Nashville Symphony's Andrew Risinger | Unsung Nashville

Pedal to the Metal

For Andrew Risinger, bringing the Nashville Symphony’s mighty organ to heel is a matter of time, talent & some serious muscle memory

How do you get to Turner Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Also, it’s not a bad idea to bone up on how to fix the occasional stuck pedal, says Andrew Risinger, Organ Curator for the Nashville Symphony.

Playing the organ comes naturally to Risinger, a preacher’s kid from Tyler, Texas. He’d started out with piano lessons and, when his father was moved to a church with a pipe organ, he gravitated to an instrument with a little more oomph.

“I was 13 and already liked listening to recordings of pipe organs, and I knew I wanted to learn how to play one. It was motivating for me, because it’s more … well, organic,” he says.

Puns aside, Risinger was drawn to the sounds made by air going through pipes as opposed to being electronically reproduced via speakers.

“It really got into me, how the work between the hands on the keyboards and the feet on the pedals make such an array of sounds,” he says. “You learn to work the multiple planes, and then play notes with your feet, and it’s really reorienting yourself to making music with a large arrangement of options as opposed to working with one long keyboard and a sustaining pedal. You have so many sounds to pull from — it’s almost like an orchestra of its own kind, where you can combine sounds or use solo colors. The bigger the sound, the more voices you can combine … there are just so many options.”

This isn’t a skill set that just anyone has.

“You have to train your hands to do what they do, and your feet to do what they do, and somehow synthesize it,” Risinger says. “Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so a lot depends on a certain amount of muscle memory; it’s hard to explain, but I’m glad I’m wired for it.”

Part musician, part action hero

So what does a curator do? Well, in Risinger’s case it means playing concerts, keeping tabs on the organ’s multiple moving parts — and being ready to leap out of his seat if something goes awry.

“It’s a breathing thing, made of wood, leather and felt, as well as metal,” he says. “I pay attention to what’s going on so that it gets its regular tuning, but also if changes in tempIMG_6701erature or humidity necessitate a repair as well. If you hear an air leak coming out of somewhere, in a hall with such sensitive acoustics, that’s a problem.”

He relies on the Milnar Organ Co. out of Eagleville for most repairs, but can spring into action if needed.

“We haven’t had any pipes fall or anything dangerous like that, but once we had a guest recitalist who played Low C on the pedal board — and it got stuck,” Risinger recalls. “It’s on springs, and didn’t come back up. A friend of mine, who is an organ tech, was sitting with me right there and we jumped up and went to the stage’s front. We loosened the screws and pulled out the pedal board – fixed it right there! So there was a short pause in the concert and then we were fine.”

On another otherwise uneventful evening, another guest recitalist began pressing keys and pedals … and no sound.

“The stops were out, the console appeared to be on, but there was no sound,” Risinger says. “A crew member suggested disconnecting and reconnecting the data cables, and it turned out there was dirt in the data connection. Voila! Everything went on just fine from there.”

So, even for organ curators and musical pros, sometimes you just have to unplug it from the wall, wait 30 seconds and then plug it back in again.

“Well, it is all computerized,” Risinger admits. “So there is a certain reset capability to its basic operations. It’s hard to remember that it is a machine in lots of ways, because to us it’s so much more.”

Organ consoles can’t swim

The opulence of its concert hall is in no way duplicated in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s basement. That area of storage closets, chairs on hand trucks and a row of covered pianos is the lair of tech crews, who ensure that everything is sent up top before the Nashville Symphony takes the stage.

It’s also the area that took on 5.25 million gallons of dirty water in May 2010, when the Cumberland River jumped its banks and joined a rising water table to cause $2 billion in damage around Nashville. Total losses to the hall were around $40 million, including two Steinway pianos and the $2.5 million Martin Foundation Concert Organ’s console. That was a body blow to  Risinger, who is responsible for not only playing the organ, but also its general health and well being.

Floating pianos and other debris destroyed the Schermerhorn Symphony Center's organ console during the May 2010 floods.
Floating pianos and debris destroyed the organ console during May 2010 floods. (Photo courtesy Nashville Symphony Orchestra.)

“The console was completely ruined,” he recalls. “There was nothing to save. Pianos and other equipment floating around slammed into it. You could see in photos specific damage, like sharp keys that were knocked loose, and all the battering it took from being underwater. It was a nightmare.”

Replacing the irreplaceable

There was a lot of discussion about how to move forward after the flood, but the organ presented a different set of problems than did pianos and other damaged items. For starters, it wasn’t as though a new model was sitting somewhere in a showroom, just waiting to be shipped to Music City. The organ was built by San Francisco’s Schoenstein & Co., whose crew had spent several weeks in the hall getting the instrument ready for its September 2007 debut. Organ builder Jack Bethards, whose nameplate adorned both the old and new instruments, would have to pull together parts from as far away as England, where the keyboards for the console were made. The stars aligned, however, and the new organ was on the Schermerhorn’s stage by December 2010.

