The George W. Mergens Memorial Organ.
If you happened to be driving by the Kravis Center early Saturday morning, you might have felt something unfamiliar: A tremor, a rumbling, a distant shaking.
That was no earthquake you heard — at least not in the terrestrial sense. What you heard was a sonic quake, an electron-wave tsunami, the shuddering of a subwoofer temblor.
It was the voice of the Kravis’s newest resident, one that will be heard in all its immensity Wednesday night in a debut that in one fundamental way has been 25 years in the making.
“It’s going to rumble like crazy,” says Doug Marshall, one-half of the Needham, Mass., team of Marshall and Ogletree, a builder of digital organs. His company’s newest organ is being installed in the Kravis as part of a gift from the center’s prime mover and most illustrious patron, Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr., for whom the main concert hall at the center is named.
The digital organ, which Marshall & Ogletree call Opus 11 (it’s the 11th organ the firm has built in its 13 years) and which the center has named the George W. Mergens Memorial Organ, will make its first appearance in a concert with the sensational young American organist Cameron Carpenter, who will be accompanied by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in the first half of the program, and who will then play a recital program in the second half.
As far as Carpenter and Kravis officials are aware, the center is the first major American concert hall to permanently install a digital organ. Carpenter sees that as nothing less than a revolution.
“This is a sea change, a massive leap forward. And it’s a great credit not only to Alex Dreyfoos, but to the hall,” Carpenter said. “It’s the first major American concert hall, and as far as I’m concerned the only American concert hall, major or not, to buck the insidious trend that the only organ that should be allowed in the hall is a pipe organ, regardless of the fact that it will be overpriced at millions of dollars and hardly ever used.
“Leave it to Alex Dreyfoos to be one of the first to openly support the cause of furthering the organ as a practical instrument and not a mere status symbol,” he said.
Judy Mitchell, the Kravis Center’s CEO, says it’s taken almost a year for the $1.5 million project to come to fruition. The hall had been designed for a pipe organ when it was blueprinted in 1991, but the instrument was eliminated as a cost-saving measure.
“For some, it’s a total unknown, so there’s a curiosity factor. For others, they just like organ music and they’re anxious to see how that plays and works in a venue like Dreyfoos Hall,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure we’re going to have a few skeptics there, too, and some critics we hope to win over.
“We think this instrument is beautiful, and we think this artist, Cameron, is the perfect person to be inaugurating this instrument,” she said.
Digital organs are somewhat controversial in the organ community, many of whose members see the advent of the instrument as an act of apostasy. Whereas a pipe organ produces its sound from air going through pipes, a digital organ is a “complex playback device,” as Marshall puts it: The music it produces comes from sound samples taken from several American organs, many of them in the Boston area, and recorded in high definition.
Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. (Photo by Greg Stepanich)
“Electronic organs deservedly have had a bad name … they were initially just sine-wave oscillators tuned to the different scales. And they sounded like sine-wave oscillators,” Dreyfoos said, laughing. “They had to be improved, and they all were being improved by messing around with the wave shape.”
The digital organ gets around the problem by using sound samples rather than generating any sound of its own.
“All you’re doing is playing that pipe. There’s no wave shaping, there’s nothing. You can’t tell the difference, if you have a very high-quality sound system,” Dreyfoos said, which the Kravis does.
Marshall has been recording American organ sounds for decades, and it was while he was working for the Rodgers Organ company that he met his future business partner, David Ogletree, in a stereo equipment store where he had gone to buy a cassette deck for his recording mission.
“We’ve been recording pipe organs, note by note, pipe by pipe, since 1997,” said Marshall, who like Ogletree is an organist. Marshall studied with Virgil Fox, and Ogletree is a graduate of the Curtis Institute. “So we have certainly, I don’t know how many pipes … but a couple thousand ranks in our readily available library. And we have another few thousand to process yet.”
A “rank” is a set of pipes of the same timbre, typically 61 of them, each assigned to a note on the keyboard. An organist can change the timbre of the notes by deploying combinations of different ranks.
The Marshall & Ogletree organ at the Kravis, which is 7 feet by 9 feet, has five keyboards and pedals and about 180 stops, is essentially a duplicate of the International Touring Organ (Opus 8), which Carpenter had built to his specifications and on which he has performed in concerts around the world. That organ — and therefore the Kravis organ, too — constitute nothing less than a living tribute to the art of American organ-building.
“The organ is utterly American. Every organ that was used to create the International Touring Organ is an American organ, in America, built by an American organ company. And that’s not an accident,” said Carpenter, who grew up near Meadville, Pa. “It’s my position that American organ-building is the cultural zenith of all organ-building. I’m not to be told that the organ of 18th-century northern Germany, or the organ of 19th-century France — these instruments are all wonderful, and while their history is fascinating, and culturally rich, they do not begin to add up to the cultural melting pot you see in American organ-building of the 20th century.
“And that that tradition would one day become digital is not only a beautiful thing, but also an artistic inevitability,” he said. “I’m very, very proud of the digital organ that Marshall & Ogletree has built for me, I’m extremely proud of the fact that it is an American innovation, and that it reflects the American school of organ-building.”
Carpenter, 34, who played the Festival of the Arts Boca in 2013, is easily the most visible concert organist since Virgil Fox, an eclectic and dazzling virtuoso performer who has written dozens of arrangements as well as substantial amounts of his own music, and whose solo disc, If You Could Read My Mind, went to No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts when it was released in 2014.
