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October 1, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Ga.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

October 22, 4:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Allen organ, White Bluff United Methodist Church Savannah, Ga.

November 12, 3:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Charles Town Presbyterian Church, Charles Town, W.V.

February 11
Inaugural recitalist, Casavant organ, Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2018
Guest recitalist, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 2018, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

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Monday
Sep152014

Life in the Big D: The tough questions

The title of a recent article by Bill Zeeble seeks to get to the bottom of a troubling situation by asking, "Why isn't the Meyerson's world-class organ played more often?" Alas, although the title asks it, the article does not answer it, and so I will:

The article talks about that immense pipe organ staring you in the face upon entry into the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Lay Family organ was built by the C. B. Fisk company and installed and inaugurated in 1992. The article mentions that that organ is not played much these days. It then goes on, as general articles on these topics do, about the organ’s superlatives for sizes and its scope of dynamics and frequency range. Same statistics we hear all the time about new organs. Biggest pipe is 32 feet tall. Smallest is the size of a pencil. Yawn.

Then it says that if you’ve ever wondered what that Fisk sounds like, you’re finally going to get three chances to hear it this coming season. Well, now we’re getting somewhere. But then the article fizzles out into just another shallow teaser for the reader to attend two or three programs to keep this organ’s life support plugged in so that no one has to answer the article’s title’s question for another twenty years.

After the inaugural concerts in 1992 (which I attended), the Lay Family organ dropped off in usage. So what happened? Why didn’t the organ keep its momentum going? Mr. Zeeble actually answers that (somewhat), ironically by celebrating the upcoming season, which will include “three concerts with international soloists.” And the soloists who inaugurated the organ were also international. Mr. Zeeble also brags that an international (there’s that word again) competition was founded on the Meyerson instrument. Yes, it was a big deal, but when its supporters moved on, it fizzled out.

I would suggest that the love affair with “international” is part of the problem. Yes, this is a world-class organ built by a fine builder in a fine hall. This organ was the inspiration for a renewed interest in major concert organs installed outside of churches. But after the inaugural concerts are over, it is just another fine pipe organ in another fine hall in another fine city -- we have many of all those in our great country. But there is not one contraption on this organ that hasn’t been installed on others, and there is absolutely nothing about the operation or playing of this organ that differs from any other similarly-sized organ. And the cleverly-designed acoustics, so proudly touted by Mr. Zeeble and his interviewees, are just another successful imitation of other, older places that also got the acoustics right. [Update: one reader has rightfully corrected me on that point. Although good acoustics are good acoustics no matter how achieved, the Meyerson acoustics are indeed groundbreaking in their adjustability due to those resonance chambers, and the geometry of the room is unprecedented.] So when the celebration is over, the Meyerson is another concert hall, and it needs to get to its daily work. The celebration of the acoustics is nice, but now use the acoustics. The celebration of the organ is nice, but now use the organ. The subliminal message of 'international-or-hands-off' does not help the cause. “International” cuts down dramatically on the pool of prospective performers, and it dramatically increases the cost of getting them to Dallas. What's wrong with "national" soloists? Or state ones? Local AGO ones? Or students who might increase their interest in the organ if allowed to play?

DSO organist Mary Preston wants this organ to be heard more. Journalist Scott Cantrell says that the organ sits right there in front of everyone and that people want to hear it. But neither of these fine folk asks the tough question of the DSO or the Meyerson: “What are you waiting for??” Using the organ more would require the DSO to plan more rep for it, which to its credit it has done for the current season. [Might be nice if Mr. Zeeble had mentioned who is playing and what they’re playing.] Anyway, it is a worthwhile endeavor, but no one on the planning end of things ever seems to look past the first few concerts to keep it going. Once the DSO has performed, say, Saint-Saëns, Jongen, and Poulenc, they lose interest because they think everyone has now been sated for a while. But what about Rheinberger? Sowerby? Dupré? Handel? Holst? Paulus? Hakim? Respighi? Commissions? Smaller works for organ and winds? What about an annual Messiah singalong or July 4 celebration using the organ alone? What about student field trips? What about sending out an invitation to organ teachers all over the country to bring their students to visit a world-class instrument in a world-class house inhabited by a world-class orchestra? What’s wrong with a little outreach, folks?