“They salvaged a couple of brass pieces, including a crank on the bench, but not very much,” Risinger says. “But to look at the new one, you couldn’t really see the difference. I had to keep reminding myself that it was a replacement. I hate to sound trite, but all we had to do was plug it in and it was ready to go.”

There were a few modifications, however. The old instrument was too large to fit through stage doors, so had to be raised and lowered on the piano lift below the stage for each use. The new console’s footprint is slightly smaller, so it can be rolled offstage if necessary — such as another occasion when its basement home should become uninhabitable.

The new console has been a success in every way. So much so, in fact, that Risinger can hardly contain his pleasure — and pride. “Everything you need is right there with you,” he explains. “Some consoles you feel like you have to reach really far out to get to everything, but this instrument is very intimate. It has pistons that activate multiple stops, so whoever is playing can bring on a lot of different sounds without lifting his of her fingers from the keys. Bach had to have others standing by to make that happen, and they probably got yelled at. Things that took a lot of force now are done with a flick of a finger or tap of a foot. Everything about this organ is really special.”

Even with some electronic help, playing the organ still means a lot of hand-eye-foot coordination.
Even with some electronic help, playing the organ still means a lot of hand-eye-foot coordination.

 

If I’ve never listened to organ music, where do I start?

For organ music of an orchestral style, Risinger recommends digging into the 19th and 20th Century French repertoire, particularly the Finale from Symphony I by Vierne.

“It has a very strong theme that you hear repeated throughout,” he explains. “That’s good for the audience, because it has its own wonderful rhythm that drives all the way through the piece. By the time you reach the climactic ending, it has built up all this steam and excitement. I think it’s one of the great pieces for organ from that genre.”

Road trips & listening tours  

The Schermerhorn’s organ is unique in many ways, and that’s a testament to the efforts Risinger and many others put in long before it was even built. Risinger, who’d been gracing organ consoles in Nashville since 1991 (he’s now at West End United Methodist Church) after finishing organ-related undergraduate and post-grad degrees at Baylor University and the University of Alabama, had been tapped by the late Kenneth Schermerhorn to be part of a search committee of sorts.

“When plans were being made for the hall, Kenneth said he knew for sure it would have to have an organ, and he said he wanted a pipe organ,” Risinger recalls. “He knew the importance of that, because there is some great orchestral repertoire which includes an organ. [President and CEO] Alan Valentine asked me to get on board and help choose the builder of that organ, so a group that included Paul Scarbrough, the hall’s acoustician, went to cities with major instruments to look and listen.”

The pipes behind the stage are just the visible ones — others are throughout the hall.
The pipes behind the stage are just the visible ones — others are throughout the hall.

That tour included stops in Birmingham, England; Chicago; and Salt Lake City, where Schoenstein & Co., the company eventually selected, had just installed an “enormous” instrument into a conference center that seated 22,000 people.

“What we have here is big for this space, but much smaller than that particular instrument, which is huge,” Risinger says. “We really looked at the nuts and bolts of a lot of instruments in a lot of facilities, keeping in mind the design and footprint it would have in the Schermerhorn.” The whole process had a Goldilocks feel to it; some tones were too high, some too low, and others “just didn’t make sense at all” to Risinger. The end result is an organ that “goes high” in terms of pipes rising up, but that also has pipes behind panels to either side of the main floor seating area and under the first set of boxed seats. It’s an encompassing layout, and the sound does the same.

“When the organ is playing you feel this underlying purr from the floor, and I have friends who say they love it when I or a guest artist pulls out certain pedal stops, because it makes their chair vibrate. It’s really something that our audience not only hears, but feels, the music.”

Got power? The organ console's pedal array certainly does.
Got power? The organ console’s pedal array certainly does.

That includes the pipes behind the stage and throughout the hall, some of which are enclosed in their own separate chamber and can be controlled via shades that open and close. This is important because pipes only speak at a set volume.

“The bass shoes above the pedalboard allow those shades to open and close, which gives a sense of crescendo and decrescendo from those pipes,” Risinger says. “And we do have one stop that sounds a bit like a theater organ’s flute. It’s a big, fat round sound, and we typically use it when we’re playing the accompaniment to silent films.”

Don’t even get him started on the pedal division, which for the uninitiated means the sounds played with the feet. “It’s just huge,” he exclaims. “It can really expand on the sounds of the orchestra.”

 

 

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