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The Art of the Pipe Organ

September 24, 2014

Frederick Haas was so moved when he heard the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ breathe its first notes into Verizon Hall, he started to cry. And no wonder. Fred J. Cooper was his grandfather, a Philadelphia jeweler by trade, and a devoted organist by avocation. Haas himself is a serious organist, with a degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. And as he’s also a leading Philadelphia philanthropist, it was surely his destiny to see that The Philadelphia Orchestra had a top-of-the-line pipe organ for its new concert hall and so he became chair of the Kimmel Center Organ Committee. 

Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. Photo by Jessica Griffin

It was a challenging job. Work on the organ began in earnest only as the Kimmel Center foundations were already being poured. After years of planning, fundraising, and construction, when Haas finally heard an expert technician from Dobson Pipe Organ Builders testing out the instrument’s sound in the hall in 2006, he says it was like hearing the cry of your first-born child.

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin says Philadelphia is blessed to have such a marvelous instrument in Verizon Hall, the largest mechanical-action concert hall organ in the United States. He calls the combination of this great pipe organ and our great orchestra “the richest in our repertoire.” And that’s why he decided to celebrate the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ with a month-long “Art of the Pipe Organ” festival from October 16 to November 8, culminating with the All-Organ Weekend featuring three master organists, Peter Richard Conte, Paul Jacobs, and Ken Cowan. You’ve heard the expression “eye opener”? Nézet-Séguin promises this celebration will be an ear opener! 

Photo by Chris Lee

And how were the particular ear-opening compositions chosen? Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman explains it wasn’t simply a matter of “let’s perform some great organ showpieces. Every program was built around these carefully selected works. Each of the concerts builds on themes and concepts being highlighted this season.” For example, the Glagolitic Mass (October 16-18) is part of the 40/40 series, featuring works not heard on subscription concerts in at least 40 years (in honor of Yannick’s 40th birthday). Also sprach Zarathustra (October 23-25) takes its place in the celebration of Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday. Yannick is working his way through all the Mahler symphonies, so it was natural to include the Second (October 30-November 2), with its prominent organ scoring.

The three world-class organists performing during the festival have learned the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ like the back of their incredibly talented hands, and they’re unanimous in singing its praises. Peter Richard Conte is justifiably proud of his regular gig: He’s the Grand Court Organist for the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s. But he insists the Fred J. Cooper by no means plays second fiddle to the behemoth down the street. He loves the Cooper’s massive pedal sound, describing how it undergirds the Orchestra and lifts it up even further than its usual soaring heights. “It’s a wonderful thing to feel in the room.” 

Curtis Institute of Music graduate Paul Jacobs is chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School and is a renowned soloist on pipe organs all over the world. So he knows what he’s talking about when he calls the Cooper “the perfect complement to the Orchestra,” designed by one of the great organ builders in this country with a remarkable level of refinement and color, able to handle all schools and styles of repertoire with great versatility. He hails its ability to cultivate a sense of the sublime, “to both caress and overwhelm the listener.” 

The console of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ

Ken Cowan heads the organ program at Rice University, in between a busy schedule of concerts. He salutes the Dobson company builders for including everything an organist could possibly want in a concert-hall instrument. He says it can handle anything from the solo organ literature, while having the power to stand up to a full symphony orchestra. He too loves its low bass sounds, hailing their “extraordinary gravity.” He also points to the organ’s amazing dynamic range; its ability to go from practically inaudible to a shattering climactic ensemble. 

Conte, Jacobs, and Cowen will also present a late-night Halloween concert on October 31, pulling out all the stops for an evening of spooky holiday staples. Nézet-Séguin and Rothman are both excited about this late-night concert and even though the Orchestra isn’t performing, there’ll be an actual ghost at the keyboard: legendary Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Leopold Stokowski performing Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, thanks to an organ roll he cut decades ago that is being digitized to take advantage of the Fred J. Cooper’s playback feature. 

All three soloists have high expectations for this organ festival. Cowan is excited that, unlike in most churches, the audience will actually be able to see what he’s doing with both arms and legs, and get a new appreciation for a wonderfully versatile instrument. Conte predicts concertgoers will leave Verizon Hall with the same word on their lips: “Wow!” And Jacobs hopes these concerts will make listeners hungry for more of the great organ literature. His goal is not merely to entertain, but “to lift the music lover to a greater height than ever imagined.” 

Haas is glad the organ celebration will expose music lovers to works they might not know but will be thrilled to discover. He points particularly to Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante (November 6), a piece that was commissioned by Rodman Wanamaker for the inaugural performance of the newly enlarged Wanamaker Organ with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1928, a concert that unfortunately never happened. It wasn’t until 80 years later, when Macy’s celebrated its 150th anniversary with a concert at its Center City store, that the piece was finally presented for the first time with the organ and orchestra for which it had been written. “These pieces belong to Philadelphians; they’re part of our heritage, a wonderful tradition. And they’re fabulous, exciting, accessible, listenable. … I’m really looking forward to these pieces becoming much more familiar.” 

Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante will be one of the works highlighted in the All-Organ Weekend 

As he reminisced about Fred J. Cooper, the man, Haas noted that his grandfather was known for having a fine tenor voice, but that, sadly, no recording of that voice exists today. Surely, Haas and the rest of us can hear Fred J. Cooper’s voice every time we come to Verizon Hall to hear the magnificent pipe organ that bears his name. 


Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician. This article originally appeared in the Orchestra's September/October 2014 Playbill.