A short time ago I mentioned the fact that I really should talk about this instrument. I came to know this instrument from a CD I acquired some time ago, featuring works by American composer Daniel E. Gawthrop. If you have never heard any of his organ works–seek them out! They’re amazing. The album was Like A Fire, recorded for Grace Notes Media, by organist David Pickering on the organ in Bales Recital Hall at the University of Kansas. When I popped the CD in my player and started listening I was stunned by the instrument, the acoustics and the recording. I found myself wondering if there was a mistake–surely this had to be a recording from some great cathedral in Europe?!?
Nope! Checking the liner notes of the album, I confirmed that this is located here in the United States! Wha-?!? It is the Bales Recital Hall Organ at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas. Kansas?!? The organ is built by Hellmuth Wolff et Associés of Laval, Québec.
The organ struck me as being bright, bold, but not shrill. The way it speaks is crisp and crystal clear, and the ample acoustics seem to enhance absolutely every color and pitch. I have never, up to that point, heard something so amazingly beautiful, or so ideal. The instrument had a familiar tone quality, in yet, it was something very new… The quality of the flue pipes (the flutes in particular) and the bold, yet poetic, reeds are spine chilling.
My initial impression (of the sound and visual style of the case) was this instrument was some type of neo-classical/modern mix. You can imagine my surprise to learn from the liner notes that the organ “draws heavily on the French Romantic tradition.” But goes on to say, “this does not imply Wolff was content to merely copy the style of that period.”
Now often times the FIRST thing I look for while starting to listen to a new album, is the organ’s stoplist. Unfortunately the stoplist was not provided in the liner notes of the album. I found the stoplist online and was shocked to see the French specifications. So while the organ may draw from the French Romantic tradition, it–in the end–is something quite uniquely modern in my opinion.
Of course I HAD to seek any more recordings of this instrument. I eventually found one other one, the inaugural recording by organist James Higdon. This CD features a heavy French influence, and made the French voice of the organ a lot more obvious than the other recording. What also struck me is how effective the organ was at playing not only a more Romantic repotoire as exhibited in the Franck and Duruflé selections, but how amazingly beautiful French Classical music could be rendered as well, exhibited by the pieces by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers.
I highly recommend both recordings, not only for their music, but for this organ alone! I hope to see more recordings made on this instrument in the future…
Now, what makes this organ sound so perfect in its space? If you look at the picture of the concert hall above you will note that the organ is pretty much the center of attention. That’s because–as almost never happens–the recital hall was built solely for the instrument! The hall was designed under the guidance of acoustician Robert Mahoney, and its acoustics are inspired by the French church of Saint François de Sales, in Lyon, France. The hall was built with thick two foot concrete walls, all covered in a special plaster texture that increases reverb, and the height of the hall is over 70 feet tall! The result is that the acoustics of the space were built FOR the organ. It’s a no wonder this instrument sounds so amazing.
The organ stands front and center in the recital hall, is given plenty of space around the case and it’s height, I’m sure, aids the way this instrument projects sounds into the space. The reverb seems to be somewhere around 4 seconds, which is moderate, but the space sounds vast. The stops speak with an amazing clarity, individually, and in chorus they blend into a very rich sound!
I am very serious when I say, I have not come across an organ/space built in North America quite like this. This organ is pretty much at the top of my bucket list of organs I would love to hear (or even play) someday.
Be sure to check out the awesome video about this pipe organ at the end of this post!
Specifications of the Hellmuth Wolff et Associés, Op. 40
Bales Recital Hall, University of Kansas
built in 1996
45 Stops, over 3,200 pipes
Grand Orgue (manual II)
Flûte conique 8′
Flûte harmonique 8′
Flûte à fuseau 4′
Positif (manual I)
Flûte à cheminée 4′
Flûte à fuseau 2′
Récit Expressif (manual III)
Flûte à cheminée 8′
Viole de gambe 8′
Voix celeste 8′
Flûte octaviante 4′
Voix humaine 8′
Montre 16’ (G.O.)
Montre 8’ (G.O.)
Trompette allemande 8’
Trompette 8’ (G.O.)
Clairon 4’ (G.O.)
Récit – G.O.; Positif – G.O.; Recit – Positif
Tirasse G.O.; Tirasse Positif; Tirasse Recit
Solid mahogany case
Manual compass: C – a”’ (58 notes). Natural Keys capped with oxbone, sharps with ebony; octave span 161 mm.
Pedal compass: C – f’ (30 notes). Flat pedalboard, centered on second D#; Naturals spaced 60mm apart; Natural keys of white oak, sharps capped with rosewood
Mechanical key action (suspended)
Electric stop-action; Combination system with multiple levels of memory; Twelve general pistons; Four divisional pistons per division; Sequencer. General cancel; General pistons, couplers, pedal pistons, and tutti to be duplicated by toe-studs