Gentlemen, start your organs

Atlanta's pipe-organ community works for harmonious accord

Thursday July 3, 2003 12:04 am EDT

The city's "early music" community was outraged. Not only would it be a modern, electro-pneumatic organ, but they felt it was simply too large for the hall. Worst of all, they objected, it was to be a Ruffatti.

But Emilie Spivey had made her decision, and the new hall that was to bear the Spivey name would have a pipe organ made by Fratelli Ruffatti, an Italian builder whose previous pipe organs in Atlanta had a history of recurrent mechanical problems. Despite initial "purist" detractors, since its inaugural concerts in 1992, the Spivey Hall pipe organ has drawn international acclaim.

That may tick off the historical purists, but it is difficult to argue with the public success.

"Aren't we grateful for that!" says Timothy Wissler, organist at Atlanta's Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King. "Spivey Hall has certainly done a lot in banging the drum for organ recitals." Wissler has a mighty interest in the success of organ recitals in Atlanta. The Cathedral is one of the four tony Buckhead churches hosting programs in this year's Atlanta Summer Organ Festival, along with Cathedral of St. Philip, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church and Trinity Presbyterian Church, in addition to the concerts those churches present during the rest of the year. The festival has been an annual Buckhead community event for the last nine years.

A rift among pipe organists evolved during the early 20th century, when new technologies made possible larger, more flexible and colorful "orchestral" organs with a vast palette of sounds, which became rather popular at the time. But like all innovations, these created a reactionary movement that longed for a return to the "classic" tonal characteristics of 17th- and 18th-century European organs.

The bitter contention between these camps continues to this day. While devoted historicists despise modern electro-mechanical instruments, some modernists find "historical" instruments to be cumbersome anachronisms.

"Anytime you have two organists, you have a rift. They are the most cantankerous people in the world!" jokes Nicholas Bowden, principal organist at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. But he admits that a basic rift does exist between historical and modern camps.

Wissler appreciates both perspectives. "Playing on a mechanical-action instrument in a historic way teaches so much about the music," he says. "I just came back from Phoenix where I was playing on an organ that was designed to really work with north German music." He says the music came alive in a way that it would not have if played on a large romantic instrument.

Sometimes the best of both perspectives can come together in one instrument. Michael Shake, associate organist at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, points out that the critically acclaimed Mander organ in their new sanctuary is the only organ in the festival with mechanical "tracker" action, and the largest Mander has built to date. But it has modern electronic control of the stops, including combination pistons.

"What's neat that's going on in Atlanta now is that there are so many new instruments," says Shake. "Trinity Presbyterian's instrument was new back in the early 1990s, our Schantz chapel organ was built in the early 1990s. Now you have a new organ at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and a new organ at St. Bartholomew's, which is a mechanical-action organ." The number and variety of new pipe organs in Atlanta is exploding, and the city is attracting swarms of organists who want to work here.

"A lot of organists want to come to Atlanta, but nobody wants to leave," says Wissler. Although there are few top-level job openings, he feels there is plenty of room for differing, even opposing tastes. "I personally don't feel like it's a war. Both parties are going to have to live together, and I don't know that I would want to get rid of any of it."


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