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The Heart of Walt Disney Concert Hall

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Walt Disney Hall stage and organ | Photo: Federico Zignani

This story has been published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Mozart called it "the king of instruments."

Thus it would make sense that Walt Disney Concert Hall, a concert venue resembling a majestic seagoing vessel, its sails billowing in the wind, would also have as its centerpiece an organ that is equally astonishing, in size, sound, scope and design.

Alternately resembling French Fries on steroids, a jumbo packet of pick-up sticks or the aftermath of a seismic disturbance, the $3-million pipe organ is a fabulous piece of sonic art that seems like it could blow the roof off of the Frank Gehry-designed Hall.

To celebrate the organ's 10-year anniversary, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has, pardon the pun, pulled out all the stops by programming a number of concerts this season to highlight the unique beauty of the 40-ton instrument, dubbed Hurricane Mama by minimalist composer Terry Riley. Coming up November 20-22, Gustavo Dudamel conducts the orchestra and superstar organist Cameron Carpenter in Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony along with the world premiere of Stephen Hartke's "Organ" Symphony. The next day, November 23, the organ's actual birthday, will feature a host of famous keyboardists, including Christoph Bull, Frederick Swann and Carpenter, all nimbly showing the range, color and dynamics of this world-famous instrument.

Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ | Photo: Federico Zignani
Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ | Photo: Federico Zignani

Not only is Hurricane Mama legendary, but it's also revolutionary. Master organ builder Manuel Rosales, working with Gehry acquiesced to the architect's original request that the instrument look unlike any other organ ever seen. The 85 year-old starchitect shows no signs of slowing down today as his latest creation, Fondation Louis Vuitton showcases an avalanche of glass plumes located in a western suburb of Paris.

Of its 6,134 pipes -- all but two of the 126 visible pipes are functional -- the shortest, at six inches, is smaller than a pencil and, weighing in at an ounce, plays the highest note in the Piccolo stop, with a frequency of 10,548 cycles per second, or an octave plus a third higher than the top note of a piano. The longest, at 32 feet and weighing 900 pounds, is the size of a telephone pole, the lowest notes of the Violonbasse stop in the pedal organ. With a frequency of 16 cycles per second, or C below the lowest note on the piano - CCCC - the stops create an über-deep, rumbling sound.

Gehry being Gehry, it was his express wish that the instrument's pipes curve in order to match the swoop and flow of the interior's Douglas fir, adding to the concept that there be no right angles in the iconic building.

Rosales, who was born in New York in 1947 but raised in Los Angeles and became hooked on Bach after seeing the movie "Fantasia," was leery of the idea at first, not thinking it physically possible. But Glatter-Götz Orgelbau, the factory in Owingen, Germany that fabricated, built, shipped and installed the instrument -- a process that began in 1991 -- had no problem curving the pipes, with the giant Contre Basson pipes some of the largest and most, well, curvaceous.

Explained the organ maven, who is president and tonal director of Rosales Pipe Organ Services, Inc.: "Curving the pipes was a last-minute request on Frank Gehry's part. The pipes had to be built as samples, and they worked fine. Curving didn't hurt [the sound] one way or the other," he added, "they just looked pretty."

While the organ builders needed to design a tonal spectrum that would complement the orchestra, the instrument also had to hold its own in solo recitals. To that end, the builders adjusted the size, sound and volume of each of the pipes to suit the acoustics of the Hall, which seats a cozy 2,265. Gehry, after all, wanted the Hall to be a "living room for Los Angeles," at the same time envisioning his architecture as frozen music, the organ, which was a gift to the County of L.A. from Toyota Motor Corporation, integral to that vision.

Organ console | Photo: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Organ console | Photo: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging

As for the console, itself, there are 72 stops lined up in 109 ranks, or sets of pipes, one for each of the 61 notes on the manual keyboards and the 32 notes on the pedal-board played by the feet, which, when moving about during difficult musical passages, can resemble dancing.

Stops, which also have names like Trompeta or Flute, describe the sounds they produce, with the stopknobs located on the vertical panels on either side of the keyboards. Others, such as Bombarde and Hautbois, are called reeds, because there's a metal reed vibrating against a hollow tube in the foot of the pipe that produces the tone, which is then amplified by the length of the pipe above the foot.

One almost needs an engineering degree to fathom the intricacies of this particular pipe organ, although such instruments have always been cause for awe. Indeed, pipe organs in the Baroque era were also complex, what with their mechanical connections, wires, wood slats and valves admitting pressurized air into the pipes that were dozens of feet above the organist -- all in service to create sound when a note is played.

Philip Smith ("My friends call me L.A. Phil!"), is conservator of the organ, a job initially created by the Philharmonic's president and CEO, Deborah Borda. Seated at the stage console (four keyboards, pedal-boards and stop controls), which is moveable and can be plugged in at four different locations in the Hall, Smith said that Borda wanted someone to be an ambassador for the organ in L.A.

"When an organist came to town, I would greet them and show them how to turn on the organ. There's a secret button within the context of the mechanics of the instrument [and also] what memory levels they would have."

Smith pointed out that there's a computer in the organ, with one to 300 memory levels and 24 generals. "That means you can set the entire organ on a piston and you can change the pistons any way you want, assigning them memory levels for them to begin to play their recitals. Sometimes [the organists] say to me, 'Please play something so I can go out and hear it, because it sounds different out there than it does here.'

Organ stops, closeup | Photo: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging
Organ stops, closeup | Photo: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging

"Most people prefer to use the stage instead of the main console," added Smith. "If they want to play Bach or early music, in the loft it's a tracker [keys are connected to the pipe valves via mechanical linkage], and this is electric."

