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 temperature 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.
“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.”