The Meyerson organ is in tip-top shape and currently needs nothing fixed, but to keep that organ playing publicly would require far more resources of time, energy, and money than the Meyerson or the DSO has or wants to throw at it. And if that’s the case, then here’s another tough question: “Why was this organ installed in the first place?” Even more to the point, “Why do we keep installing these monumental instruments in these great halls, when the common pattern is that they will rarely see the light of day again after the inaugural concerts?” The organ becomes a museum piece, and the house brags that it has this magnificent organ. 'Oh, but you can’t play it or get close to it, for heaven’s sake; that’s just not done here.' So another tough question is, “Was this organ and its sisters around the country built merely because generous people paid for them and that we hope to get more of their money sometime?”

Yeah, okay, it costs an awful lot to rent the hall for non-DSO events. It costs too much to run the place for an audience that won’t fill a third of the seats, if that many. I can hear a bureaucrat saying now, “Oh, it’s just not economically feasible to open the house to such a small audience.” Well, then, my next tough question is, “How in the world do you suppose it got that way?”

I'm told that the organ is practically off-limits to organists who just want to lay hands on it during the week. In many houses, getting in and out of the building outside of a performance is a security problem. Tight scheduling conflicts are sure to abound, and practice time must be extremely limited. Of course, many organists are happy to practice overnight, but then the ultimate Catch-22 is set in motion when the house and/or Union requires Union crew be present to open all the doors, turn on/off all the lights, turn on/off the organ, operate the elevator for you, move the console out for you, and clear the hallways for you to pass through. I’m not nobody, but I guarantee that Meyerson and DSO managements have never heard of me and that therefore I'd never get to lay hands on that organ or introduce my students to it without providing some amount of CV to prove my worth, getting Mary Preston's approval and probably having her present, getting officially scheduled with house management for my visit, and hiring Union house tech crew to be present to do everything except play the organ and help me in the restroom, plus make sure that I don't trip over anything and sue. That's true in symphony houses all over the country, not just at the Meyerson. Dear Reader, it's the red tape that shuts these organs down, not a disinterest on the part of the audience, and certainly not a lack of organists who are glad to line up to play, if only they were invited or at least considered worthy. [Update: an apathetic administration would also be to blame for the silence of an organ. I suspect that's a big part of the problem in Dallas (and other places, of course), in which case you and I are wasting our time writing and reading this blog until that is rectified.]

The over-management stranglehold on houses all over the country has evolved in recent years. Apparently someone gradually got it pushed through that the Union ought to “protect” the house by over-controlling and over-managing it. "Safety" tends to be the curtain behind which most managements hide. The Union and the house "don’t want anyone to get hurt," which really means, “We don’t want to be sued for anyone getting hurt, and we don't care to address the more pressing issues of people not watching where they're walking or being so vain as to sue when they get hurt for not paying attention in the first place.” And so the over-management is actually about money (as most things usually are in these cases): saving money by removing all chance of litigation to the point of shutting out legitimate visitors, and spending money on "trained experts" to flip some switches and open some doors. (Not to minimalize their training, of course. They are capable of super-human feats backstage, but turning on lights and organs is something they ought to watch a church organist do sometime. And they ought to get a load of the trip hazards that await a church organist at every turn.)

Here’s an interesting question: "What does Fisk have to say about all this?" Perhaps they might lament all that work put into a huge instrument that no one knows about any more. Or they might actually enjoy this ivory-tower effect, where people wonder just how great this organ really is and they go in search of other Fisks to hear. And Fisk got paid for the Meyerson organ immediately following installation, plus there are no royalties on the use of a builder’s instrument once installed, so Fisk has no money in this game. And that means I'd really like to hear their opinion on all this -- it would probably be an honest one; this isn't their only symphony house organ.

[Update: another interesting question would concern what the Lay Family thinks of all this. I can't imagine.]

Well, I have said it. But the truth is that the Meyerson and its sister houses have no way at present of making changes. There's not enough time and not enough money. The Catch-22 of available house time and available Union crew is too strong. The organ is stuck where it is, and it will not be dug back out of moth balls until rampant over-management implodes or at least subsides. It is what it is, folks. So when you’re in the Big D, just pay for a ticket to attend something at the Meyerson – you are not likely to get in otherwise. Unless you’re internationally known.

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