive and historic violins in exchange for that.

So much in our culture makes demands on money, natural resources, space (and time), that to hold the organ at risk on those accounts (as you seem to do) appears unfair to me.

I do not discount the place of the synthetic instrument, as it opens new worlds of possibility that will be beyond the authentic original. And in some situations, space requirements will allow no other. I love what Barbara Dennerlein does on a Hammond B3, and I love what Cameron Carpenter (on the Marshall & Ogeltree virtual organs) and Hector Olivera (on his Rodgers, and Roland instruments) do with their respective electronic instruments. But ultimately I do not see those estimable devices as replacements for the pipe organ, at least not out of aesthetic necessity.

Your daughters prove, perhaps, that it is the artist, not the instrument, that will engage the inexperienced audience member (and may well continue to enthrall them throughout their lifetimes). Clothing, demeanor, attitude all play a role in Cameron’s success. Would your kids be as excited to hear Hector Olivera, who has built a fine career playing a synthesizer (and loves playing the pipe organ, too)? Cameron wants to be a cult figure…perhaps more organists should embrace similar goals.

The situation with our concert halls is complex, as much a matter of management decisions, the effectiveness of publicity, and the costs of meeting the demands of union restrictions. Grand pianos in concert halls also are costly (relatively speaking), and require continual maintenance, but we’ve not replaced them with less costly, more efficient electronic alternatives, have we?
The resources likely will continue to be available to build and install important pipe organs in important places where they are needed and appreciated…while hopefully an additional amount of money will be set aside to provide for their care and use.

Yes, I may sometimes seem to be an old fuddy-duddy (hey, I’m 62, I AM one…), but I think the pipe organ, in the right hands, has what it takes to engage the youthful ear. Let’s not toll the funeral bell yet. And let’s not make it an either/or situation. Cameron often complains of the limitations of the pipe organ, yet he is happy to be paid (well) to play (very well) on dozens of them this season, making friends for himself (and the instrument) along the way.

Am I making myself somewhat more clear?




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