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Music review: San Diego's outdoor Spreckels Organ

July 14, 2009 |  3:20 pm

Organ 

When the Spreckels Organ Pavilion was dedicated on New Year’s Eve, 1914, in Balboa Park, it was hailed the largest outdoor instrument in the world. A magnificent machine, superbly maintained, it still is.
 
John D. Spreckels gave San Diego the organ on the condition that the concerts always be presented free. So they are every Sunday afternoon, year round, usual San Diego clement weather or not. In the summer the Spreckels Organ Society presents a weekly Organ Festival, the largest organ festival in the country. These Monday evening concerts are without charge as well.

Monday night some 2,000 people gathered to hear a 23-year-old rising organ star, Felix Hell, play a serious and esoteric program.Some brought dogs. Parents wheeled in infants. Couples sat in the back and necked. Others set up picnic tables and lighted candles.

Most, though, sat up close and let a monster’s vibrations tickle their flesh and sear their eardrums.  One woman put her blanket on the pavement and listened lying on her back enjoying the stars and most likely an organ massage, given how attracted Hell was to the swell pedal. These powerful pipes could easily drown out the low-flying aircraft landing at the much-too-nearby San Diego International Airport.

Hell Spreckels is a special organ. San Diego helps pay the salary of a full-time curator, Lyle Blackinton, but the private society raises the rest of the approximately quarter of a million dollars it takes for upkeep of the organ’s delicate machinery and to present the concerts.  Donations are sought from the public as well, but no one is fleeced at the concerts.  At the Society’s snack table, sandwiches cost $2.  At the gift shop, DVDs are $5. A sense of community is strong.

Before Monday’s concert, Blackinton, an organ builder who has been curator for 35 years and who has overseen restorations and additions to Spreckels, gave me a tour of the Pavilion and the organ’s inner workings. All of the original 3,400 pipes function, but new ones have been added, boosting the total to 4,718. Nearly all of the pipes are hidden in the Pavilion, protected from the elements, but there is no heat or air conditioning. Everything is powered by compressed air.

The organ has an unusual walk-in pressurized air chamber. The access is through air-lock doors, and one feels like entering a submarine. The inner sanctum is like being in the organ’s lungs. Everything breathes, from a huge wood diaphragm to the soft lambskin balloons on all the pipes. 

There are historical photos on the walls. A sea of people – 50,000 – attended the opening night in 1914.  Einstein showed up in 1932. But what is most striking is that while fashion has certainly changed over the past century, the Pavilion hasn’t. It looks the same, although the organ certainly must sound better than ever, despite the airplanes.

Hell, who appeared here as a budding German teenage organist in 2002, was full of beans Monday. He told the audience that this was the strangest instrument he had ever played but also an excellent instrument. And he clearly adored its colors.

In Bach’s D-Major Prelude and Fugue, Hell lighted lights with splashy display, but his robust phrasing was winning. For such thick-textured oddities as Canadian composer Healey Willan’s grandiose Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue and Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on “America,”  Hell relied on Spreckels ingratiating, outgoing sonories.

The title of the Reger was a bit of a cheat. Actually it is Variationen und Fuge über “Heil dir im Siegerkranz” (“God Save the Queen”). Reger composed this reverential British tribute in 1901 and presumably knew nothing of Ives’ far wackier Variations on “America” from a decade earlier. But played on this bright American organ in a most American setting, Reger’s score lost a little of its heavy German accent.

The one American work was an arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Hell asked his listeners to close their eyes and let the music seep into their pores. That sounded far too sentimental to me, so I did the opposite and left my front-row seat and wandered.

I have always associated organs with reverberant spaces and was surprised by the magic of quietly meditative passages heard at a distance in a sylvan setting. Now and then live recordings are made here, and patch-up sessions are necessary for the spots marred by airplanes. Those sessions are held at 3 a.m., and how haunting they must be in a dead-quiet park.

Hell ended his program with the 19th and early 20th century French composer Fèlix-Alexandre Guilmant’s Sonate No. 1 in D Minor (which also exists in an orchestral form as a symphony). Spreckels doesn’t mimic delicate French organ sonorities all that well, but the beginning and ending are all about spectacle, and Hell unleashed, a day early, a proper Bastille Day celebration. And for that Spreckels' strapping American muscle could hardly be topped.

-- Mark Swed

Summer Organ Festival, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego.  Mondays at 7:30 through Aug. 31.  Free.   

Photos: Organist Felix Hell at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

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