New organ in Weber Music Hall

By pressing a couple of keys, the music department can now bring 19th century Holland, medieval France or early Duluth to Weber Music Hall. A new organ has taken residence in the music hall and many say it’s long overdue. Weber Music Hall Seeks Organ Donor

“For the last 40 years or so the only organ at UMD is a real organ, but it’s a practice instrument that’s located in one of the practice rooms,” Dr. Justin Rubin, a music professor, assistant department head and chair of the composition and theory area, said. Rubin has been at UMD for 17 years. “If you wanted to play organ for a concert, you had to go off campus.”

Because of this, the organ in the practice room has served as a practice-only instrument. Rubin would teach students the techniques of various compositions, but the real work happened in their minds.

“I would say ‘let’s imagine you’re in France — these are the kind of sounds we would deal with,’ but it was all kind of imagining we were there,” Rubin said. “Now with this (organ) we can bona fide do these things.”

Adam Broderius has been a student of Rubin’s for four years and has been playing the piano since he was two years old. He is currently a senior mechanical and electrical engineering major but takes organ and piano lessons on the side.

“In the practice room you can hear every single note, and when you come in (Weber) it all blends together,” Broderius said. “Now I can have that feedback of what it actually sounds like.”

A typical organ can have registers far from the player, which often results in hearing the note a beat late while trying to continue playing in time. Think of singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a room with an echo. That rebound can make it confusing to maintain the rhythm and tone.

Donald Schraufnagel, Weber Music Hall Technical Director, suggested adding speakers to the top of the organ, facing the player. This eliminates the distortion an organ player hears, allowing for greater concentration on the technique and musicality.

All of this adds up to an organ — a Hauptwerk 4 — that isn’t exactly typical. It is powered by a $4,000 computer located in the back and is outfitted with a touch screen on each side. The screen on the left shows the different sound options while the one on the right shows a photo of the organ chosen.

“The idea with this is that we can plug it into the PA system,” Rubin says and points to the speakers positioned around Weber. There are a few currently on stage that will soon be mounted. “With the computer technology you can have the sense that you are at any organ that you can purchase, and the cost is 1/1000 of an organ.”

Rubin says traditional (meaning non-technological) organs range in cost from $75,000 to $4 million. But the Hauptwerk cost the department approximately $24,000, which came from the technological fees School of Fine Arts students have to pay. If the department does not use the money in the allocated amount of time (typically one year), it is redistributed.

“The organ was on the ‘pie in the sky’ list,” said Dr. Jefferson Campbell, associate professor of music and chair of the music department. Campbell went around to the faculty in the music department, asking them if they needed anything else, but most things could wait until the following semester so they were able use their surplus money on the organ.

“We were able to do it,” Campbell said. “We were very lucky.”

Modernizing Music

As Broderius takes a seat at the organ, Rubin touches a few buttons on the left screen and an image of a Dutch organ appears on the right. The pedals and keyboards on the image reflect the real-life instrument.

“You’re going to be transported to Holland 200 years ago,” Rubin said.

Broderius plays the first few notes of his Dutch piece and the Weber auditorium fills with the sound of an organ that feels five times the size of the one on stage. Every time he presses a pedal, the corresponding one on the screen is pressed as well.

With just the tip of his finger, Rubin can instantly change the sound, and therefore change time itself.

“Now we’ll go from Holland to France. We’re going to the city of Metz,” Rubin says. “You can load it up and get the real sounds and I don’t think there’s anything more perfect than that.”

Senior Tyler Pimm, a music theory and composition student, takes Broderius’ seat at the organ. Though he has been a student of Rubin’s for four semesters, he has yet to play an organ for a Weber audience.

“Right now I play for Concordia Lutheran Church and St. Lawrence Church, both in Duluth,” Pimm says. Though the organ in the practice room is the same make as the one at Concordia, the sounds are very different. They may as well be entirely different instruments.

Now, Pimm can program the organ in Weber to sound similar to the one he will play in a church — with the press of a button, he can transport himself to a contemporary church.

This irony of playing one of the oldest instruments with some of the newest technology is not lost on Rubin. Instead, he seems to see it as the natural progression of music.

“The organ, I think, is such a central instrument to the development of Western music,” Rubin said. “It was the most complicated piece of machinery for hundreds of years.”

Now the complicated machinery is found in a computer that is less than 1/8 the size of the organ itself. In addition to the screens on the sides and the speakers on the top, the organ includes an internal recording device. Rubin can record a practice with a student and send it to them later that day with his comments.

Fortunately, the sound that comes from the Hauptwerk is far from techno. This is due to the construction of both the instrument itself and the technology that accompanies it.

As Pimm plays his final note, an echo resonates through Weber.

“That echo that you hear is not the echo of this room, it’s the echo of that church,” Rubin says, referring to the church the French organ sound was recorded in. An organist would play a single note and a microphone was placed on the register where the sound came out. There were also microphones placed in the middle and back of the auditorium in which the organ was played. This creates a depth of sound that fills the music hall and allows listeners to be truly transported.

“You get this very deep sample and the only reason this is possible is the computer technology that we have today,” Rubin said. “Each organ reflects the culture of the society from which it comes.”

If this is the case, the Hauptwerk is a reflection of technological progress, superior craftsmanship and, ultimately, a modernization of musical instruments.

“Having the new organ is nice,” Pimm said. “The practice piano is great for technical stuff, but this takes it to a new level. Now we have something that’s worthy of playing.”

Weber’s Future

The organ isn’t only useful for solo repertoire. Though Rubin is looking forward to the option of students having solo organ recitals — and he would consider doing one, too — he also says organs are especially important for supporting the choirs.

“They’ve always needed a decent organ sound and now we have the instrument that is viable enough for that,” Rubin said.

One of the most exciting prospects is using the organ to accompany silent films. A screen and projector can be set up on the Weber stage while an organist plays the music. Because this organ is equipped with such advanced technology, it has the ability to imitate many orchestral instruments like the oboe, xylophone and harp.

“That was a very big way silent movie music was done for decades,” Rubin said, demonstrating the different sounds of the organ. “The audience could actually get a sense of what Duluth was like in the days when the city was first really coming out.”

Rubin and Campbell both hope the organ and its potential will help attract more students to UMD. He currently gives lessons to four students, but that number has been higher in the past. Many students have left for universities that have organs viable for stage performances.

“We have organ majors and we’d like to attract more of those,” Campbell said.

But the organ itself can only take students so far.

“The education isn’t about just having an expensive instrument,” Rubin said. “The education is understanding the culture from where these organs came from, the intellectual understanding that the builders had — the values that they instilled in the instruments.”

Not only can students get a better understanding of musical history through the various sounds of the organ, they can also learn about different cultures.

“Each of the countries from each of the different eras — whether it be American or European organs — each are completely different and they sound different; they reflect what’s going on in society at the time” Rubin said. “That’s something that nothing else can really offer, other than an instrument like this.”


Staff Reporter

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