entertainment

Philadelphia Orchestra gets big bucks for big instrument

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Updated: Monday, August 7, 2017, 4:08 PM

Frederick Haas played “Happy Birthday” for – and on – the organ named for his grandfather Fred J. Cooper at Verizon Hall.

Expect to hear more vibrating rumbles and soaring high notes at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in Verizon Hall in the near future — though not from the orchestra itself.

With the backing of local philanthropist and organ enthusiast Frederick R. Haas, the Wyncote Foundation is giving the orchestra $5 million over the next five years to enhance organ programming and activities highlighting the instrument.

The Kimmel Center is hardly wanting for organ programming. Philadelphia Orchestra repertoire frequently incorporates the organ, and Haas has supported ways in which the public can learn about and listen to the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, the “world’s largest mechanical-action concert hall pipe organ,” according to the orchestra.

But the organ project, which is to begin this coming season, will make the orchestra and the Kimmel even more organcentric: commissioning new works; programming additional organ concertos and orchestral works that weave organ in and out of the overall texture; holding community concerts, recitals, and postlude concerts; and providing real-time program notes that explain the way the organ works.

“I would say we had not been programming concertos every year, and now we are,” said orchestra president Allison Vulgamore. “We have had a focus on using the organ clearly in works well known to the audience, such as the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, but not canvassing works to introduce to the audience. And that means we are spending time … keeping [the organ] in mind when we do our programming.”

The orchestra has been brainstorming with Haas for several years on ways to increase the use of organ, said Vulgamore, and increased activities for the organ’s recent 10th anniversary served as a catalyst for the formalization of the entire five-year initiative, which has been dubbed the “Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience.”

Cooper, an amateur organist, was Haas’ grandfather.

The orchestra already had programmed several works with organ next season but has now added three more as a direct result of the gift, plus six postlude concerts, said orchestra artistic planning vice president Jeremy Rothman. Additionally, a new work by Tod Machover will now incorporate organ, he said.

The money will be spent down, not kept in endowment in perpetuity as some other gifts are, and Haas has been given the title of artistic adviser with the orchestra, consulting on repertoire as well as organists the orchestra might engage. “Fred is a voice at the table with Yannick [Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra’s music director],” Vulgamore said.

Haas was not available for comment, an orchestra spokeswoman said.

The new initiative also aims to bring greater visibility to the organ generally — in neighborhood concerts in halls where there might be an instrument, for the orchestra’s play-in concerts for amateurs, on tour, and in radio broadcasts.

Haas, one of four members of Wyncote’s board of directors, is a trained organist in his own right — he studied at the Oberlin Conservatory — and can sometimes be heard playing the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Macy’s Center City. The six postlude concerts next season will be played by Peter Richard Conte. Conte is grand court organist of the Wanamaker Organ.

The instrument may be big and its presence expanding, but the organ world is still small.

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Read full story: Philadelphia Orchestra gets big bucks for big instrument