Like the mythical Phoenix that rises from its ashes, the 5-manual 106-rank Adrian Phillips pipe organ has undergone a remarkable rebirth. For the Phillips family, who rescued the instrument in 1974 from neglect and disrepair, witnessing the rebirth of this instrument in its present form represents the realization of a lifelong dream.
At a larger level, however, their newly-installed instrument realizes a dream that many organ builders have had for decades: to conceive a pipe organ equally adept at playing theatre organ repertoire, classical literature, symphonic music, and orchestral transcriptions. Many have taken up the challenge, but very few have been able to accomplish the task. This instrument powerfully demonstrates that such an organ can be successfully created.
The organ was originally built by the Midmer-Losh organ company between 1923 and 1925 as Opus 4920 for the Atlantic City High School in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The high school instrument was designed by New Jersey Senator and Atlantic City native, Emerson L. Richards, for whom pipe organs were a great
The original instrument totaled 75 ranks, and became the largest pipe organ ever installed in an American public school. The instrument was housed in six chambers with the following divisions: Great Unenclosed, Great Enclosed, Solo, Orchestral, Floating, Choir Division I, Choir Division II (borrowed from the Floating division), Antiphonal, and Pedal Unenclosed, Pedal (enclosed in Solo).
Over the course of the next several years, various changes and additions were made to the instrument, bringing the organ to a total of 125 ranks. Throughout the years that the organ played in the auditorium, many public concerts were given, including by resident city organist, Arthur Scott Brook. After the high school project was completed, Senator Richards went on to design and build the world's largest pipe organ: the 7-manual, 455-rank Midmer-Losh at the Atlantic City Convention Hall.
Unfortunately, the high school organ along with the building itself fell into such a state of disrepair that much of the original pipework was beyond salvage. In December 1974, Adrian W. Phillips, Jr. (who himself had been a student at Atlantic City High School and was class organist of 1941) was visiting his relatives in the area for the holidays and learned that the high school organ was scheduled to be removed and discarded. Adrian and his son, Adrian W. Phillips III, went to the school to investigate the instrument and decided to purchase it on the spot. The organ was removed from the school, placed in storage in New Jersey, and
gradually transported to Phoenix over the next six years.
In late 1980, Adrian and his family found a new site for a home located in the Doubletree Canyon area of greater Phoenix. In 1981, a new home was built on a lot with space for a music studio to be constructed at a later date. In 1984, additional pipework was acquired from the original Longwood Gardens estate, once owned by the Pierre S. DuPont family. During the next decade, Adrian also acquired various organ parts to be used in the restoration process of the instrument.
In 1999, planning commenced for building the music room that would house the organ. Construction started in October 2000 and was completed in July 2001. The music room measures an impressive 178 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 24 feet high to the apex of the building. In order to accommodate the organ’s massive 32-foot pipes, two pedal wells were constructed on the east end of the room, which sit four and six feet below the level of the main floor. With the music room constructed, the organ restoration began in January 2002.
The Phillips family contracted with long-time Phoenix resident and noted theatre organist Lyn Larsen to oversee the rebuilding and reinstallation of the instrument. All of the organ's components were painstakingly restored from the ground up. This process continued through the end of 2006 with a crew of four full-time organ technicians working under the direction of Mr. Larsen. Additional pipework was obtained from a variety of sources to complete the new tonal design of the instrument.
The organ currently has 106 ranks (totaling 6,694 pipes) that speak from seven pipe chambers. Three chambers (Orchestral, Floating, and Choir) are
situated on the west end of the music room, with four chambers (Solo, Upper Great, Lower Great, and String) speaking from the opposite end of the room.
Like the pipework in the instrument, the original Midmer-Losh console was in a state of extreme disrepair when the Phillips family acquired it in 1974. As the
reinstallation of the organ progressed, a great deal of work was done to rebuild the impressive 5-manual organ console. Ken Crome of Reno, Nevada, repaired and refinished the original casework and built a new fallboard and stopjambs. The keyboards were completely rebuilt, and Syndyne stop actions installed. A Uniflex 2000 computerized relay system (often cited as the most versatile relay in the industry) was installed by Phoenix resident Al Young to control the instrument.
The first sounds of the instrument were heard in November 2003 with just a few ranks playing on the west end of the room. In May 2004, with 35 ranks complete, the organ made its public début to the American Guild of Organists with 130 people in attendance. During the next two years, the organ was completed on the west end of the room, and construction began in the chambers on the east end. The four chambers located on the east end were completed by the end of 2006.
A REVOLUTION IN ORGAN DESIGN
The resulting instrument represents a true revolution in organ design. Notably, when the plans were first drawn up for the reinstallation of the instrument, much thought was given to how to create a truly versatile instrument capable of performing an unprecedented variety of repertoire. The Phillips family wanted to have an instrument that could successfully interpret the gamut of classical and symphonic repertoire, orchestral music, as well as theatre organ works.
Creating such an instrument is a frequently sought-after, yet rarely attained goal. Indeed, organists have often expressed frustration when approaching an instrument that is rigidly locked into one specific musical style. Because of the way the instruments are designed, many theatre organs have difficulty playing classical repertoire convincingly. Conversely, many classical organs struggle to recreate the lighter and more orchestral music so often associated with the theatre organ. These limitations are not surprising, given that many instruments are designed to handle a specific type of music. Coaxing an organ to recreate music of a style it was never designed to play is akin to the age-old dilemma of the square peg and the round hole.
To that end, two very important decisions were made early on that would allow the Midmer-Losh to become an instrument equally at home playing classical,
symphonic, orchestral, and theatre organ repertoire. First, the organ was reinstalled primarily on unit chests. The unit chest design--a hallmark of theatre organ building--allows the organ's various ranks to be playable at any pitch from any of the instrument's five manuals (keyboards) and pedal. Second, and equally as important, the winding systems were redesigned to ensure that enough of the ranks were independent of each other so that a variety of tremulants (vibrato) could be used throughout the organ.
Among the ranks added to the organ during the reinstallation were a select handful of theatre organ pipework from various builders, including Wurlitzer, Kimball, Barton, and Robert-Morton. Every care was taken so that all of the organ's voices from all of the manufacturers would blend well together and create a unified and musically successful sound.
The result is an instrument that is truly the first of its kind, in that it beautifully synthesizes the best of symphonic/classical organ design with the best of theatre organ design. When played as a classical organ, one is immediately reminded of the so-called "English cathedral organ" school of organ building, with its solid Diapason choruses and broad, majestic chorus reeds. Similarly, for symphonic playing, the organ abounds with string tone (29 ranks), color reeds and flutes. And when played theatrically, the organist can find every nuance contained in the most refined of theatre organs.
At bottom, the organ's revolutionary design works because it makes sense musically. Like a chameleon, this instrument can seamlessly switch among various styles, remaining faithful to each musical school of thought without the slightest compromise.
CLICK HERE for a complete specification and chamber analysis of the Midmer-Losh
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