It’s one of Wichita’s and Kansas’ finest cultural assets, and it needed tuning and repair. So in August, the Marcussen organ in Wichita State University’s Wiedemann Recital Hall was placed in the care of Halfdan Oussoren, son of the organ’s builder.
I took the opportunity of the tuning to visit with Lynne Davis, who is Ann & Dennis Ross Endowed Faculty of Distinction in Organ and Associate Professor. More simply, she’s in charge of the organ program at Wichita State University. Besides managing the program and teaching students, she performs regularly in Wichita and across the world.
Most of the music heard in organ recitals at WSU and elsewhere is classical, or serious, music. People are often worried that since they may not understand what a sonata is, or how a fugue works, they won’t be able to enjoy and appreciate a concert of classical music. So I asked Davis: Is knowledge of classical music necessary to enjoy it, particularly an organ recital?
She answered no, explaining that there is the first degree of enjoying anything, and knowledge is not necessary for this. People learn, she also explained, and people learn to appreciate the organizational aspects of classical music. She also noted that in her recitals she often speaks to the audience before playing a piece, explaining details about the composition that the audience will hear.
There is also an element of universality in music, and lack of knowledge should not scare off people, she added.
The organ, to many people, is closely associated with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Davis spent most of her adult life living in France, including studying with several famous French organists, so I asked her: what is the French contribution to the organ, both in terms of instruments and music?
Davis laughed — it’s a large topic, she said. A major contribution is the symphonic organ, more like an orchestra in that it has more sounds and voices than the organs of Bach’s time. French composers like Louis Vierne and César Franck responded and wrote music for the new capabilities of these organs.
“The French contribution is enormous,” she added. Wichita State University’s organ is designed for performing the works of Bach and his contemporaries and predecessors, and also for the complex and sonically rich French symphonic works.
Davis was born in Michigan and studied organ in college there. After that, she went to France to study and stayed. So what, I asked, brought her to Wichita?
Davis explained that she had reached the limit as to what she could do in France as a musician, a woman, and an American. Her mission, she said, is to share her talent, and staying in France didn’t offer as much opportunity for this as she could have in the U.S. After her husband died in 2001, she began to look at positions in the U.S., and came to Wichita State University in 2006.
In addition to her teaching and performing here, she performs across the country, generating interest in Wichita State University and its organ program.
The week I visited with Davis was the week the organ’s tuner was visiting and working on the organ. While it may seem strange that pipes constructed of metal and wood would go out of tune, they do, even in the controlled climate of Wiedemann Recital Hall. Also, being a largely wooden machine of great mechanical complexity, the organ requires maintenance and repair. On this visit, the tuner repaired a few pedals that were making clunky sounds when played.
The underlying principle of the organ is simple: air blown through pipes. It’s also simpler than people might imagine, as this organ uses a mechanical action. This means that the linkage between the keys and pedals the organist presses and the pipes themselves is constructed from a network of trackers, stickers, levers, and rollers, just as organs have been built for centuries. This seems like unnecessary mechanical complexity in an age of electricity, computers, and automation. But Davis explained that the mechanical action is the most sensitive type of action, and the manner in which the organist touches the keys affects the way air enters the pipes, allowing for differences in sound. An electrical mechanism doesn’t offer this flexibility.
During my tour of the organ’s interior I crawled on top of some of these trackers, fearful that if I slipped I would crash through what looked like some very expensive machinery.
The organ does make use of some modern technology, with the stops being actuated electrically, and having an electronic system that allows the organist to easily change the combinations of stops being used as a piece is played.
The Wichita State University organ was manufactured by the distinguished 200-year-old Danish firm Marcussen and Son. The WSU organ was the firm’s first in North America. Its first concert was in October 1986.
Halfdan Oussoren, the organ builder who traveled from Denmark to spend a week working on this organ, gave me a tour of the inside of the organ. His father “voiced” the organ when it was installed in Wiedemann Hall, meaning he adjusted all the pipes so that they spoke with the proper balance and tone.
Oussoren explained that the organ was built at the firm’s factory in Denmark, then disassembled and shipped to Wichita. In 1986 the $500,000 cost of the organ was donated by Gladys Wiedemann. Today, the organ would probably cost $2.5 million to replace.
Inside the organ its mechanical action is evident everywhere on the first floor, as trackers cover the floor and ceiling. The second and third floors are where most of the pipes live, sitting on top of wind chests. As Davis explained earlier, the organ is a simple instrument in principle, but with over 4,000 pipes organized into 65 stops and five divisions, the large numbers involved are impressive to see.
As can be seen in the accompanying photographs, the pipes are constructed from wood and different types of metal. Different construction techniques are also used, each providing a different sound. Part of the artistry of the organist is to combine all these sounds in a musical way.
A set of photographs of the organ may be viewed by clicking on Marcussen Organ at Wichita State University.
Organ events at Wichita State University this year
This year the events in the Rie Bloomfield recital series are billed as “Recital and Conversation with the Artist.” Davis said that these events will feature her talking with the artist before the second part of the recital. Performers this year are from Russia, Italy, and Germany, so this will be an interesting perspective on life and music in other countries. These recitals have a small admission charge.
These three events also feature a Master Class the following morning. These events, which are open to the public, are an opportunity for students to interact with the visiting organist, perhaps even performing for the visitors and receiving instruction.
The Wednesdays in Wiedemann series, now in its third year, is a series of eight short recitals starting at 5:30 pm. Most last 30 minutes, although this year two are planned for 45 minutes. These events have no admission charge. This year’s series features a few new twists, such as a recital with Wichita State University flutist Frances Shelly, a Christmas recital in conjunction with a tree-lighting ceremony, and in May, a pops concert. This concert will feature music of a different type not usually heard in the typical Wiedemann Hall recital.
On January 29, 2011, Davis hosts “Organ Day,” which is a youth outreach program. During this day-long event students and the public can see and hear demonstrations of the organ, and even play the organ.
Davis will perform in a faculty recital on Tuesday February 15, 2011, at 7:30 pm.
A complete list of organ events at Wichita State University may be viewed by clicking on Wichita State University Organ Events, 2010 – 2011 Season.Learn how you can support the Voice for Liberty. Click here.