In his appearance with the Jacksonville Symphony, Carpenter will perform the Organ Concerto of Francis Poulenc and the organ part of the Organ Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78), of Camille Saint-Saëns, the best-known such work in the repertoire.
Dreyfoos specifically requested that the Saint-Saëns work be included in the program when he came up with the idea of adding a digital organ to the Kravis Center. Dreyfoos had made an unrestricted deferred gift of $5 million to the center 20 years ago, and last September, when the gift became available, he asked the center’s board to dedicate $1.5 million of it to the organ.
“The board was very nice, and said yes,” Dreyfoos said. “They didn’t have to. I had made an unconditional gift.”
Alexander Dreyfoos (left) and George Mergens.
It was important to Dreyfoos that he honor the memory of George Mergens, his business partner at Photo Electronics Corp., which they founded in 1963. The two men had a close working relationship, and together they created the video color negative analyzer, an invention that enhanced the color in prints and film. Photo Electronics and Eastman Kodak shared a 1970 Academy Award in technical achievement for the analyzer.
Mergens, who was 57, died in July 1986 of injuries suffered when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in Palm Beach. An arbitration panel awarded his estate $13 million the following year, at that time one of the largest such settlements in Florida history.
“My partner loved the organ,” said Dreyfoos, who turns 84 this month. “If George had lived, I’m not saying there wouldn’t have been a Kravis Center, but there wouldn’t have been a Kravis Center with a Dreyfoos push … I found him to be truly brilliant, and while I could do the theoretical stuff, he was the type of person to whom I could say, ‘Could we make a device like this?’ and he would say, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be better if we did this?’
“All of our design work over the years was finishing each other’s sentences,” Dreyfoos said.
The Mergens organ will be heard through no less than 96 different channels, many of them hidden in the ceiling of Dreyfoos Hall.
“One of the things that’s really nice about the hall is it has a beautiful resonant quality, a nice reverberation. And that certainly helps a great deal,” Marshall said. “The way we’ve put in the sound system, it’s mostly in the ceiling, the round area at the top of the hall. It creates a total sound effect, and at the front of the hall, on both sides, are what were originally intended to be pipe organ chambers. And we have a supplementary audio system playing the complete organ from those two chambers.
“So no matter where you are here in the hall, you get a complete picture of the organ,” said Marshall, 67, who was speaking from the hall at about 2 a.m. Saturday as he and two technicians “voiced” the instrument. “It’s a little more reverberant as you move out from under the proscenium arch in to the hall. It gets more silky, shall we say.”
The organ will be available for use by touring organists and orchestras, but other community groups are welcome to use it, too, said Mitchell, the Kravis CEO.
“We’ve already gotten inquiries from several of the other groups that utilize the Kravis Center for their performances. The Young Singers of the Palm Beaches are quite eager to use it for their Christmas or their spring concert, and there’s a possibility that other groups that rent the Kravis Center are interested in using it, and so we’re going to make that available.”
Mitchell said the center also is planning to allow organ students who want to practice on the instrument to be able to take advantage of it. And because the Mergens organ is portable and not an immovable, permanent part of Dreyfoos Hall, it can be used in the Rinker Playhouse or even go out on tour.
“We will literally be able to roll it from Dreyfoos Hall into the Rinker Playhouse,” she said.
For the organ’s debut, Carpenter has invited a special guest to appear on his solo second half: Matthew Whitaker, a 14-year-old blind jazz organ prodigy from Hackensack, N.J.
“I was awed by him when I first heard him play in New York. He typically plays the Hammond organ, but with the cooperation of the Aspen Institute, he was my guest on the opening night of this tour (Jan. 28) in San Francisco, at SF Jazz,” Carpenter said. “And he’s an absolutely astounding talent.”
One of the hoped-for benefits of the advent of digital organs is a revival of interest in the instrument.
“It’s somewhat of a tragedy that the organ has faded as a concert instrument,” Marshall said. “It’s used less in churches now than it used to be … A lot of churches are moving away from organ music in favor of a praise band. I think the organ world is somewhat to blame for it, because it’s been a little bit removed from mainstream music. It’s just a world of its own, and hasn’t been that outgoing from a promotional point of view.
“I think some of that is changing, and I think people like Cameron are an element that is desperately needed, and that the organ deserves to get the attention they’re bringing to it,” he said.
Carpenter said the Kravis organ, as a copy of the International Touring Organ, represents a viral spread of a collection of great American organ sounds, and it bodes well for the future of the instrument.
“It doesn’t require any hesitation from me to consider this organ the greatest in the world,” he said. “And it seems to me that the following would also have to apply to the Kravis Center organ. And wouldn’t it be nice if every time we replicated this organ, that that were also true? That would mean we were taking the greatest organ in the world and effectively replicating it everywhere it was installed.
“That’s exactly within the historical dictates of organ-building, and of what the values of organ-building have always professed to be for more than 350 years,” Carpenter said.
In other words, the Kravis Center’s new organ is at once a fulfillment of the past and a bold step into the future, he said.
“It’s very important to see that while the organ is futurist — the Marshall & Ogletree organ is absolutely a computing phenomenon and a futurism in the [Ray] Kurzweilian sense — it is, as an organ, utterly traditional.”
Cameron Carpenter and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra debut the George W. Mergens Memorial Organ at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center. Tickets start at $15. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.