February 16, 2003 Vol. VIII, No. 10

Massive Pipe Organ Finds Permanent Home in Nordhoff Hall

Third Rebuild Is Charm for Traditionally Constructed, 1,200-Pipe Instrument

A 22-foot high, 18-foot wide pipe organ is not expected to move around much.

But the imposing Walker organ now ensconced in the organ/choral/opera room of Cal State Northridge's Nordhoff Hall may hold the world record for most-traveled 17,000-pound musical instrument.

Originally installed 12 years ago in the university's student union, after private donors helped the university raise its $180,000 cost, the custom built organ had barely begun to settle down when the 1994 Northridge earthquake lifted it up and smashed it down again.

"It caused damage so severe," recalled acting Music Department Chair David Aks, "that it could not be repaired on site."

So, scarcely two years after it had crossed the Atlantic in bits and pieces and undergone a painstaking pipe by pipe reconstruction on campus, the organ was dismantled and sent back to its creators in England: J.W. Walker & Sons, organ builders whose origins can be traced back to 1599.

In fall 1995, back came the rebuilt pipe organ to the student union. But not to stay.

"This beautiful instrument enjoyed its home in the student union until a more suitable environment could be identified," said Interim Executive Assistant to the Provost Jerry Luedders, Music Department chair at the time the move was planned. "Because of the busy student union schedule and activity connected with the exciting University Student Union renovation project, students could not access the instrument as often as desirable for study."

A space in Nordhoff Hall, Luedders said, was found to be acoustically ideal for the size, scale and intended use of the instrument.

Hence the latest move in the saga of the traveling pipe organ. On January 5, a Walker & Sons team of organ experts flew in from England to disassemble the organ, move its parts across campus to Nordhoff Hall room 107 and re-build it yet again.

Aks said the entire move took place in January and was finished on time. "Choral, opera and opera workshops can continue to be held there, and of course organ practice and teaching. The room will be getting lots of use." Organ teacher Timothy Howard will coordinate the schedule, Aks added.

Australian David Wilson, a sound technician called a "voicer" in the highly specialized world of organ building, arrived on January 18 to begin the arduous task of rebalancing the instrument to suit its new environment. "There are 1,200 pipes in the organ," said Wilson, who worked on the 1992 installation as well, "and each had to be adjusted individually."

Wilson (right with organ)is pleased with the results of the four-week project. The handsome traditionally constructed instrument's exterior is built from Virginia red oak and its interior from Canadian rock maple. "If it had to be constructed today," Wilson said, "it would cost $400,000."

With rebalancing and some alterations by the team working under builder Jerry Eagan, Wilson said, the organ's former Dutch Classical sound has taken on a French Romantic quality. "We're talking a darker, warmer, bigger sound that fits nicely in the new space."

Robert Pennells, chairman of Walker & Sons and the original designer of the instrument, was present for its final testing. In terms of sound and placement, Luedders agrees with the designer that their original vision has been realized. "The organ," Luedders said, "has found its ideal permanent home."

@csun | February 16, 2004 issue
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