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Wanamaker Organ Centenary - Part I

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  • Wanamaker Organ Centenary - Part I

    On June 22nd 1911 at the precise moment King George of England was crowned, the pipe organ in the Grand Court of the new Wanamaker department store on Market Street in Philadelphia was played publically for the first time. One hundred years later my wife and I traveled to Philadelphis for the Centenary Celebration of the Wanamaker Organ which happened to coincide with our wedding aniversay.

    The Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and Macy’s, the now occupant and owner of the old Wanamaker store, kicked off a weeklong celebration of the organ’s public debut 100 years ago on Wednesday June 22nd, with the major concert events scheduled for the weekend. We took a midnight flight from Phoenix and arrived in Philadelphia Friday morning in time to check in to the Marriott and walk across the street to Macy’s for a multi-media presentation by Rick Seifert on the history of the Wanamaker store and organ. The presentation took place in Greek Hall, one of the four concert halls that were part of the original store. Greek Hall is now home to the Lowell Ayers’ 2/8 Wurlitzer and the organ was self-playing a Crawford-esque arrangement of The Perfect Song, as we took our seats.

    The presentation was first rate and contained many fascinating facts about John Wanamaker, his business empire, his philanthropy, and of course the organ. Wanamaker’s belief in the uplifting qualities of music and his desire to bring that experience to all was the motivating factor for the great organ. It was clear that an organ of the magnitude that Wanamaker wanted could not be built in time for the store opening, so the massive organ built for the recently concluded St. Louis Exposition was purchased. Built by George Audsley, its size and expense resulted in the builder’s bankruptcy. Five stories in height and ten thousand pipes strong it was transported to Philadelphia by train in over a dozen box cars and installed in the seven story marble and gilt Grand Court of the store.

    Wanamaker was an innovator and fascinated by technology so he had Marconi Wireless towers installed on his stores in Philadelphia. It was through a wireless trans-Atlantic connection that the debut of the organ took place at the exact moment that King George was crowned king in 1911. It was not long after the opening of the store, that Rodman Wanamaker, John’s son, decided that the organ, despite its massive size, was not powerful enough and set about expanding it. Today the organ speaks from nearly 30,000 pipes controlled by a massive six manual console.


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    After the presentation, it was time for the first of twice daily concerts, so we headed to the Grand Court to hear the organ for the first time. Assistant Grand Court Organist Michael Lawrence played a program of works including pieces by Reger, Boellmann, Dvorak, and Rheinberger.

    Later that afternoon we took a tour of the console and one of the chambers. The six manual console is huge, with a man-sized door on the side providing access to its inner workings. The console is actually the third built for the organ and was built to accommodate the Stentor division Rodman had planned. Unfortunately, Rodman died at the age of 47 and the planned Stentor division was never built. The console has 729 stop tabs, 168 pistons, 48 foot controls, and has two features that are rather unique, or at least they were new to me. First, the expression can be controlled not only by the expression pedals, but also through sliders on the piston rails for those times when the feet are otherwise occupied. Additionally, the tremolo speed is continuously variable through controls to the side of the music rack. All trems in the organ are synchronized to a master trem thus enabling the speed of all the trems to be controlled simultaneously. We also visited the pedal chamber where we got a glimpse of the 32’ Bourdon pipes. The organ is maintained by a crew of nineteen volunteers under curator Curt Mangel and they’ve done a miraculous job of bringing back to life an instrument that was only 10% operational in the ‘90’s. Today, over 95% of the organ is playable.
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    That evening, Jeremy Flood, another of the Assistant Grand Court Organists, played the hour-long 7:00 PM concert. The program included works by Dubois, Grainger, Handel, Walton, and Louis Vierne, who actually played the Wanamaker organ during his life time.
    Last edited by Admin; 07-23-2011, 10:06 AM. Reason: added pictures
    -Admin

    Allen 965
    Zuma Group Midi Keyboard Encoder
    Zuma Group DM Midi Stop Controller
    Hauptwerk 4.2

  • #2
    Wanamaker Organ Centenary Part 2

    After returning to the hotel for the evening and catching up on our sleep, we were back in the Grand Court Saturday morning at 10 AM, for the first of several special programs that day. Organists Michael Stairs and Colin Howland played works by Tchaikovsky, Stanley, Vierne, and Karg-Elert. Immediately following at 11:30 a live broadcast from the Grand Court took place on WRTI-FM. The previous organists were joined by organists Peter Richard Conte, Rudy Lucent, and Peter Krasinski with works by Strauss and Reubke among others.
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    After a quick lunch, it was back to the store and Greek Hall to watch the D.W. Griffith silent classic, Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish and accompanied on the Wurlitzer by Peter Krasinski. This is a really a remarkable and entertaining film, at times serious, at times funny, and at times exciting, that had the audience literally cheering at times. Peter Krasinski did a fantastic job on the Wurlitzer beginning the program with a transcription of the Poet and Peasant Overture. It was truly amazing how orchestral and varied a sound this small instrument produced through his skillful registration and playing. At one point in the film there was a dance scene with a guy playing the fiddle. I couldn’t believe how realistic the organ sounded until I happened to glance over at the console and saw that Krasinski had a fiddle tucked between his chin and chest, bowing it with one hand, while his other hand alternated between the organ and the neck of violin all the while he was playing the pedals with both feet! The audience went wild with applause and he received a well deserved prolonged standing ovation at the end of the film. If you ever have the opportunity to see this guy play a film, make sure you take it.

    The five o’clock concert in the Grand Court featured Grand Court Organist Peter Richard Conte, and Assistant Grand Court Organist Rudy Lucente, the Wanamaker Festival Chorus, and the Philadelphia Brass for a real sound spectacular. Works by Jongen , Perry, and Widor, were performed as well as Zadok the Priest by Handel – the same work that inaugurated the organ 100 years earlier. The program concluded with inspiring performances of America the Beautiful and The National Anthem. But the main event of the day was yet to come.

    After the store closed for the evening, ticket holders were allowed back in the store for a special after hours concert featuring Peter Richard Conte at the organ and Jeremy Filsell at the piano for a performance of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto. Peter Conte opened the program by playing his transcription of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite. A camera at the console provided a feed to a large video screen so that Maestro Conte’s every move could be seen close up as he performed. As you might have surmised from the programs being presented, the Wanamaker Organ is not a theatre organ but an American organ of Symphonic design, and like a theatre organ it is fully capable of assuming the role of a large symphony orchestra. This was perfectly evident in the performance of this work and the one to follow. Jeremy Filsell, is a pianist, organist, and composer who is currently artist-in-residence at the National Cathedral in Washington. Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto is one of the great warhorses of piano literature and Filsell played this difficult piece beautifully and seemingly effortlessly. The organ assumed the role of orchestra so effectively that at times I forgot that it was an organ. Filsell and Conte received a standing ovation from the sell-out audience at the performance’s conclusion. What a fitting conclusion to day that began 12 hours earlier celebrating the 100th anniversary of this, the world’s largest playable pipe organ.
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    Thanks to the Friends of The Wanamaker Organ organization and the amazing support of Macy’s this wonderful instrument sounds better today than perhaps any time in its history. The organ has been designated a National Landmark, so we can hope that it’s still playing 100 years from now. In the meantime, it’s played twice every day continuing John Wanamaker’s dream of bringing glorious music to all.
    -Admin

    Allen 965
    Zuma Group Midi Keyboard Encoder
    Zuma Group DM Midi Stop Controller
    Hauptwerk 4.2

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