The soloist for an organ concerto in a traditional concert hall is resigned to being a barely discernible figure to the audience, and, more seriously, uncomfortably distanced from the conductor. So it was a great delight, almost a shock, to see Mattias Wager, organist in the world premiere of B. Tommy Andersson’s new organ concerto with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, sitting at the organ console exactly where a soloist should be, next to the audience, in front of both orchestra and conductor.

This mobile console for the new organ in the Gothenburg Concert Hall (in addition to a fixed console in the traditional position at the back of the podium) is just one example of the 21st century’s reappraisal of – and use of modern technology for – the design and build of pipe organs.

The new organ in Gothenburg
© Ola Kjelbye

This concert, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, was live-streamed the following day. Poseidon, Andersson’s second organ concerto, took as its inspiration Carl Milles’ powerful and enigmatic statue of Poseidon in Götaplatsen Square, just outside the Concert Hall. This statue, from 1931, combines the ideals of Roman antiquity with the neoclassical sensibility of 20s and 30s Sweden. Andersson said he was fascinated by this uniting of old and new, which was also reflected in the organ.

His 30-minute piece isn’t intended as programme music, but lets the unpredictable god of the sea set the tone in uniting old and new stylistic ideals in music. Scored for a symphony orchestra with triple woodwind and a substantial percussion section, there are moments of classical poise (at one moment two keyboard instruments, organ and celeste, quietly accompany each other) but it’s not long before the energy of full orchestra and concert organ erupts again in a furious outburst. 

Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste commented in an interview accompanying the live stream that performing the piece was “like putting two orchestras together, technically quite challenging!”

B. Tommy Andersson
© Arne Hyckenberg

The challenges of putting organ and orchestra together were not lost on Andersson. “Sometimes it’s like a hall of mirrors when the organ flute stop takes over from the flutes in the orchestra and you don’t know which is which,” he told me. After each rehearsal, Andersson spent two to three hours with Wager, perfecting the registration from his initial generic instructions. “On the second day things began to fall into place,” he commented. It helped that Andersson had been an organist before becoming a composer and conductor, and that he has previously written for organ and varying orchestral forces. “I have learned that orchestral sound tends to ‘eat’ organ sound, something I had to compensate for. An organ sound that on its own would be extremely loud can be completely masked – until the orchestra stops playing.”

This concert was the culmination of five years of planning and three years of construction of the new organ. At the start of the project, Hans Davidsson, Artistic Director of the Gothenburg International Organ Academy, led a team considering the possible restoration of the old organ in the Hall. Advice was that this organ would always sound of its time, and that 1930s ideas about organ design wouldn’t meet the needs of a concert hall organ today. So, throughout 2018, it was carefully dismantled and stored, not only because of its cultural and historical significance, but in the hope that a new home could be found for it in due course.

Rieger Orgelbau of Austria was commissioned to create the new instrument. For five years Davidsson led an international reference group, made up of organists, organ builders and researchers working in close partnership with Rieger and project managers from Higab, owners of the building, to give Gothenburg Concert Hall a tailor-made, world-class, symphonic organ.

Rieger was the unanimous choice of the reference group, and a glance at their past projects shows why. Their uncompromising new instruments throughout Europe, the United States and China aim to reference a wide range of organ styles without simply reproducing the past, and this iconoclastic approach encompasses everything from layout, case design and technical aids to the player. This is a company where all the apprentices get a weekly organ lesson during their four-year training, and Rieger takes pride in the fact that everything that goes into one of their instruments – woodwork, metalwork, electrics and electronics – is built in their own workshops.  

The new organ in Gothenburg
© Ola Kjelbye

The French 1880s seamless symphonic style of organ, typified by the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll, was taken as the point of departure. Designed as an instrument equally suited to solo performance and to dialogue with an orchestra, the new organ would include classic orchestral stops such as flute and bassoon. In addition though, as an organ of its time, it would produce sounds that don’t appear in 19th-century stop-lists, such as saxophone and other elements added from American, British and German organ-building traditions. It would also include the many modern technical opportunities to create innovative sounds and tonal experiments that the 19th-century organ builder could never have dreamed of. 

Organ-building involves an engagement with not just the complexities of the instrument but also with the architecture of the building it is housed in. Over the years, changes had been made to the concert space and podium at the Gothenburg Concert Hall for practical reasons, but without a holistic, architectural vision. So, as part of the installation of the organ, the architect’s initial 1935 vision of clean, unbroken walls around the podium was revisited. Panels of the original elegant sycamore maple were brought out of storage and reinstated. Sourcing further sycamore maple, Rieger built and installed new expression shutters within this wall and a new, more open, canopy above the stage, allowing the sound of the organ to flow freely.  

The expression shutters in the back wall (which can be opened and closed by the organist in performance, as well as being closed when the organ isn’t required) hide the organ pipes and all the associated mechanism in a generously proportioned chamber behind. Without the need therefore for a formal decorative façade, Rieger could organise the pipes inside the chamber to create the best and most balanced sound possible: many of the giant bass pipes lie horizontally stacked above the upright ranks of smaller pipes, or mitred to follow a right-angled path inside the space.  

Even so, it is difficult for the sound of the largest pipes to project sufficiently into the concert hall. So not as a gimmick, but as a practical solution, duplicates of forty of the biggest pipes were built, and hidden in the audience. In a concert, about one third of the audience hear – or rather feel – some of the organ sound emanating from under their feet, where these extra pipes lie in the narrow void under the seating, with a dedicated wind supply.

The new organ in Gothenburg
© Ola Kjelbye

To round off the celebrations for the inauguration of the new organ, organists from all 49 municipalities of Gothenburg’s county of Västra Götaland took part in a two-day live-streamed organ marathon. Over 70 organists, both amateur and professional, played with remarkable composure considering that some only had a short familiarisation session with the complex four-manual console in the minutes before actually playing.

These two days confirmed yet again the prodigious range of music that all organists have at their fingertips. From Buxtehude to Bryan May, well over four hundred years of music were represented. Many performers chose to explore the French Romantic repertoire, taking their cue from the organ’s dominant French accent.  But the adaptability of the organ design showed in choices of music by English and German baroque composers, and many of the participants championed the impressive depth of music written by 20th- and 21st-century Scandinavian composers for the organ.  

The sheer range and sophistication of the new Rieger instrument throws down a challenge not only to international recitalists, but to the new generation of composers and performers who are exploring the tonal possibilities of the organ in the creation of contemporary music. And this organ has prompted the creation of another large-scale work for symphony orchestra and organ – a welcome addition to the existing repertoire. 

This article was sponsored by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra