Mighty Wurlitzer's resurrection

Renovated theater organ pulling out all stops for Orchestra Iowa megaconcert

Diana Nollen
Published: February 26 2014 | 3:05 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:12 am in

The stars have finally aligned for the blaze of glory Timothy Hankewich envisioned for Orchestra Iowa's triumphant return to the Paramount Theatre in November 2012.

He just had to wait a little more than a year for the Mighty Wurlitzer to be back in fine voice. The "new" 1928 console, original pipes and auxiliary instruments that make the organ sing have now been fully renovated after the Floods of 2008 tossed the original console onto the stage in a sea of fetid waters.

The console was Wurlitzer’s Opus 1907. The next one made – Opus 1908 -- has been decorated to look like its mighty predecessor. The original pipes have been restored, the wiring has been reworked, and a new below-stage bunker and platform have been created to not only store and raise the console, but to enable a quick escape if the Cedar River should rage over its banks again.

The Wurlitzer had a trial run at the end of the orchestra’s Holiday Spectacular concert in December, and is ready for the orchestra's Signature Symphonic concert Saturday (3/1) at the Paramount. The historic instrument will be featured in Sir William Walton's 9-minute Te Deum, written in 1953 for Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, a 90-minute work known as his "Resurrection" symphony.

If You Go:

  • What: Orchestra Iowa: "Resurrection" Signature Symphonic concert
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (3/1)
  • Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
  • Tickets: $19 to $49, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Orchestraiowa.org
  • Program: Walton's Coronation Te Deum, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”)
  • Artists: Orchestra Iowa, Chorale Midwest, Des Moines Vocal Arts Ensemble, Neal Marple on the Mighty Wurlitzer and vocal soloists soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme of Baltimore and French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne

An extension is being added to the front of the stage to accommodate the largest gathering of musicians in Paramount history: 97 orchestra players, 120 singers from Chorale Midwest and the Des Moines Vocal Arts Ensemble, two vocal soloists and the organ. The Wurlitzer console is so large, however, that it will be stationed in the wings where the stage managers typically sit, so it won't be readily visible to the audience.

"The console takes up 10 square feet, so it eats up too much space" to be onstage, Hankewich says. "You're going to feel it as much as hear it. There is so much air moving through those pipes -- especially in the lower register. There are frequencies that you might not hear, but you will feel."

Neal Marple, 44, of Cedar Rapids, is thrilled to be pulling out all the stops for this monumental orchestral occasion.

"This is not your typical theater organ fare, but the Wurlitzer does a pretty good job of sounding like a classical instrument, too," he says.

MMarple spends his days as director of technology at Mercy Medical Center, but studied organ performance at Juilliard in the early '90s. He grew up in Cedar Rapids and has played the former console many times. He says the restored instrument is even better.

"It's like playing a brand-new organ, even though it's from 1928."

Being offstage means he won't be able to hear everything clearly, so he'll have to rely on his eyes, rather than his ears.

"If I'm offstage, or even away from the hall, there's a (sound) delay that the organist experiences, so you have to count and you kind of have to ignore everything you're hearing," he says.

Instead, Marple will have to watch the maestro's baton and trust the beat he's seeing. "It all syncs up when the sound fills up the auditorium," he says.

Both concert pieces "will showcase the entire ensemble like they've never been heard before," he says.

Hankewich agrees.

"If you were to describe this entire program in one word, it would be 'epic,' " Hankewich says, adding that the overall tone will be "uplifting, joyful and spiritual."

"The music of Mahler is the standard by which all orchestras measure themselves, because of the virtuosity and stamina demanded from each player," he says.

Hankewich can't wait to put it all together.

"Of my eight years here, this is the concert that I've been most excited about, because it’s very rare when you get the opportunity to perform this work. ... Finding the musicians who were available and being able to finance this production are reasons why this is such a rare occasion."

Mahler began writing his "Resurrection" in 1888 and conducted the finished work in 1895 in Berlin. It not only explores the afterlife, but gives rare life to incorporating an organ into a symphonic work.

"I can probably count the number of piece for organ and orchestra on one hand," Hankewich says. "Aside from the concerto repertoire, there's just a few pieces out there. Organ was mostly incorporated as an additional orchestral voice to bolster the sound and volume, but rarely is the organ featured front and center as the solo attraction."

In the Mahler, Hankewich says the organ "only makes its really grand appearance in the last five minutes of the work."

It's much more prominently featured in the Walton, which opens the concert with the organ joining the orchestra, double choir and extra fanfare brass in the audience.

"The Te Deum has been a favorite piece of mine for at least 15 years," Hankewich says. "I could listen to that piece until my ears bleed. It's extraordinarily grand and British and splendid."

It's sung in English, while the Mahler is sung in German.

"Even the chorus is used as much as an orchestral color as is the organ, in many ways, in the Mahler," he says. "(The two choirs) are featured prominently at the climax of the piece, but they are featured almost as an additional orchestral color."

He says the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines ensembles are similar in makeup and are a good fit for the program's requirements.

"Both choruses pride themselves on a cappella singing, which is crucial for this performance," he says. "The harmonies are very chromatic, very tight and very exposed. The chord progressions are so complex that remaining on pitch is extremely challenging, which is why we reached out to Chorale Midwest. It's the sort of work they do on a regular basis."

Hankewich is confident the combined choir will be able to rise above the instruments in volume.

"It takes a lot of voices to compete with 97 musicians playing full-out," Hankewich says. "While you can increase the odds through amplification, it's just not the same. We might still need to boost them with microphones, but really, there's nothing more powerful than a chorus that can hold its own against a full symphony orchestra."

The result will be exciting for the audience, as well as the musicians, he says.

"I can't wait for the people to hear the climax of the symphony, when the choir is singing full-bore, as is the orchestra and the organ. It will be jaw-droppingly stunning," Hankewich says. "Similarly, when the brass erupts in the audience for the Walton Te Deum, there's just going to be smiles on everybody's faces.

"I've been talking to musicians who have been counting the days before we start this set. This is a very rare occurrence, and everybody knows it."

Patrons who want to hear more of the Mighty Wurlitzer can stay in the auditorium after the concert for a 10- to 15-minute recital. Marple is choosing music that will showcase the instrument’s theatrical bells and whistles that won’t be used in the classical concert.

“It will definitely show that the Wurlitzer can be an orchestra unto itself,” he says.

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