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(October 26, 2007)

An Organ in Flight

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

One week from tonight, shortly after the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra has packed up and left the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, the all-night sleight-of-hand will begin.

A crew of up to 10 will clear the stage and, by midnight, begin what they hope will be a two-hour process of moving a 21,000-pound musical instrument into place for two weekend concerts by the Westchester Philharmonic.

The instrument is the Flentrop organ, a musical device that is 36 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 32 1/2 feet tall. It's so large, it has its own built-in staircase.

That's a lot of organ.

But the team won't muscle the Flentrop into place. Instead, the organ - which operates on the principle of air flowing through pipes to create sound - will be floated onto the stage on a cushion of air.

When it is not in use, the Flentrop organ is stored in the Organ Room - a temperature- and humidity-controlled space behind a 33-foot-tall door about 50 feet from the Concert Hall stage.

When the organ is needed, about a half-dozen times a year, Bennett Marrow, one of three production coordinators at Purchase, oversees the process.

"It's the basic principle of an air-hockey table, upside-down. And it moves," he says.

The organ sits on a large platform. Under the platform are 12 air bearings. Think of them as metal boxes into which huge truck-tire inner tubes are fitted. Each tube has a series of tiny holes on the floor side.

When the bearings, or casters, are filled with air, the air flows out of the holes and pushes against the floor - at a constant air velocity of 10 pounds per square inch, Marrow says - and the organ rises.

Then technicians begin slowly pushing the Flentrop onto the Concert Hall stage. For the Philharmonic Concert next weekend, an entire orchestra will be seated on the stage, so the Flentrop will be closer to the back wall than it might be for a solo organ recital.

If all goes as planned - barring a blowout in one of the dozen $800 air casters, which has happened on occasion - at 2 a.m., organ tuner Peter Batchelder will step forward and put the Flentrop through its paces, tuning each of the organ's 3,721 pipes.

Batchelder said it should take about four hours. The Philharmonic's rehearsal is at 10 a.m.

The organ tuner considers the moving process - for a 20-ton organ that was designed to be stationary - "quite an engineering feat."

"It wasn't ever intended to be moved when it was going to be at Carnegie Hall," he says.

The Flentrop was rejected by Carnegie as not in keeping with the hall's acoustics. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1970s, it was purchased for the still-to-be-built Performing Arts Center.

"It has to be moved around absolutely flat," Batchelder says. "The platform can't deflect or twist - it has to be absolutely rigid - because it's a mechanical-action organ.

"When you play on a key, it moves a series of little wooden strips through square action parts, which go up into the organ and pull open a valve, which may be 30 or 40 feet away from you. It's operating the valve directly by mechanical linkage - and that linkage and series of linkages for each key will go out of adjustment tremendously if the floor twists under it."

Using the tools of his trade - screwdrivers, tuning irons or tuning cones, pliers and a dollar bill to unclog some of the reed pipes - Batchelder spends a good amount of time inside the organ, making adjustments while an assistant at the keyboards holds the notes down.

Batchelder, who plays the organ as an amateur, takes care of instruments of all sizes, from one-stop organs to those with more than 200 stops.

The Flentrop has 45 stops, which are mechanisms that control which pipes are heard and which pipes are silent. One stop might put 50 pipes into play, creating a sound that a composer wants for a particular piece of music.

A full tuning is an all-day or all-night job, says Batchelder, who has been tuning organs for 40 years.

"Every key on every keyboard has more than one pipe attached to it," he said, adding "however many stops there are, that's how many pipes there would be on each key."

"For every one of those stop knobs, there can be anywhere from 56 to 300 pipes," he says.

He has worked on the Flentrop for 20 years, and like any good doctor with a longtime patient, Batchelder knows what's likely to go out of tune.

Still he starts by checking the tuning of every single pipe in the organ from the keyboard, making a list of anything that is out of tune.

Even before his patient utters its first "Ahhh," Batchelder assumes he'll have to tune each of seven sets of reed pipes. They operate in a fashion similar to a clarinet or saxophone, with a vibrating reed inside.

A concert like the performances of Saint-Saëns' Organ symphony helps to raise the profile of the pipe organ, which is not on the radar of most Americans.

"A lot of people don't know these pipe organs are still around," Batchelder says. "We're not dinosaurs. We still exist."

The man who has played this particular Flentrop more than anyone else is Anthony Newman, an organ virtuoso and an emeritus professor of music at the Purchase College Graduate School of Music.

When Newman first heard the Purchase Flentrop at its factory in Holland, he wanted stops added to make it possible to play French baroque music.

A world-renowned organist and sought-after soloist with dozens of recordings to his name, Newman says he knows of just one other portable pipe organ. The instrument at the Trocadero in Paris, he says, moves "very slowly" on a train rail.

He calls the Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 in C Minor - which will be played next weekend by his former Purchase colleague Robert Fertitta - "the most-often played work with organ."

"It's certainly his greatest piece and I've personally played it maybe 25 times," Newman says. "The organ part is simple but grand because it's based on big chordal effects."

Newman says the Flentrop company - a major organ-building firm - is known for building "beautiful but gentle organs."

"No one goes 'Wow' when they hear it," Newman says, in part because the acoustics in the Concert Hall are less conducive to the organ than, say, an echo-filled marble cathedral or even an organ factory in Holland. Pipe organs like an echo or reverberation, he says.

Still it's a great organ, says Newman, who continues to serve as music director and organist for St. Matthew's Church in Bedford, where he also programs the popular Bedford Chamber Concerts. The next concert in the series is Nov. 7 and features two Beethoven piano trios: "The Ghost" and "Archduke."

If the Flentrop organ were a movie star, Newman says, it would be Jimmy Stewart.

"Tall, thin, a little bit refined and a little bit soft-spoken," he says.

And Jimmy Stewart played Charles Lindbergh, who also floated on air.