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A World-class Pipe Organ is Planned for Concert Hall

When the Kansas City Symphony performs at the Kauffman Center there’s one instrument they won’t have to bring with them. It’s a 5,548-pipe organ that will be a visual centerpiece in the concert hall, as well as an integral part of the musical experience.

“Kansas City will have the finest concert hall organ in the United States,” promises organ consultant James David Christie. “We’ve chosen a mechanical action organ in the French romantic tradition that will have 79 stops and 102 ranks. It’s very large, but not too large for the room. And this organ is lacking for nothing. We’ll have everything we need to do the entire organ repertoire and to serve music very beautifully.”

Putting a ‘halo’ around the orchestra

Pipe organs are standard components of concert halls around the world today. So, when planners began to explore options, they turned to organ consultant James David Christie to guide the complex decision-making that lay ahead. Christie is an internationally renowned organist who has completed fifty tours of Europe and performed often in Canada, Asia, Australia and Iceland. He has also served as organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1978.

“Selecting an organ for a concert hall is a very complex process with many variables to consider,” Christie explains. “In a symphony hall, the organ must be able to do three things. First, it must be able to work with an orchestra. This includes a role as an equal partner, and it must also have the ability to perform ‘under’ the orchestra. I call that the ability to ‘put a halo’ around the orchestra. And, of course, it must be able to dominate an orchestra when needed in organ concertos or orchestral works where the organ must soar above the orchestra. Second, the organ must be able to work with a choir or choral group. And, third, it must be capable of playing the great solo organ repertoires.”

For the Kauffman Center project, Christie studied many existing concert hall organs and assessed their features — what worked, what didn’t? “It’s about determining how the pipes will ‘speak and sing’ within our space.” Many conversations took place about the variables, needs and the various styles of organs that were possible.

Selecting a committed partner

Once the style of instrument was determined, Christie assisted in the in selection of the organ builder. The Kauffman Center wanted a world-class instrument, so many options were considered, including possible purchase of an existing pipe organ that was for sale. Finally the decision was made to go with a pipe organ that would be custom-designed with the room and match the unique needs of the site. Before the organ builder choice was finalized, architect Moshe Safdie and acoustician Yasu Toyota were brought into the process. Safdie, Christie and Ken Dworak later traveled to Quebec to discuss space specifications, the aesthetic demands and the facade of the organ.

The 125 year-old firm Casavant Frères from Quebec, Canada was selected to build the organ for several reasons. First, they are renowned for quality organs that have stood the test of time. Second, they have an excellent sense of the architectural and tonal requirements of organs. And, Christie says, “Casavant is truly committed to this project, as they feel it will be an essential part of a stellar concert hall. They are going above and beyond with their support and care on this project because of its importance.”

Next steps in the process fall to the Casavant team, who will design the architectural look of the organ, console, the key action, and the pipe scalings. This work will be done in close connection with the building design team, the organ consultant and the acoustician. Casavant will need approximately 24 months to complete their work, not including installation time needed on site in the concert hall.