Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Countdown to Planyavsky at MIT (16 days)

Kresge Auditorium, as seen from the Chapel. (Photo by L. Ciampa, 12 Oct. '10)

Upon the death of his father Herman Heinrich ("Henry") Holtkamp (1858-1931), Walter Holtkamp, Sr. (1894-1962), assumed control of the company that was then called the Votteler-Holtkamp-Sparling Organ Company. Despite the financial difficulties of the Depression, Walter wasted little time in developing his radical ideas. His 1933 addition to the E. M. Skinner organ of the Cleveland Museum of Art (the first "Rückpositiv" ever built in North America), quickly established him as the most avant-garde organ builder in America. These Baroque-inspired instruments had a brightness and clarity completely unfamiliar to audiences of the 1930s, who were accustomed, instead, to the lush, woolly sounds of organs by E. M. Skinner - instruments more suitable for Wagner transcriptions than for Bach's great organ works.

In 1951 the company was renamed the Holtkamp Organ Company; Walter was named President. The company's finest work dates from this period, including important installations at Crouse College (Syracuse University) and Battell Chapel (Yale). The consultant for many Holtkamp instruments, including the two MIT organs, was Melville Smith (1898-1962), one of the most influential organists of his time. In addition to his involvement at MIT, Smith was President of the Longy School. Smith was one of the leaders of the so-called Organ Reform Movement, which repopularized the Baroque music and organs that Smith so loved. He had a particular passion for French Baroque organ music, especially that of the composer Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703). This explains why on Chapel organ, the stop named "Cymbal" is actually a Sesquialtera.

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was a Finnish-born architect of world renown, known for such diverse creations as the St. Louis Arch and the tulip chairs on Star Trek. Saarinen designed and buit MIT's Kresge Auditorium and the smaller Chapel.

Why was Saarinen as amenable to acoustics and organ placement in the Chapel as he was unamenable to them in Kresge?

It is said that Walter did not enjoy building the Kresge organ. Besides the cramped space and unideal placement relegated by Saarinen's design, the auditorium was not ideal acoustically - a fact that didn't seem to disturb Saariren. Acoustics, Saarinen said in 1955, were a "modifying factor" but "not a science with the authority to impose a basic shape." Therefore, according to legend, Saarinen attempted to mollify Holtkamp with the Chapel, by providing him with an ideally placed organ loft and the type of acoustical environment about which organ builders dream.

Nevertheless, the Kresge instrument is a large and colorful one which fills the 1226-seat auditorium with some of Walter Holtkamp's most characteristic sounds.

John Allen Fergusen's judgment of the Chapel organ could easily be applied to the Kresge organ, as well:

"[The] organ appeared in the mid-fifties and embodied so much of the essence of Holtkamp's style, convictions and interests. ... [This organ] reveals Holtkamp, as much a radical in his field as Frank Lloyd Wright was in architecture, at work in a space designed by the respected contemporary architectural firm, Eero Saarinen and Associates. Here the combination of gifted organ builder working together with a creative architect demonstrates again that organ building, when practiced responsibly, can produce instruments of exceptional visual and aural distinction." (John Allen Ferguson, "Walter Holtkamp: American Organ Builder" (1979)).

Peter Planyavsky plays a free organ recital at Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on Friday, January 27 at 8 p.m.