History hasn’t always been kind to the University of Minnesota’s Aeolian-Skinner organ, built between 1932 and 1936.
“It’s true that for decades the university spent very little money on the organ,” said Dean Billmeyer, an organ professor since 1982.
As a result, the instrument saw a gradual decline in reliability. “A large, complicated pipe organ like this, with a lot of small working parts, declines gradually,” Billmeyer explained.
The professor was heavily involved with a community group called Friends of the Northrop Organ, even recruiting the services of a volunteer restorer. By 2011, however, the wear and tear of 80 years left the organ in pressing need of refurbishment.
Then came the gutting and $88.2 million renovation of Northrop auditorium. A team of professional dismantlers arrived to break the organ into constituent parts. They painstakingly removed and cataloged 7,000 pipes, along with innumerable bits of wood and metal.
“When they closed the hall in 2011, we had not raised enough funds to redo the organ,” Billmeyer remembered.
So the 1932 instrument became a crated beast. Dismantled, its voice was gone. There was no guarantee of it ever being heard again. Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 — the instrument’s official title — was sent to climate-controlled oblivion, languishing in a campus storage facility.
And there it sat for four years, until a bequest by the late U of M alumnus Roger E. Anderson threw the sleeping giant a lifeline.
A longtime supporter of the Northrop organ, Anderson left up to $2.8 million in his estate for the instrument’s repair. A little more money had been raised through the years, much of it donated by an anonymous U of M alumnus and his wife. Together, these funds enabled a 2 ½-year organ restoration worth $3.2 million.
The results can be heard Friday and Saturday evenings when the Minnesota Orchestra showcases the resurrected instrument.
Major changes were needed to bring the Northrop organ into the 21st century, fit for a new generation of players and listeners.
Michael Barone is the host of Minnesota Public Radio’s nationally syndicated “Pipedreams” program. He knows the Northrop instrument well through many years of listening and making recordings. According to Barone, the organ’s biggest problem was with the mechanisms in the keyboard console, which allow organists to preselect the specific combination of pipes they wish to hear in a particular piece. Those mechanisms “couldn’t be counted on anymore,” Barone remembered.
Now the console’s mechanisms and layout have been modernized, thanks to electronics by Foley-Baker, the Connecticut company hired to undertake the organ restoration.
“One of our principal goals was to preserve the look and feel of the restored console,” Billmeyer noted, “to make it as close to the original as was reasonably possible.”
The organ also got new keys, pedals and controls, including stops, switches and buttons. Together, these technological upgrades make the instrument’s four keyboards easier to play. “It’s a lot more user-friendly,” Billmeyer summarized.
Major changes were also made high above the theater’s proscenium arch, where the organ’s 7,000 pipes are located. That included individually cleaning and revoicing each pipe before re-installation. It also meant replacing the grilles through which sounds pass with a larger, gauze-like membrane.
The result? Sound travels into the auditorium more freely, with less constriction.
The sound was further affected by alterations to the hall itself. The 2011-2014 renovation cut capacity from roughly 4,800 to 2,700, creating a more intimate concert venue. Billmeyer loves the new transparency this gives the instrument. “The new hall is so much better than the old one was acoustically,” he said. “The organ speaks much more clearly and directly.
“It’s like being able to see color for the first time.”
Playing for the future
Barone feels the university could have done more through the years to secure the future of its historic instrument. “They paid millions of dollars to take nips and tucks out of [Northrop auditorium] and turn it into a modern 21st-century facility,” he said. “But they didn’t put money in that budget for the organ.”
In a half-century of covering the organ world, Barone has seen many pipe organs wither for want of proper care and maintenance. Now he worries for the Northrop instrument. “As long as an organ kind of wheezes along,” he warned, “people are often content with it.”
For his part, Billmeyer is hopeful that the Northrop organ will never wheeze again. This time, he said, the university gave careful thought to allocating funds for the instrument’s upkeep. “There’s a budget for maintaining the instrument that’s coming through ticket fees,” he explained.
With the organ’s future looking (and sounding) bright, the professor’s sights are now focused on Friday, when Billmeyer will first put the revived instrument through its paces via Saint-Saëns’ mighty Organ Symphony. His fellow organist, Grammy winner Paul Jacobs, will perform the specially commissioned “What Do We Make of Bach?,” a world premiere by composer John Harbison.
“I think the Northrop instrument would be viewed as one of the very best from the 1930s,” Billmeyer said, proudly. “There’s no real substitute for the sense of majesty and grandeur that you experience listening to a big pipe organ.”
For Twin Cities music lovers, the beast in the attic has been resurrected. And it’s about to roar again.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Celebrating Northrop’s restored pipe organ
Who: Minnesota Orchestra with organists Paul Jacobs and Dean Billmeyer.
When: 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Where: Northrop auditorium, 84 SE. Church St., Mpls.
Tickets: $12-$102, 612-371-5600 or minnesotaorchestra.org.