Spend your lunch break with the Wanamaker Organ

In the subliminal language of retail, it's probably safe to say no modern marketing expert has ever determined that playing an extremely large organ will loosen the purse strings of the typical  department store shopper.

But then, that's not quite the point, and the Wanamaker Organ isn't just any organ.

At Macy's downtown, twice a day nearly every day, the city gets a gift: a 45-minute recital in the store's Grand Court on what is often called the world's largest fully functioning musical instrument. It is also one of the city's greatest quirks, and quite possibly the only department store organ in the country.

Read more about the Wanamaker Organ's history.

Given such superlatives, the series keeps a discreet presence. Crowd control is not an issue, even if this is a much more nourishing way of spending the lunch hour than searching Center City for the best eco-chic salad.

Recently, I stopped in for a feast: six days’ worth of noontime organ recitals. Tuesday, perched in "girls 2-16" on the third floor (don't look down), I heard Fred Haas, who deployed an impressive antiphony between the second and fourth tiers of the six-tier keyboard in Handel. “Danny Boy” and the second movement from Dvorak's "New World" Symphony were lovingly rendered, and the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata had both the terrifying grandeur of an orchestra and the expressive freedom of a piano.

Read more: Fun facts about the Wanamaker Organ

In that way in which music can shake loose memories decades old, the name of one tune he played came to mind despite my not thinking of it since perhaps college: "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar, with a cymbal at the song's climax.

Whatever your taste, this is music of the best sort -- music you didn't find, but that found you. All you came in expecting was a pair of jeans or a food processor on sale. Instead, your attention was hijacked by something at once more ephemeral and enduring.

The range of repertoire is huge. Wesley Parrott on Wednesday played a gorgeously subdued take on the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Thursday, he teased shoppers with a "Let it Snow" that melted into Handel's Water Music.

Monday, Steve Ball played some classical, then a little Leroy Anderson, his excitable Serenata -- now there's music to get you to slide your charge card across the counter -- plus Gershwin's "The Man I Love."

The roster of organists consists of Grand Court organist Peter Richard Conte, and a short list of assistant organists he chooses -- church musicians, concert organists, academics, and Curtis Institute of Music students. Conte points to the "long-standing policy that only the titular organist, and his assistants, are authorized to play the instrument for the daily concerts."

Who comes along to listen and for what reason isn't always apparent at these concerts, which have been going, with remarkably few interruptions, since the organ’s arrival in 1911, according to Conte. Some shoppers stand in place and listen, others stop and look up. But most go about their business as though  there were nothing remarkable about listening to a very analog live organist in a department store in the age of handheld digital access to every piece of music ever played. Sometimes the end of a piece draws a smattering of applause, sometimes not.

But anyone wanting to slip on the robes of nobility should have the experience of entering the Grand Court while Handel is playing. That feeling of walking tall can be had for the price of a box of Godiva chocolates or glittery pair of Donald J Pliner loafers -- or nothing at all.

 

It's been a while since organs were the reliable sound track to soap operas, skating rinks, and baseball games. It's safe to say, though, that nothing in those places -- nor in your typical  church -- could ever hit you like the ton of bricks Conte’s 10 minutes from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier was at the end of Saturday’s noon recital. Conte himself, of course, had much to do with how powerfully the music came across -- the way he paced the opera’s excruciatingly beautiful final trio, his attention to finely shaded dynamics and the way they make you feel, and the colors he chose as proxy for certain instruments. There was even a silvery depiction of the rose played with the help of a real restored Mustel celesta.

But the greater gift was the surprise of it all -- of just happening upon it one Saturday in a department store, and being presented with such emotional generosity. Macy’s and the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ have worked hard to restore and maintain not just the instrument but also the spirit of a shared altruistic encounter that is increasingly critical to the public sphere.

The names on the building envelope have come and gone --Wanamaker's, Hecht's, Lord & Taylor, and, briefly and bizarrely, Wanamaker rival Strawbridge's. All these are history, as is the unlikely mix of perfume and grilling hot dogs that made the main selling floor a Proustian pleasure for another generation.

But the Wanamaker Organ sits there still a star, merrily piping out atmosphere, as they roll the retail scenery by.

The Wanamaker Organ is played by various organists Monday through Saturday, at noon and 5:30 p.m. (except Wednesday and Friday, which are noon and 7 p.m.). www.wanamakerorgan.com. The Wanamaker Organ Hour airs on WRTI-FM (90.1) the first Sunday of each month from 5 to 6 p.m. www.wrti.org.

Continue Reading