Monday, June 30, 2014

The Organ at Wanamaker's

From the WSJ:
For two and a half decades, Peter Richard Conte has had one of the strangest, most wonderful jobs in all of retail. Twice a day, six days a week he has performed 45-minute concerts on one of the largest pipe organs in the world, an instrument improbably located in a downtown Philadelphia department store.

The organ, built for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, was such an enormous—and enormously expensive—undertaking that it bankrupted the manufacturer. It was claimed that the instrument, with some 10,000 pipes, was "capable of producing 17,179,869,183 distinct tonal effects."

After its starring role at the world's fair, the organ languished in storage for a few years until it was bought by John Wanamaker as the centerpiece of the new store he was building in Philadelphia. In 1911, the organ debuted in the Grand Court—a seven-story, marble atrium that proved too large for even such a monster. And so Wanamaker and his son Rodman had the organ vastly expanded through the teens and '20s—to more than 28,000 pipes. 

For more than a century, there has always been an official Grand Court Organist at the department store. The longest serving was the second, Mary E. Vogt, who performed at Wanamaker's from 1917 to 1966. "You must entertain without distracting," she said. You don't want to "annoy people who after all have come into the store to shop." Vogt managed the six keyboards at the massive console, but couldn't quite reach all of the organ's 729 color-coded "stop tablets" (the domino-size paddle-switches that turn ranks of pipes on and off). She would throw the more distant tablets with a whack from a rolled-up newspaper.

Mr. Conte still follows Vogt's repertoire advice, shying away from the atonal and modernistic, and avoiding extravagant works from composers such as Olivier Messiaen. "Great music," he says of Messiaen, "but not shopping-conducive." 

On a recent Saturday afternoon Mr. Conte performed the sort of accessibly eclectic program that the organ, and the organ's commercial environment, calls for. The mix included a third-act scene from Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," a scherzo from Alexandre Guilmant (the French organist-composer who famously performed on the organ during the St. Louis World's Fair) and "The Easy Winners," a Scott Joplin rag.

Mr. Conte's specialty is symphonic works that he transcribes for the organ himself. His scores are housed in black binders, and the sheets inside are crowded with little fluorescent sticky-dots in magenta, green and tangerine that he uses to mark the many changes to the stops.

Mr. Conte was a choir boy at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, N.Y., when he took up the organ. After earning his degree at Indiana University, he began pestering the third Grand Court Organist, Keith Chapman, to let him audition to become an assistant. Chapman finally gave him a chance in 1987 and Mr. Conte got the gig, which entailed performing when Chapman was on tour, travels he made at the controls of his own plane. It was on one of those trips, in the summer of 1989, that Chapman crashed in the Rockies. In September 1989, Mr. Conte was named the fourth Grand Court Organist. (Read more.)

No comments: