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Royce Hall’s Pipe Dream Comes True

John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When Royce Hall, severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, finally reopened less than two years ago, much was made of new adjustable acoustic elements, the massive structural underpinning, the lighter, brighter feel of the place. The plain panels above the stage went barely noticed.

But Tuesday they will rise, revealing gleaming hooded trumpets and other pipes of the hall’s best-kept secret: a newly restored and expanded organ, created by the famed Skinner Organ Co. of Boston, and originally installed in 1930. It has been languishing in disassembled pieces since the earthquake toppled pipe upon pipe like a giant bag of French fries.

“The entire organ had to be removed; only the blower down in the sub-basement was undamaged,” says UCLA’s university organist Thomas Harmon. “The organ chambers themselves had to be reconstructed. This has been virtually like building a new organ from old parts.”

On Tuesday, Harmon will inaugurate this new/old instrument, playing Joseph Jongen’s 1932 Symphonie Concertante and UCLA colleague Mark Carlson’s 1997 Concerto for Organ and Orchestra with the UCLA Philharmonia under Jon Robertson. That launches a Royce Hall Organ Series, which this season examines the various roles of the organ in the 20th century, featuring classical and theater organ recitals as well as this combination of organ and orchestra.

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“Royce Hall is the main place in Southern California to hear organ and orchestra,” Harmon says. “One of the things I love about this job is the opportunity to play with orchestras. I’ve played the Jongen twice here already with Mehli Mehta and his American Youth Symphony, and many other works.

“I think the Symphonie Concertante is the greatest work to date for organ and orchestra. In the orchestra there is wonderful, delicate writing for the woodwinds and hair-raising stuff for the brass, and he uses the organ the same way.”

Writing for organ and orchestra presents unique challenges to a composer. There are all the usual one-against-many concerto issues, but in this case the soloist has almost equal resources at hand; in sound it is more like composing for double orchestra.

The Carlson concerto was commissioned by the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, where Harmon has been organist for 18 years. He gave the premiere there in 1997.

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“Mark understands the organ quite well,” Harmon says. “His concerto is very artfully scored for both organ and orchestra in conversations. It is very accessible.”

Getting the Royce instrument into condition to make any sound at all, let alone engage a full orchestra in active dialogue, has been an epic adventure. After the earthquake, all 5,200 pipes were removed, with the wooden ones going to the Baldwin Park shop of the instrument’s curator, Robert Turner, and the metal ones sent to a shop in Ohio.

Harmon and Turner visited the Ohio factory, bringing a simple instruction: “Save every salvageable part of every pipe.” With some damaged pipes, this meant soldering new metal to old. Where pipes had to be replaced, exact copies were made.

Restoration rather than replacement was the goal, Harmon says, because of the historical significance of the instrument. Designed by Harold Gleason and G. Donald Harrison, and created by the company that dominated American organ building for a generation, the organ represents an important transition between the symphonic Skinner instruments (which emulated orchestral instruments) and the American classical designs that Harrison would initiate just a few years later. The new organs restored specific organ colors to the instrument.

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The first university organist at UCLA was Alexander Schreiner, who went on to fame with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He played three recitals a week during the 1930s, well-attended at a time when little else was going on musically on the Westside. The instrument was later featured on several recordings with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“This is the largest Skinner in Southern California,” Harmon notes. “It was unusual for a late Skinner, and already a forward-looking instrument for its day. It probably played a role in Alexander Schreiner’s redesign of the Mormon Tabernacle organ in the 1940s.”

With the complete renovation of Royce in the wake of the quake came the opportunity to expand the instrument. The pipe chamber over the stage proscenium, already large enough for 16-foot pipes to stand vertically, was enlarged to hold a new division, bringing the organ from 80 to 104 ranks, totaling more than 6,600 pipes. (A rank is a complete set of pipes of one tone type; a division is made up of all the ranks generally played from a particular keyboard, or manual.) Turner built a new five-manual, computer-augmented console.

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“This was not just to make the organ bigger, but to modernize it and make it more versatile,” Harmon says. “It was still pretty much a symphonic organ, designed to imitate many orchestral instruments. It lacked certain specifically organ voices.”

The additions to the original instrument enable it to better play Baroque and contemporary music. The organ also benefits from the new acoustics in Royce Hall, although the physical layout still presents hurdles to performers.

“It is difficult to work in Royce,” Harmon acknowledges. “The organ is very forward to the orchestra’s ears. Onstage no direct sound is heard, only reflected sound from the room. I had hoped the new acoustic would carry enough of the sound to the stage, but it doesn’t. We will have to use monitor speakers for the orchestra.”

The organ project had been originally planned for completion last year. A scheduled 1998-99 organ series had to be scrubbed, however, when the work fell behind.

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“The push to open the hall as soon as possible--and with outstanding productions--blocked the [organ] builders’ access and greatly slowed down the reinstallation,” Harmon says. “The builders also encountered a beam in the organ chambers that was not correctly measured on the blueprints, and working around that slowed things down some more. We really did not have a window for the tonal finishing--going though every pipe in the organ to ensure that it matches in timbre and loudness the other pipes in the rank--until July and August this past summer.”

Restoring the Royce Hall Skinner is not a new undertaking for Harmon. A major restoration had just been finished when the Northridge quake undid all the work, and the current project actually brings Harmon full circle, because an earlier restoration of the organ had been his top priority when he took the organist’s job here 31 years ago.

“The organ at that time was in very poor playing condition, and I told UCLA I wasn’t interested in the position unless they would restore it,” Harmon recalls.

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Harmon came to UCLA after a year as substitute university organist at Stanford. He had earned graduate degrees at Stanford and Washington University, and studied with Anton Heiler for a year in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship.

“I started as a premed student on command from my father, who was a surgeon,” Harmon says. “But I also studied organ. As a young boy, I was fascinated seeing and hearing the organ in my home church in Illinois. I had always liked gadgets with buttons, electric trains, things like that, and this was a boy’s ideal toy. I had started piano in the first grade and began playing the organ at church at age 11, in 1950.”

He went on to play popular music on a Hammond electric organ in lounges and restaurants. He also played theater organ with Stan Kann at the St. Louis Fox Theater, and he has a theater organ at home now.

As university organist, Harmon accompanies the school’s choral ensembles and other performing groups, and he plays for commencements and convocations. Entering his fifth decade on the job, he still relishes the work, though he notes that the demand has diminished despite a resurgence in organ building.

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“There are fewer university organists now, because organ enrollment nationwide has dropped rather dramatically,” Harmon says. “My own take on it is that it relates to the secularization of society. There are fewer children attending church and hearing fine organs. Great urban churches have lost much of their congregations. Particularly in the West, we have seen the proliferation of small community churches, often with electric organs and small salaries. Not much motivation there.

“But these things usually go back and forth like a pendulum. I’m hoping that getting this organ back in circulation will excite some new students.”

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ROYCE HALL ORGAN SERIES OPENING, Royce Hall, UCLA. Date: Tuesday, 8 p.m. Price: $14. Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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