An old friend is back
Back in the days before music flowed from boom boxes and electronic keyboards, Royce Hall's Skinner organ, with its purity of sound, was heralded by audiences and music critics in the early days of the campus as a paragon of aural grandeur.
Designed by Harold Gleason, head of the organ department at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., the Royce Hall organ made its grand debut on Sept. 7, 1930, with Gleason at the console.
Gleason called the new organ a masterpiece, "an instrument of amazing perfection, both in ensemble and in the voicing of the individual tone colors."
Rhapsodized one critic: "The buildup is stunning, and it struck me that in all grades of dynamics, there was a transparency unusual in organs of this size. The installation of this splendid instrument is a great thing for Southern California, and it should be tremendously good in creating a taste for real organ music."
Create a taste, it did. The first triweekly organ series, featuring concerts by UCLA's first university organist, Alexander Schreiner, and a host of other guest performers became famous not only on campus, but in the community as well.
Over the years, the organ's magnificent sounds could be heard in recordings and live concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It added to the solemnity of academic convocations and commencement ceremonies. And it soon became recognized as one of the largest and most historically significant organs in Los Angeles.
After surviving two damaging earthquakes over more than six decades, the organ became the hapless victim of the 1994 Northridge quake that silenced it and closed Royce Hall for four years.
Nearly a year after the campus celebrated the reopening of its most cherished landmark, the Royce Hall organ is now poised to make its own glorious encore, fully restored and better than ever after more than $1 million in repairs and renovations. Thanks to a $150,000 gift from the Ahmanson Foundation, the organ has been expanded with a new Bombarde division of 24 ranks of pipes, bringing it to a total of 104 ranks and more than 6,600 pipes.
"The Ahmanson Foundation's generous support for this significant addition to the Royce Hall organ has ensured its priceless legacy, enabling it to resume its place as one of the great organs of Los Angeles," said Daniel Neuman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture.
Reflecting the musical tastes of the era, the Skinner organ of 1930 was essentially "orchestral" or "symphonic" in style, designed to play transcriptions of 19th-century orchestral and operatic music as well as organ music of that style. "The renovation goal," said University Organist and UCLA Music Department Professor Thomas Harmon, "was to repair and preserve the original organ intact and, with new additions, to increase its versatility in the performance of German Baroque and French Romantic and contemporary music." A new state-of-the-art five-manual console was installed, with the fifth manual controlling the new division of the instrument.
The organ's robust sound has been further enriched by Royce Hall's recent acoustical renovations, which have lengthened the reverberation time. "A spacious, reverberant acoustical environment greatly enhances the big sound of an organ," Harmon explained, "and the Royce organ now sounds much bigger, clearer and brighter than ever before."
Harmon hopes that the sheer power and ethereal beauty of the organ will thrill a new generation of music lovers. "The organ has been part of our artistic and cultural tradition for many centuries and represents technologically man's grandest achievement in the design and construction of a musical instrument played by one person," he said.
While most of us think we know what an organ looks like, few realize how complex an instrument it actually is. The Royce Hall organ, for example, encompasses the entire auditorium, with the console on the auditorium floor or stage, the pipes ensconced high above the proscenium and the blower in the sub-basement, connected to the pipes by windlines running through the walls and under the auditorium floor.
"The sounds of the organ are enormously appealing, and many of them are unique to the organ," said Harmon. No other musical medium can compare to the sound of 6,000 pipes, ranging in length from 32 feet (the lowest bass frequencies produced by any musical instrument) to a fraction of an inch (the highest treble frequencies).
But sound is not its sole appeal. "In concert situations where the organ console is visible to the audience, as in Royce Hall, I think that audiences are fascinated to watch an artist manage the many stops, keyboards and pedals," said Harmon.
"I also love the physical act and creative challenge of playing the organ, manipulating with both hands and feet all of the tonal resources of each different instrument to suit the music and to exercise my creative ideas. It's very gratifying, something like being a dancer, orchestrator and keyboard player all at once."
Then there is the music, ranging from the crowning achievements of such great classical composers as J.S. Bach and Cesar Franck to the colorful tradition of the theater organ in its role accompanying silent films.
To commemorate the restoration of this magnificent instrument, UCLA Performing Arts will revive a tradition with the Royce Hall organ series featuring renowned organists. The inaugural series presents "Organists of Three Great Universities," featuring three recitals by Harmon and university organists from Yale and the University of Michigan, beginning this winter and ending in spring. The series begins with a recital by Harmon in a program featuring highlights from Gleason's inaugural recital of 1930, including works by Bach, Franck and Mulet.
"I love the sound of the organ from its softest whispers to its thunderous power, and my musical tastes are eclectic. So I appreciate its ability to play everything from Bach to Bacharach," said Harmon, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Bach's organ music, but has also played in theaters, restaurants and clubs. "UCLA's organ series will explore this vast musical panorama."
The 1999 Royce Hall Organ Series — "Organists of Three Great Universities" —features Harmon Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.; Thomas Murray, Yale University, Tuesday, March 2 at 8 p.m.; and Robert Glasgow, University of Michigan, Tuesday, May 18 at 8 p.m.
Royce Hall will also host concerts featuring the organ with instruments and choral ensembles as well as silent films with organ accompaniment. Slated for this fall is Thomas Harmon performing major works for organ and orchestra with the UCLA Philharmonia Orchestra.