Schermerhorn polishes pipes for organ debut

Friday, August 31, 2007 at 1:47am

When Jack Bethards was 9 years old, workers came to install a pipe organ in his Santa Rosa, Calif., church. The child watched in wonderment as the men toiled with the slender pieces of the wood and metal instrument, and a love was born.

"Watching them work, I got really enthusiastic about what they were doing, and I started reading about organs and going to look at them and listen to them. In the summers, when I was more familiar with them, I had an apprenticeship helping local people rebuild and tune church organs," Bethards said.

Now, nearly 50 years later, a white-haired Bethards is the owner of Schoenstein & Co., a five-generation custom organ building company he purchased in the late 1970s. For the past three months, the California native has been shuffling across the wood floor of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center's stage in his faded denim apron, giving "voice" to the hall's soon-to-be-debuted pipe organ.

His company began building the organ three years ago. A majority of the structure was built in the Schoenstein's San Francisco factory and the visible pipes and the facade's ornamentation were installed a year before the symphony center opened and the other piping added that following summer. But the instrument remained unused while focus was turned to finishing construction of the building and preparing it for the Nashville Symphony's first performance.

With the hall silenced for the orchestra's summer-long hiatus, Bethards and his sound crew swooped in to do the last process of the organ's construction.

"The instrument is completely custom made — every part was made just for this hall," Bethards said. "It is such a big and powerful instrument, it must use everything in the hall as its sounding board — the walls, the floor, the structure. So we must design it, scale it for the building, and it must be a proper fit for the acoustics of the building."

In the multi-million dollar symphony center, the organ is the final touch of splendor and magnitude added to a vision to bring a high-quality music experience to the city known for music.

With the completion of the organ, Nashville's 84-member symphony orchestra — an already powerful musical medium — will have another mighty muscle to flex.

"The organ must have the kind of power to be an equal player, so it has tremendous power," Bethards said. "It makes for a big, dramatic, exciting affect. The organ tones also go both higher and lower than the orchestra — the orchestra is in the mid range, but we go a lot lower and higher, which is why composers use the organ a lot because it gives broaden scope."

The organ has 3,568 individual pipes grouped in 64 ranks or sets and create 47 different tones. The largest pipe is 32 feet long and produces a tone twice as low as the lowest instrument of the orchestra while the shortest pipe, only three fourths of an inch long, produces a tone twice as high as the highest instrument of the orchestra.

The various pipes are made from a variety of materials including polished tin, tin-lead alloy, zinc, sugar pine and poplar. And woods used in the construction of the organ were poplar, oak, maple, makore, ebony and Carpathian elm burl.

Each of the more than 3,500 pipes had to be individually "voiced," or adjusted to ensure the best possible sound — a process called "tone finishing." Bethards and his team began in May and will finish just in time for the inaugural performance. Some pipes take a few minutes, while others can take a few days. There are two types of pipes, flue pipes and reed pipes.

"Flue pipes are like flutes. We have to cut the metal or wood and press, pound, push, nick and manipulate that material around until we get the perfect tone," Bethards said. "With reed pipes, we have to curve the brass reed of the pipe until it is just right and works like a reed of a clarinet or saxophone."

The console of the organ, where the organist manipulates the sounds, resembles the inside of a luxury car. In fact, the richly colored Carpathian elm burl, which creates the backdrop for the polished cow shinbone keys is the same wood used in Rolls Royce dashboards.

"It is an exquisite piece of craftsmanship," said organ soloist Andrew Risinger.

On Sept. 8, the organ will be played for an audience for the first time. Risinger will be at the helm for the inaugural performance. The night's much anticipated program of music was selected to highlight the instrument’s range and power and includes four preeminent organ works: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Maurice Durufle's Prelude and Fugue on the Name ALAIN, Barber's Toccata Festiva and Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 in C minor "Organ."

"Bach's Toccata is one of the most dramatic pieces in the organ literature. People know instantly what it is," Risinger said. "The Durufle is a solo piece — a light piece with quick passages. It is rather playful, and that will allow me to show some of the solo colors of the organ. The Barber is quite a rousing piece. They are all fantastic pieces — all exciting and enjoyable to play and listen to — and will make a great program for introducing the organ to the city of Nashville."

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