For organ newbies, the electric action allows the organ to be played from a movable remote console on the orchestra platform, which is 20 feet below the pipes and about 40 feet in front of them. In fact, with two separate control systems, it's possible for a pair of organists to play Hurricane Mama at the same time.

Smith further explained that the organ chamber is divided into five sections, each one controlled by its own simulated ivory keyboard or wood pedal-board.

"The lowest is the Pedal division, with deep bass pipes on both sides of the chamber. Then there is the Positive [for solos and choir accompaniment], and then in the middle is the Great division [main chorus of principal pipes and reeds]. The next division on the top is the Swell, and behind that is the Llamarada or solo division."

The Llamarada, with its rooftop trumpet pipes, was named by Rosales, and is designed to be heard during intense orchestral climaxes.

Smith added that the organ has shades in the loft that open and close -- much like louvered shutters -- making the sounds louder or softer. "The pipe work doesn't change the volume, but when it's in a box it closes off the sound for that big English sound [or] that growl-behind-a-wall kind of a thing. There are four divisions and each is controlled by stops.

"A stop," continued Smith, "means that when it's pushed in, there's nothing there, but if I draw that stop out, then there's sound. If I stop that stop, it stops the sound. A thousand years ago they thought of putting whistles on a big box, but there was no way to control it."

Then there's the loft itself, with the console identical to the portable one save for one detail. "It's turned vertically instead of sideways to keep it more compact," pointed out Rosales. "Most of it is mechanical and you can actually control the air. It responds to your touch, whether it's legato or staccato, whereas [the other] is simply on and off. You have to control the articulation in a different way. It's a very different musical experience up here, not just acoustically, but tactilely."

The loft of the organ, which is mounted on an earthquake-proof skeletal steel frame, is four-tiered. The lowest area houses three 5-horsepower blowers and bellows that pump wind from behind the organ into the pipes.

Rosales turned off the motors in order to hear them 'rev up.'

"You can watch the bellows all collapse," he said. "Then the motors take forever to stop, they're so well-lubricated. Here's the sound of 15 horsepower, like the organ took one big deep breath," added Rosales, the sound akin to whirring fans.

"All the air is stored in these bellows and it's ducted out under the floor, where it goes through a silencing chamber before it goes into the concert hall, because you don't want to hear any of this noise out there.

"And you don't," he said proudly. "You can hardly tell the organ is on.

Moving through the area, Rosales noted, "This room, connects to where the pipes are and where the autographs are - about 100 signatures of artists that have visited or played programs in the Hall. We ran out of space here," he gestured to another signature-strewn area, "so we added a wall. Some people left a score and Cameron Carpenter has written two different pieces on two different occasions [but] I never heard them."

Walt Disney Hall stage and organ | Photo: Federico Zignani
Walt Disney Hall stage and organ | Photo: Federico Zignani

Behind the doors are the trackers -- what connect the keys to the wind -- and," Rosales continued, "on the wall back here we have the list of every person that has worked on-site, repairing, building, voicing or just helping. The names go from 2003 to 2004, when we voiced the organ, to 2013."

Voicing and tuning the organ by Glatter-Götz and Rosales Organ Builders took nearly a year and 2,000 worker-hours by the time it was completed in May, 2004, yielding a dynamic that ranges from super pianissimo to a resounding quadruple fortissimo.

This included fine-tuning the pipes with various methods, among them using adjustable sliders, plungers, scroll tuners, tuning wires, chimney caps and cone tuners.

Explained Rosales: "They have to be brought to precise length. When the pipes are very big, it's difficult to cut them, so the technique is that we put the channel down each side of the pipe and roll it like a sardine can. But you have to be careful not to roll it too far and roll it to the right pitch."

He noted that even a tiny turn makes a big difference. "The larger the pipe, the more you have to turn. The smaller pipes are simply cut to the right length, so you pick up the pipe, you cut it, you put it back in, you wait a few minutes for it to cool, you listen and if you don't have it right, you cut it again. If you cut too much, you take it to the shop and do it again. We don't do that very often...fortunately."

Los Angeles Philharmonic keyboardist, Joanne Pearce Martin, was appointed in 2001 by then music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Since then she has performed on myriad keyboards, from piano and celesta to harpsichord and, of course, on Hurricane Mama, whose planning, design, construction and installation took a combined 35,000 worker-hours.

The proof, though, is in the playing, with Pearce Martin acknowledging that one of her big joys is performing on the Disney organ, adding that over the course of a decade there have been some changes. "It's ever evolving; it's easier to play, faster to respond and louder."

The keyboardist, who also performs worldwide as soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist, explained that the differences from playing down on stage and up in the loft weren't many, as both consoles control the same pipes.

"It's always going to sound the same," said Pearce Martin, "but the difference in the experience is when you're down here there's a little bit of a delay in the sound getting to you, which is perfectly normal, so you have to anticipate a little bit more. When I'm playing with the orchestra as part of the orchestral color, I prefer to be down here with the other musicians and physically closer to the conductor.

"However, we have the capability to be up at the main console, and using a video camera and monitor I can see the conductor. It's a totally different experience because the pipes are right there and the sound is immediate. They're both terrific experiences, just slightly different."

Then, as if on metronomic cue, Pearce Martin exclaimed, "I actually like to call the main console- the bench up there -- the best seat in the house, because that's what I believe it is -- for me, anyway."

Further reading on the Walt Disney Concert Hall:

Walt Disney Concert Hall Turns 10
After years of turbulent development, the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 would put Los Angeles on the cultural map.

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