Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998



After months of fevered preparation, and years of anticipation, the Peabody Conservatory has become home to the "king of instruments."

H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Pulling Out All the Stops
By Sue De Pasquale
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

For more than two decades, Donald Sutherland and his organ students at Peabody Conservatory have stoically endured life without a concert-quality organ. For recitals and other performances they've traveled to one of 35 Baltimore-area churches. For practice sessions, they've honed their skills on the conservatory's several small practice organs--something akin to flying a Piper Cub, as compared to a 747, in the words of Peabody director Robert Sirota.

"Organ students have always been the orphans of the conservatory," says Sutherland (at right), a genial, nationally recognized organist who has headed Peabody's organ department since 1975. "We've been off laboring in our own vineyard."

As he sits chatting, on a bench outside the conservatory's second-floor recital hall, Sutherland speaks with the excited anticipation of a child about to unwrap the Christmas gift of all Christmas gifts. And, in fact, he is.

For in just a few days the massive, carved wooden doors before him will be opened to reveal a beautifully restored North Hall. The hall's new centerpiece: a majestic, three-story-tall Holtkamp organ, its 3,000-plus pipes and intricate wood scrollwork a gleaming testament to modern craftsmanship. As the lights go down in the hall, and the lights on the organ go up, an audible sigh of appreciation will be heard from the audience. Sutherland will emerge from the shadows to smile and take his seat before the beautiful instrument. When the first notes of Max Reger's Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor resonate grandly throughout the hall, Bob Sirota will turn around from where he is sitting in the front row, look back at the 150-member audience, and beam.

ON A DAMP FRIDAY MORNING in early January, an enormous moving truck sits outside the 1 East Mt. Vernon entrance to Peabody. The truck has traveled 400 miles from Cleveland, where the Holtkamp Organ Company is based. The hulking vheicle holds the conservatory's new $668,000 pipe organ--disassembled into hundreds of carefully packed cartons of varying sizes and shapes.

The conservatory has no freight elevator to the second floor, so Holtkamp's four workmen will have to heft each carton up Peabody's winding spiral staircase. The men will work from early morning until late night; they don't expect to finish unpacking the truck until after dark on Sunday.

Holtkamp's crew worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, to reassemble the organ in North Hall. Each of more than 3,000 pipes was individually crafted for the scale of the hall. The largest pedal bass pipes weigh more than 200 pounds and require the strength of four men to be put properly in place.
The family-owned Holtkamp Organ Co. has been in business for 143 years, and the Holtkamp name carries the same cachet for organists as a Steinway or Bosendorfer does for pianists. During the 1930s, then president Walter Holtkamp broke the mold in organ making by exposing the grand instrument's many pipes so that audiences could see and hear better. The bold move prompted an appreciative visit from humanitarian Albert Schweitzer (a talented organist), and other organ makers soon followed Holtkamp's lead. Around the same time, he also led an American organ-making revolution against the "orchestral organs" that had begun infiltrating silent movie theaters and churches.

The Holtkamp Organ Co. was the choice of donors Lyman and Nancy Woodson Spire, who pledged the money to have the organ built for Peabody. Sutherland, who has worked with the company on two organs in the past, says he couldn't have been happier about the Spires' choice.

Back in Cleveland, at the Holtkamp workshops, a team of 21 craftspeople collaborated to build the one-of-a-kind organ. It took them several months and an estimated 7,000 total people hours. At that pace, the company manages to turn out just six to 10 organs a year. That doesn't bother current president Christian Holtkamp, who, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, says he is committed to eschewing the "cheapening" effects of mechanization and mass production.

While the pipe organ may look like it belongs within the family of keyboard instruments, in fact it is a wind instrument. Players use the three keyboards (the "swell" organ on top of the console, the "great" in the middle, and the "positiv" on the bottom) and foot pedals to trigger rods and valves to open and send air rushing through the pipes. Each pipe in the organ is individually carved and molded to have a different "voice"--from the barely audible "dog whistle" of a quarter-inch pipe, to the floor-shaking rumble of a 200-pound foot pedal pipe.

At Holtkamp, this demanding and incredibly timeconsuming task falls to master voicer Michael Shofar, who has been at his craft for 41 years. Once Shofar learned the dimensions and acoustics of North Hall, he set to work giving each pipe the right voice. This is painstaking work that can be affected by a pipe's material (Holtkamp's pipes are made of zinc, mahogany, sugar pine, or a tin/lead alloy), and by the size and curve of the openings (known as the "mouth," "ear," and "toe") that Shofar carves in each pipe.

