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Got to hear Washington National Cathedral organ last week!

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  • Got to hear Washington National Cathedral organ last week!

    My wife and I were in Washington DC this past week to visit our son for a few days, and took one day to see the National Cathedral, which we had not visited in 10 years. As before, it was a wonderful experience.

    As it happened, there was an organ "demonstration" at 12:30 that day, hosted by George Fergus, Assistant Organist. He seemed to be a personable and talkative sort, with good knowledge of the instrument and its history. There were probably a hundred or so folks in the audience (we all sat in the choir stalls), and he assumed that some at least knew little about an organ, so he began with the simplest explanation of console, pipes, wind source, etc.

    Before the demo started, I thought we were going to get a really intimate talk, as there were only about eight of us waiting at the back entrance to the choir at the appointed time, but when the program began the other 90 or so people streamed in from the nave! Anyway, it was still a good time to be "up close and personal" with this great instrument and a fine ambassador for the organ.

    He played a bit of this and that to show off individual stops and choruses, let us hear the zimbelstern and chimes and 32' stops, all for the "wow" effect. Then he finished by playing "Nimrod" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." With each piece he illustrated a different side of the organ -- the smooth crescendo from ethereal strings to grand full organ on Nimrod, and the rousing Festival reeds on Fanfare.

    During the demo, he had played a bit on the Tuba Mirabilis, which sits on a chest to the left of the console, out toward the nave, and some notes on the Festival Trumpet, which is perched horizontally above the reredos of the Great Altar. For the fanfare part, he used them both together! It was of course stunning, almost literally... If it had gone on much longer I'd have needed to cover my ears! I think one might enjoy those big reeds more out in the nave rather than right there in the choir stalls!

    Anyway, it seemed a quite good instrument, with very lovely sounds. The strings I heard on Nimrod were as lush and sweet as any I've ever heard anywhere. In the past I've heard complaints about this organ being too spread out to really control well from the console, but he seemed to have no trouble with it. A nice instrument.
    John
    ----------
    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

  • #2
    The area around the console in the Choir at WNC is the best p[lace to hear the organ. As up-close-and-personal as the organ sounds in the choir, in the nave it can be rather distant sounding, and the fanfare trumpets over top of the main altar lose much of their impact. There is a LOT of organ up above the choir! The cathedral organ has a very competent curator, and does his best to keep the organ playing well (a constant challenge, as the last major rebuild was in the 19170's, even tho a couple of chests were replaced in the 1990's.

    Comment


    • #3
      In the 19170s I hope to hear you play when it's your turn at the console of "Ezekiel's" Temple in New Jerusalem.

      (Am I supposed to ignore the fact that Mecca is in the Gboard dictionary, and it all but refuses to let me spell Jerusalem??)

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by KC9UDX View Post
        In the 19170s I hope to hear you play when it's your turn at the console of "Ezekiel's" Temple in New Jerusalem.

        (Am I supposed to ignore the fact that Mecca is in the Gboard dictionary, and it all but refuses to let me spell Jerusalem??)
        Methinks you fell into one of your Kettles!;-)

        John, thank you for sharing your experiences with the organ. It's too bad they wouldn't let you wander around during the music so you could get a better assessment of the sound. From your description, I pity those who are in the choir!

        VaPipeOrganTuner, thank you also for your assessment of the organ. It sounds like you have first-hand knowledge of the organ and have heard it more than once from several locations. Thank you for sharing.

        Michael
        Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
        • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
        • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
        • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos

        Comment


        • #5
          I enjoyed reading your impressions of the organ. I've heard it twice: once when the organist was practicing and I was free to wander around at will, and again for a service when we were seated in the nave. I quite agree that full organ in the choir stalls is powerful, to say the least, but the sound--while less intense--is also impressive in the nave. I hope the organ will be restored rather than replaced as was proposed at one point.

          George Fergus is indeed a fine player; the Sunday services at the Cathedral are recorded and I've listened to a number of his performances...all masterfully done.

          Comment


          • #6
            Seated in the choir it was pleasant to hear both the immediate sound of the organ, as most of it resides there, and the delayed and sustained sound coming back from the vast nave. It was almost like there was a "reverb" channel separate from the "real" organ audio channels (speaking in digital organ terms!). The separation between the dry sound and the wet sound was of course not ideal. Sitting on the north side of the choir, opposite the console, my left ear was hearing nearly pure dry sound, and my right ear was hearing a mix, with the wet predominant.

            What must be most perplexing about a service there is the extraordinary length of the nave. At 1/10 mile (or so the tour guide said), that's over 500 feet, which translates into over 1/2 second of delay. So a note played on the Festival Trumpet over the altar won't be heard at the west end of the nave until a half second later. That would make congregational singing nearly impossible, if indeed the people were spread out all up and down the nave, which is hardly likely on a typical Sunday.

            While the big lively acoustics of such a church are interesting, and do make an organ or choir sound nice if you're in the "sweet spot" not more than a couple hundred feet from them, in reality such acoustics are not really desirable in the real world. And churches that large are an interesting oddity, but we actually wouldn't want to worship in spaces like that, at least not with a congregation spread out over 1/10 of a mile!

            It's like I remarked last summer after taking in a worship service at St. Paul's in London, there is such a thing as too much reverb, even when it's 100% natural.

            One of these days I'd like to find the perfect happy medium -- a space with enough sustain and delay to make the organ and choir sound warm and shimmering, but not so much as to bury them in a sea of it.

