Orchestra Hall’s organ among the world’s finest

A must-have amenity for world-class symphony halls is a top-level pipe organ, and Symphony Center has an excellent example. 

“It’s a very fine instrument,” said Grammy Award-winning American organist Paul Jacobs, who has served as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra many times. He will return March 17 and 19 to Symphony Center for a set of concerts featuring Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 4 in F Major, Op. 4, with guest conductor Jane Glover. (The program also will be performed March 18 at Edman Memorial Chapel in Wheaton.) 

Jacobs described Symphony Center’s 1998 Casavant Frères Opus 3765 organ, which has 44 stops and 3,414 pipes, as one of “moderate size,” especially when compared to the instrument with 8,264 pipes, for example, in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

“But it has everything that is needed, and it can really pack a punch,” Jacobs said. “There is a lot of power when it is called for on the instrument. And that’s just due to voice and wind pressure and all that. You can have an organ that is bigger in terms of the number of pipes but is not as effective.”

The Symphony Center organ is a “very complete instrument” that can handle a wide range of repertoire, according to Jacobs. He quickly named some of the stops that he finds most appealing. “The reeds are fiery and exciting,” he said. “The strings are sensuous and lyrical. The flutes are bubbly. There is a very satisfying palette of color available to the organist.”

Orchestra Hall’s original pipe organ was installed in 1905, shortly after the venue’s opening the year before. That instrument was constructed by Lyon & Healy, a Chicago firm now known for its world-class harps. At that time, it manufactured a wide range of instruments, entering the organ business in the 1890s. The largest existing organ assembled by the firm can be found at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W. Jackson Blvd.

The Orchestra Hall instrument was rebuilt by Frank J. Sauter and Sons in 1946, and it remained in use until 1967. After discussions began that year to restore the organ, it was discovered that it had been damaged during work on the hall the previous year. So an electronic organ was pressed into temporary service until 1981, when M.P. Möller Inc. installed a new three-manual, 74-rank organ as part of a renovation of the hall costing more than $3 million. It incorporated more than 3,000 pipes.

As part of a larger and more extensive overhaul of Orchestra Hall beginning in 1995 that led to the Symphony Center complex, the Möller organ was removed and transported to Casavant Frères in Quebec, Canada, one of the world’s most respected organ firms. The company overhauled and enlarged the instrument, resulting in an instrument with 3,414 pipes, including a 16-foot-tall wooden contrabass pipe, and 44 stops, which control the mix of pipes and regulate the tonal colors.

This instrument was installed in 1998 and dedicated on Feb. 18, 1999, marking the conclusion of the $110 million Symphony Center project.