When Peabody's organ was completed and assembled at Holtkamp, Shofar tested to make sure that its chorus of voices sounded exactly as he had intended. And then, in mid-January, he made the trip to Baltimore to begin the final--and most important-- phase of voicing, as the long-awaited organ was reassembled in North Hall.

PART OF THE CONSERVATORY built between 1858 and 1878, North Hall was originally Baltimore's first public art gallery. Photos from the early part of the century show the rectangular, 96-foot-long hall filled with life-sized sculptures of Greek and Roman figures. Around the ceiling trailed an intricate plaster reproduction of the frieze around the Parthenon. For many years, heavy curtains concealed the light from floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Baltimore's scenic Mt. Vernon Square.

In the late 1920s, art exhibits became more sporadic as the conservatory began using the space for orchestra rehearsals, opera workshops, and receptions. When Sirota and others at Peabody learned of the Spires' pledge to fund an organ, North Hall emerged as the ideal setting for the new instrument. In terms of size, sound conditions, and architectural distinction, "it's an absolutely gorgeous space," Sirota told The Baltimore Sun last spring.

But the aging hall needed some cosmetic and acoustical improvements--nearly $900,000 worth, in fact. A four-month renovation project began last summer, and by fall North Hall was restored to its former grandeur. The refinished wood floor gleamed, as did the walls, newly painted in olive green to match the 1870s original (a shade that will complement two Flemish medieval tapestries that will be rehung in the fall, after a 17-year restoration). Along the high ceiling, the plaster frieze, which had been missing in patches, had been faithfully restored by Baltimore artist Kenneth Kuhn. There were some 1990s updates as well: rosettes in the ceiling hid the sprinkler system, for instance. The skylight, which had been opened up to improve the hall's acoustics, was covered by swaths of opaque fabric, to help sound reverberate better and hide new heating and air-conditioning ducts. And new storm windows had been installed, to block noise from the street below.

On this afternoon in early March, North Hall is nearly empty, save for the organ that fills the far wall. It is a stately instrument, 26 feet high and 23 feet wide, its wood columns and lintels all painted a creamy white. The final two or three long pipes still lie on the floor, awaiting their installation. The scene is a far cry from what it was six weeks ago, when boxes and cartons filled nearly every square inch of floor space. By working 12-hour days, seven days a week, Holtkamp's crew has managed to get the organ ready for its premiere weekend of recitals, slated for March 7.

The most creative (and painstaking) part of organ building, says master voicer, Michael Shofar, (pictured above) is crafting each pipe so that it "speaks right."
"Try the A just a little bit higher. Just a hair," calls Shofar, from his seat at the organ's keyboard. High above him on a catwalk, assistant Don Benninghoff moves among the pipes, making an adjustment. A moment later Benninghoff scrambles down a ladder in back and comes around front to hand Shofar a narrow silver pipe. Shofar blows into the bottom of it, then uses a small poker to widen the hole in the pipe's base. The two men have been at this job now for four weeks. "We have to run over each pipe and make sure each one has the proper speech," Shofar looks up to explain.

Sutherland drops in on the duo late each afternoon, to talk with them and to listen to the results of their daily labors. Sometimes the organist will make a suggestion: "How about taking the edge off here," or, "Let's make this voice a little broader." Sutherland, whose artistic pedigree can be traced all the way back to J.S. Bach, first worked with Shofar back in 1965. He remains amazed at the voicer's remarkable ability to hear the subtlest variations in sound. "Mike Shofar is Holtkamp Organs," says Sutherland. "He's the one who draws all the sounds together."

Back out in the hallway, Sutherland talks with excitement about what the new organ will mean to Peabody. For one thing, it will make it much easier for him to recruit top organ students. In recent years the program has averaged about a dozen students; he expects to see that number increase. For another, it will broaden the musical experience of everyone at the conservatory. "It means that Peabody students will be able to hear the great organ works of Bach, right here," he says. Already, there are composition students at work on pieces for organ. And he's been approached by trumpet students and voice students, who've eagerly asked whether they'll be able to use the organ for ensemble recitals. His reply? An emphatic, "Of course!"

Now that the long wait for a concert-quality organ is over, Sutherland can afford to be magnanimous. "Peabody," he says gleefully, "is going organ nuts!"

At a Sunday afternoon recital on March 8, North Hall was officially renamed Leith Symington Griswold Hall, in honor of the 82-year-old woman who studied piano at the preparatory and conservatory from 1926 to 1936. Her son, Benjamin H. Griswold IV, and his wife, Wendy, gave $2 million to Peabody to endow the hall and piano scholarships. Also on hand for the organ's premiere were organ makers Walter and Christian Holtkamp.