            I suspect that it would be difficult if not impossible to build an organ for that space that would satisfy everyone. Folks who love and enjoy organ as much as we all do should sit close to the front, and those who don't really care can have the back half of the nave!
            John
            ----------
            *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

            https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

            Comment


            • #7
              I heard the Empire Brass at the Washington Cathedral in a brass with organ concert. It was basically a duplicate of this CD, "A Bach Festival for Brass & Organ," which I love:
              https://www.amazon.com/Bach-Festival...=UTF8&qid=&sr=
              The brass players were at the crossing and there were issues with brass/organ balance and sound arrival timing during the first half, but they tweaked something during intermission and the second half was much more satisfying. Great performers all around, but a challenging venue with the separation between the organ and brass during the performance.

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              • #8
                I once played the organ at St. John the Divine in New York. The State Trumpet is a city block away from the console. When you play it, you have to ignore what you hear, because the sound takes so long to reach you. It was an interesting experience. Actually, if you listen to hymn singing there (on line videos are available) you can hear the delay in as the the music "moves" through the nave. It is especially noticeable when the choir processes.

                Bill
                Bill

                My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk

                Comment


                • #9
                  The first college I attended, the piano was approximately 100 ft. from the organ console for chapel. Therefore, we had to use a music director standing between the two instruments at the pulpit. I had to play by "radar" as I heard the piano a fraction of a second after it was played. The 7000 attendees--well, they were even further behind. That's where I learned to truly lead a congregation during hymn-singing in a large space. The natural tendency is to slow down until you have one foot in the grave, but with proper musical leadership, it can be prevented. My, I did LOVE hearing them sing the hymns a cappella.

                  Michael
                  Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
                  • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
                  • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
                  • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    I made a video a while back of me playing my Hammond. I have been having issues with audio levels. When I set up my mixing console, my audio level is good. When I record to the PC and go play the organ, the audio level on the PC is either too low or too high. So I thought to solve this by listening to the PC audio whilst playing. But the audio from the PC is delayed by about 700ms. So I couldn't have played the organ correctly if my life depended on it. I don't know how you guys do it.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by voet View Post
                      I once played the organ at St. John the Divine in New York. The State Trumpet is a city block away from the console. When you play it, you have to ignore what you hear, because the sound takes so long to reach you. It was an interesting experience. Actually, if you listen to hymn singing there (on line videos are available) you can hear the delay in as the the music "moves" through the nave. It is especially noticeable when the choir processes.

                      Bill
                      Anecdote: When the State Trumpet was being built at Aeolian-Skinner, a former employee remarked in an interview that it was like "working in a railroad station", while they were getting it voiced.
                      And I am green with envy that you actually got some time at the console there, Bill!

                      Tony
                      Home: Johannus Opus 370

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Melos Antropon View Post
                        Anecdote: When the State Trumpet was being built at Aeolian-Skinner, a former employee remarked in an interview that it was like "working in a railroad station", while they were getting it voiced.
                        And I am green with envy that you actually got some time at the console there, Bill!

                        Tony
                        That was when Paul Halley was there. My choir was asked to sing for an evensong and they asked me if I wanted to play the postlude. It was a great experience.

                        Bill
                        Bill

                        My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Maybe I'm more concerned about the music than about crowding thousands of folks into a church building, but I don't think I'd get much from regularly attending worship in a church plagued with delays like that! An ideal worship space, IMHO, would be no more than 80' wide by 160' long, with stone floor, plaster walls, wood ceiling. The ambiance would be gloriously live, but delays would be small enough so as not to prevent cohesive congregational singing and good organ leadership. And organists would not have to fight with pipes they couldn't hear in real time!

                          Of course at WNC, as at St. Paul's and other massive cathedrals, it's rare for the nave to be that full of people. Most of the services we've attended in cathedrals have been Evensong, when the attendees are all seated in the choir stalls, or, when necessary, in extra chairs just outside the choir. Everyone gets to hear both organ and choir up close, and congregants are close enough together to allow for coherent singing. Even when we've attended a full-on Sunday morning Sung Eucharist, most people are seated within a reasonable distance of the choir and organ.

                          I can only imagine the difficulty of playing for a congregation to sing at some massive event such as a royal wedding or funeral at Westminster Abbey. You would just have to keep the choir together and let the congregation fend for themselves!
                          John
                          ----------
                          *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

                          https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by jbird604 View Post
                            I can only imagine the difficulty of playing for a congregation to sing at some massive event such as a royal wedding or funeral at Westminster Abbey. You would just have to keep the choir together and let the congregation fend for themselves!
                            John,

                            Absent a music director, that's exactly what happens. Does that explain why in many Catholic traditions, congregational singing is almost non-existent? Of course, I'm not saying Catholics, Lutherans, or Anglicans don't sing as part of their church service, however, the acoustics in the larger buildings certainly make it difficult for the congregation to participate.

                            Michael
                            Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
                            • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
                            • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
                            • 11 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 7 Pianos

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Long reverb sure can be a problem for the player! My organ teacher recorded the Atlantic City organ in 1956 ("Bach On The Biggest") and the "room" (cavern?) had +/- *11* seconds of reverb! He told me that he had to sit at the organ with the kiosk (console enclosure) closed and listen through headphones. When they redid the Hall a while back they installed acres of acoustical material on the ceiling, and the "room" (cavern?) now has only 6 seconds.

                              Bill

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