By Bill Zeeble
Critics say the organ inside the Meyerson Symphony Center is one of the greatest. In this installment of Secrets of the Meyerson, from KERA’s Art&Seek, we explore why the organ, a unique Dallas asset, is not used as much as many might wish.
The Lay Family organ made its debut in 1992, three years after the Meyerson opened. Camille Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony No. 3 capped the inaugural concert. It’s the rare classical work that almost perfectly marries the organ and the orchestra. And, on that night, Dallas heard a new instrument almost perfectly matched to its home.
“The Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson Center is one of the great organs of the world without question, in one of the great halls,” says Michael Barone. He knows. He’s host of the award-winning radio show Pipedreams. “What makes the hall wonderful is that its acoustics are adjustable, and can be made quite extravagant. And when opened up to the full, the resonance chambers really do make quite a splash of sound.”
That resonance thrills audiences and makes the organ sound like it’s been lifted out of a grand European Cathedral, says Scott Cantrell, a critic with The Dallas Morning News. “The more reverberation there is, the more they like it. So in a solo recital you can open up all those reverb chambers and get this incredible swim of sound there, although it never gets muddy.”
The Dallas Symphony’s organist Mary Preston praises builder C.B. Fisk for that accomplishment.
“This is a glorious instrument because each of the stops is very pure. Each of the sounds of the ranks of pipes are very pure in and of themselves,” she says. Preston has played with the DSO for 20 years. “Some organs, in order to get a pretty sound, you need to pull out a whole bunch of stops, meaning engage a whole rank of pipes. On this instrument, it’s not so. This instrument has beautiful sounds – each and every one of them.”
Purity comes from the pipes, she says. You can see 70 of them in the hall.
The rest, says retired DSO vice president Mark Melson, are hidden in back, up some skinny steps.
“We’re in the organ loft behind the organ console and the organ pipes. There are over 4,000 pipes. They’re crammed into this six-foot-deep space,” he points out.
The smallest pipe is about an inch long. The 32-foot tallest pipe is so big a person can stand up inside it. It can play a note a full octave below anything the orchestra can.
“Even when you don’t quite hear it, there’s just this low rumble that’s not so much a pitch but an experience,” describes Michael Barone. “When the full organ is going, when you pull on the big 32-foot Bombard, it’s not just the sound. It’s the ‘wow’ impact of the sound vibrating your whole body.”
That leaves fans and musicians like Mary Preston with a desire seemingly as big as the instrument.
“It would be wonderful if we could play it more,” Preston says.
Cantrell, the critic with The Dallas Morning News, is a little more emphatic.
“People want to hear this instrument,” Cantrell said. “There it is. It’s right at the front of the hall. It’s an enormous presence. People often ask me does it ever get used? And I have to say, well, almost never.”
There was an international organ competition. Launched in the ’90s, three were held, then its top champions retired or moved away. An ailing economy helped kill it.
But some of that’s about to change.
The orchestra plans to program more selections that include the organ. And this coming season, the symphony will re-launch an organ recital series. Jonathan Martin, DSO president and CEO, says it will include three concerts with international soloists.
He says: “You know, we’ve got this great car in the driveway and we need to take it out and drive it more.”
Barone believes the effort will pay off once people open up to this monster that Mozart called the King of Instruments, and realize the organ, which predates Christianity, isn’t just for church.
“It is the most complicated of musical instruments and yet to be able to make it sing, to make it touch your heart, to be able to create emotions with this machine is quite magical,” Barone said.
Dallas audiences next get a chance to hear if it’s magic for them, this Thursday.
THE ORGAN IN ACTION
You can watch a performance of the Finale from Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 1 by the Dallas Symphony’s resident organist, Mary Preston below.