The Wanamaker Organ

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter. You can read all my CD reviews here.

A Grand Celebration
The Philadelphia Orchestra live with the Wanamaker Organ
The Historic Grand Court Concert for Macy’s 150th Anniversary
Peter Richard Conte, organist, Rossen Milanov, conductor
Marcel Dupré Cortege and Litany, Joseph Jongen Sinfonia Concertante, Edward Elgar Pomp and Circumstance No. 1
Gothic G-49270

You’re careful—Indiana-Jones-careful—not to touch anything. You tip-toe over wires and ducts and around wooden stairways and you see them everywhere. The pipes. Pipes thick as elms that rise two storeys, pipes small as pencils, tin pipes, wood pipes, round and square pipes, growing, it seems, out of the fractals of corners, advancing on you… but the astonishing realization is that there are people here who know exactly where every pipe is.

This is the Wanamaker Organ. It has patio-sized bellows that could crush a lawn tractor. It is the largest functional musical instrument on the planet. The entire Grand Court of the store (now Macy’s), surrounded by condominiums of ranks and choirs and chests and louvers, is really the instrument, and it is for this instrument, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, that Joseph Jongen wrote his Sinfonia Concertante. The deaths of the composer’s father and the store owner postponed, and then cancelled, the scheduled 1928 premiere. The music has been heard around the world, but not until 2008 did it finally erupt in this place, as if it had been waiting all this time. The CD of this live performance is worth the wait.

Facing all this power, you might expect to be pummelled, but the surprise is how lightly Peter Richard Conte makes this dance. He and Rossen Milanov coordinate these two behemoths—this great orchestra and organ—with precision. They delight in the illumined edges of sound, where harmonies brush by each other and decays ruffle the silence. You can almost feel the space. Just don’t touch anything.

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