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‘An orchestra for one person’

The Davis Concert Organ is the voice of Winspear,
and it’s finally about to speak again

The Davis Concert Organ in its full glory. (ESO Society)

By Taylor Harrison

A MECHANICAL MONSTER has been slumbering in the Winspear Centre for the past two years or so. It has more than 6,000 pipes and is powered by 25-horsepower blowers. And curator Jerrold Eliander compares playing it to flying an airplane.

Now, that monster – the Davis Concert Organ – is about to awaken and return to the stage in early March with a performance of Saint-Saën’s Organ Symphony.

Looking at the console of the organ – the part with the keyboard – the analogy seems apt. You could be forgiven for thinking the organ couldn’t possibly be an instrument with thousands of years of history when the consoles are so complex that it’s impossible to imagine it without modern technology. Below the organist’s seat, there are even more keys, pedals and stops.

“There’s a whole separate keyboard for your feet, it’s called the pedal board,” says Eliander, who is in charge of maintaining the organ.

And with all these stops, keys, and pedals, the instrument has a huge range – to the point that it can replicate other instruments in the orchestra.

“There’s an oboe stop, there’s clarinets, there’s bassoons,” Eliander says. “There’s a whole mess of trumpets, lots of flutes. There’s even string sounds. There’s a little bit of percussion on it. They have bells and a bird call on it if you want that as well.

“So it’s basically like an orchestra for one person to play.”

And such an impressive instrument needs an equally impressive building, he adds.

Some of the 6,551 pipes of the Davis Concert Organ. “A little speck of dust can actually keep a pipe from speaking,” Eliander says.” (ESO Society)

“Some churches or cathedrals have people who donate a lot of money and end up building an instrument that’s almost too big for the room – almost too loud.”

However, that’s far from the case at the Winspear. Eliander recalls how a visiting performer once remarked on how well the organ and concert hall work for each other. But volume isn’t the point; quality and control of the sound are.

“The acoustics are so good, that sometimes you only need one or two stops.”

It’s possible to pull out all 96 stops of the Davis Concert Organ to create a building-shaking sound. (Incidentally, this is where we get the phrase, “pulling out all the stops.”) But the hall’s acoustics allow for even the softest sounds to have the same power and resonance as playing the pipe organ at full power. This allows for a broad range of sounds.

Of course, with great musical power comes great maintenance.

Eliander is constantly making sure the organ is in perfect condition, a difficult task when the smallest thing can make the biggest difference. Though he tunes it daily, the instrument gets fully retuned every September, a process that takes 60 hours.

“A little speck of dust can actually keep a pipe from speaking,” he says. “Or it may continually play without stopping.”

One of the best loved classical organ works, Saint-Saën’s Organ Symphony will likely make a memorable conclusion to the evening’s performance, which includes works by Debussy, Mozart and local composer Jeffrey McCune.

And with even more future performances planned for this summer, Edmonton will finally get to hear the voice of its largest instrument once again.

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