The "King of Instruments" is dead, long live the king

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this was in Friday's New York Times

May 20, 2005
Pipes and Stained Glass: A Master Reflects on a Lifetime of Church Organs
After a lifetime as a church organist, the last 35 years of it at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, John Weaver is finally throwing off the bonds of Sunday morning services. After his last one, this Sunday, he will conduct Gounod's "St. Cecilia Mass" at 3 p.m. and then play in two works by Saint-Saëns, the "Prière" for cello and organ and the "Organ" Symphony (No. 3). The free concert is the last in a series of farewells that the church and Mr. Weaver's fellow organists have been giving him this spring.

"I loved my work, and I was fortunate enough to have too much of it," he said over lunch shortly before his 68th birthday. "It was grueling," he admitted.

For much of the time he had a triple-gig schedule, holding down a full-time church position while teaching in two different cities on his days off, at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from 1972 to 2003 and at the Juilliard School in Manhattan from 1987 to 2004.

Paul Jacobs, one of his former students, succeeded him as head of the organ department at Juilliard last year, and Alan Morrison, also one of his students, replaced him at Curtis two years ago.

In an age when the fastest-growing churches often do not use the organ at all and concert halls are having trouble attracting audiences for orchestras, many organists fear for their instrument's future. Dr. Weaver (who holds two honorary doctor of music degrees) is hopeful but cautious.

"Every time I hear a success story, I hear a failure story," he said. "In Knoxville, Tenn., to play a recital recently, I inquired about the instrument that I had played when I made my Knoxville debut way back in 1957, and was told, 'Oh, it's in a Baptist church, and they don't ever use it anymore.'

"My very first church job, when I was 14, was in a downtown church in Baltimore where I think I was their last organist, on a wonderful two-manual late-19th-century Johnson & Son organ. I went back just this past Christmas, after visiting the reopened Baltimore & Ohio Railroad museum a few blocks away, and found that it was not in good shape."

The Pentecostal congregation that took over the church from the Methodists preferred the jazzier sounds of a Hammond electronic organ, the pastor told him, and the pipes remained silent.

Many modern megachurches have no organ at all. The uncertain job market for church organists, among other things, has led to a decline in the numbers of organ majors at music schools, from more than 700 in 1985 to somewhere around 500 today, and institutions like the New England Conservatory and Northwestern University's School of Music have closed their organ departments.

Pipes Opening and Closing

But pipe organs have been installed or renovated in more than a score of concert halls across the country over the last decade and a half, and Dr. Weaver says he intends to remain a concert organist even in retirement. He and his wife, Marianne, a flutist for whom he has written several works in his third career as a composer, have booked a tour of Germany for next spring.

On Aug. 2, Dr. Weaver will play his 50th consecutive summer evening concert on the 6,862-pipe Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, installed in the municipal auditorium in Portland, Me., in 1912. It will be his last summer appearance there, he said, and the Kotzschmar's large and active following will probably come close to filling the hall to hear him, according to Ray Cornils, the Portland municipal organist (one of two in the country; Carol Williams, the civic organist in San Diego, is the other). "John has been loyal even in the leanest of years when the organ was at best minimally functioning," Mr. Cornils said.

Today the Kotzschmar is thriving, but Austin Organs of Hartford, successor to the company that originally built it and restored it in the 1990's, ran out of money and closed its doors in March. Austin, in Hartford since 1899, has resumed operations and is now trying to reorganize.

"The organ should have a future in the concert hall," Dr. Weaver said. "The obstacles are the union regulations that exist in concert halls. People don't realize that an organist, unlike a pianist, can't expect the instrument to be a standard design exactly like what he or she practices on. I try to put in 15 hours on any instrument, unless it's a modest one, and in that 15 hours I'll come up with a combination of sounds that's more refined than what I had chosen in the fifth hour of practice. But just to turn on the lights or throw the switch that starts the organ blower you need someone standing there 15 hours, and it's a prohibitive expense."

