Organ Failure

An ambitious plan to relocate a historic pipe organ to the Embarcadero threatens nothing but sour notes

Charles Swisher agrees. Swisher is a San Francisco audio engineer who led a previous effort to restore the organ, before the earthquake wrecked his plans. Shortly after he heard about the outdoor project, he wrote a letter to Willie Brown explaining his distaste for the idea, arguing that weather, traffic noise, the need for constant tuning, and lack of acoustics would all either harm the instrument or prevent it from being heard. "I am afraid for the most part that this great old instrument would end up sitting there, little used, and languish for evermore, just as it did in the Civic Auditorium once the public lost interest in it after 1921," he wrote.

To the project's detractors, temperature is one of the biggest concerns. For all their weight and might, pipe organs are extremely sensitive; small changes in temperature, even over a short period of time, can shift an organ out of tune. "As little as two or three degrees can change the tuning," says Al Sefl, who tuned and maintained the organ in the '60s, when it resided in the Civic Auditorium. "You can start with a nice-sounding organ on a nice summer afternoon, and as the fog rolls in it winds up sounding like an accordion."

Tuning an organ with over 6,000 pipes can be an arduous, daylong process; in relatively stable indoor environments, it need only be done a few times each year. Outdoors, however, ups and downs in temperature call for the tuning to be done more regularly, which could be problematic for the organ in the long run. "The organ has to be kept at a constant temperature," says Charles Swisher, "and you can't keep constantly adjusting reeds. After a while, they get wonky."

State Assemblywoman Carole Migden, Committee for 
the Waterfront Pavilion Organ Chairman James W. 
Haas, and Cheryl Arnold of the local American Guild  
of Organists chapter, at the pavilion site. Migden 
helped appropriate $100,000 for the project.
Courtesy Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Org
State Assemblywoman Carole Migden, Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Organ Chairman James W. Haas, and Cheryl Arnold of the local American Guild of Organists chapter, at the pavilion site. Migden helped appropriate $100,000 for the project.
Longtime Hayward organ builder and historian Edward 
Millington Stout III calls the outdoor organ project "a 
horrible idea."
Anthony Pidgeon
Longtime Hayward organ builder and historian Edward Millington Stout III calls the outdoor organ project "a horrible idea."

Sorting out the details of temperature and acoustics is the job of San Francisco's ROMA Design Group, the pavilion's architects. ROMA President Boris Dramov received a call from James Haas in 1998, asking him to look into the idea of creating an outdoor pavilion for the organ. He is still figuring out what protection the pipes will have against the elements; the pavilion will certainly have a roof and a door to protect the organ when it isn't being played, but other controls are still being dealt with. "It's a balanced approach," Dramov says. "If you were looking for a perfect acoustical environment for the organ, you wouldn't put it outside. But you make compromises. It's not the optimum situation acoustically, but the organ is more available for people to hear. It's more a part of the city. That's a valid trade-off, I think."

Apart from how good the music will sound, some critics wonder how many people will even be able to hear it. The current proposal puts the organ near traffic noise, preserves the grass (it's city park land), and offers little surrounding acoustical support except nearby buildings. When Haas recently received a letter from a San Franciscan concerned that the organ might be too loud, even John Fenstermaker responded with a fear that the organ will, in fact, sound too soft. In an e-mail to Haas, Fenstermaker wrote, "I am worried that the organ will be able to be sufficiently heard with the traffic and urban decibel level. There is some worry amongst the organbuilders and organists that the music will get lost in the general civic din."

Haas argues that issues of acoustics and temperature are surmountable problems. "The organ will be maintained in the proper manner," he says. "Nobody's concerned that we can't do this."

This year, Haas commissioned an acoustical study of the organ's proposed location. The report found average noise levels in the center of the park to be between 63 and 65 decibels, and it argues that the organ will perform at a volume well above that level. The report, in acknowledging that "it is difficult to accurately predict the environmental interference with the organ music," uses as its benchmark an outdoor organ in San Diego.

Haas and others often cite the outdoor organ in San Diego's Balboa Park as a model for the San Francisco project. It is of a similar size, the same age, and also manufactured by Austin Organs, and it draws healthy crowds on a regular basis; according to Lyle Blackinton, the organ's curator, concerts there attract audiences as large as 3,000 people. But the San Diego organ is in several important ways a poor comparison. It is in a relatively quiet environment, with a concrete floor and a colonnade that helps project and control the sound. And, as a number of observers have pointed out, San Diego's weather is much more stable and organ-friendly than San Francisco's.

The acoustical analysis commissioned by the Committee for the Waterfront Pavilion Organ concluded that the volume of the San Francisco organ is "likely to be similar" to the San Diego organ. But Lanny Hochhalter, Austin Organs' West Coast representative, says the San Francisco organ will probably be quieter. "The one in San Francisco is not as loud as the one in Balboa Park," Hochhalter says. "The sound is going to drop off very dramatically very quickly outside."

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