Nevertheless, Disney Hall in Los Angeles and Overture Hall in Madison, Wis., have scheduled numerous solo recitals as well as organ concerts on large new pipe organs they inaugurated last year, both by German builders. Symphony Hall in Boston finished the renovation of its 1949 Aeolian-Skinner instrument last fall, "opening" it with a performance of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," and it will present the Saint-Saëns symphony on opening night next Sept. 30.

The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, advertised this spring for "a gifted musician and performer" to serve as its first organist on the concert organ that Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa, expects to complete there in May 2006.

Organs in New York

New York City, where both Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall removed their pipe organs years ago, is another story. Carnegie Hall has said it has no desire for a new organ, but Avery Fisher has a bequest intended for one. The New York Philharmonic has had discussions with the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists about the possibility of installing a pipe organ again when the hall is renovated, and at least one digital-organ maker has also made a pitch.

Dr. Weaver does not believe electronic organs, however sophisticated they have become, are acceptable substitutes for pipes.

"It would be unthinkable for either one of the halls to use a Yamaha electric piano," he said. "I played in Carnegie Hall back in 1985 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and James Conlon, on the five-manual Rodgers electronic organ that Virgil Fox dedicated there. On the program was the Liszt "Faust" Symphony, which uses the organ right at the end.

"The Rodgers had a gizmo where you could tune the whole thing. And the orchestra played sharp, so the oboist announced the A, and I tried to tune the organ sharp, but it wasn't working. So I sat there for 35 minutes while they played through the piece in rehearsal, and then came that great moment when I was on E flat octaves with full pedal, and I was a quarter-tone beneath everything else."

Maestro Conlon stopped and asked why the organist was making such an awful noise, but the automatic tuning device could not be fixed. So the conductor went to the stands of all the trombones and trumpets and horns and wrote the organ part into theirs, Dr. Weaver said.

"He told me, 'All I want you to do is play low E flat on the 32-foot pedal,' to produce a rumbling bass roar of almost indistinguishable pitch underneath the orchestra," he said. "I have never been paid so well for so little in all my life."

An Era's End

Over the years, technology has changed people's music listening habits and changed their expectations of organists, he believes. When he graduated from Curtis, he moved to New York as director of music at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in 1959.

"It was in one way the end of an era," he said. "The 33 1/3 recording was coming into vogue. Prior to that, if you wanted to hear the major oratorios, you had to go to a church where the organist played them on the organ and the choir sang them, or you had to wait three years until the New York Philharmonic produced the piece you wanted to hear - the Brahms Requiem, the Mozart Requiem, Verdi or 'Elijah.' "

With long-playing records, people could hear works like that at home as the composers had written them, and no longer flocked to churches on Sunday afternoons to hear them in organ transcriptions. Dr. Weaver had time to ponder the implications at Holy Trinity, where he met his wife: like him, the child of a clergyman, in his choir. They married at Holy Trinity in 1965, and three years later they started a Bach cantata series there.

"The first year we did 30 concerts, the second 28," he said. "It was an awful lot of work for two persons. We had to copy many of the performance parts ourselves, and we felt very much the way Bach must have felt, to have to do these things Sunday after Sunday."

The series was continued by Frederick Grimes after Dr. Weaver moved to Madison Avenue Presbyterian in 1970. Richard Westenburg, who played organ continuo for $25 per cantata then at Holy Trinity later founded his own performance group, Musica Sacra.

A Pendulum

Born in Jim Thorpe, a railroad town in Pennsylvania then called Mauch Chunk, Dr. Weaver remembers when "there was never a time you could not hear a steam locomotive or a whistle or a bell, and the smell of coal smoke was everyplace." He was a regular on the 6:05 a.m. Amtrak train to Philadelphia while he was teaching at Curtis, and built a vast O-gauge model train set in his church office on the second floor. The trains have gone to the Weavers' house in West Glover, Vt., where he said he has already laid out 390 feet of track in the basement.
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