Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cathedral of the Holy Name- Chicago

A couple of months ago I was introduced to Dr. Ricardo Ramirez, music director and organist of Holy Name Cathedral, by a mutual friend at a concert. Dr. Ramirez is a wonderful man and a talented musician with quite the resume. In addition to his D.M.A. he holds a grad degree in electrical engineering. Not many organists can boast that kind of versatility! (Well, Naji Hakim). If I recall correctly he did some collaborative work with a dance troupe as well! In any case, I took him up on an offer to visit the organ. His secretary called, responding to my message, while we were at SS. Faith, Hope and Charity to say Dr. Ramirez could show me to the organ at 1pm. It was 12:40 and I was in Winnetka. "That's great," I said, and without a moment's delay we hopped in the car and headed down the Kennedy. People were returning from lunch so traffic was a bit hectic. I hopped out a few blocks up State Street and ran down to the Cathedral- only five minutes late. But alas, he was not there. I was a little upset with myself but the docent sent me around the block to the rectory. And there he was.

Dr. Ramirez took me up to the gallery which is, understandably, under lock and key. I'm always amazed how often small Catholic churches in tiny towns with small "toasters" for organs have both the loft and the console locked. In this case it seems pretty defensible- considering how many people (of all types) wander in and out of the Cathedral and considering what's on the other side of the door.

In the gallery, of course, is the largest Flentrop in the US. It also happens to be the largest mechanical-action organ in Chicago-land. A projected conceived by then-music director Richard Proulx, it was built in 1989 at the Flentrop workshop in Zaandam, Holland and generously funded by Alice O'Malley Robinson as a memorial for her husband. Pictures, as usual, don't quite do it justice. Visually I think it looks quite striking in the room, which itself has been tastefully and sensitively renovated. (A great example of how styles can be blended!) The organ is absolutely huge- physically and sonically, coming in at 117-ranks. And recordings don't do it justice either, mostly because there aren't any. Dr. Ramirez explained that there are no recordings of this superb instrument because for the longest time the acoustics didn't do it justice. I had to agree. I went to Mass at Holy Name over four years ago and recall the sound of the room was awfully stifled. However, much has changed. The entire floor has been redone- no more carpet, all terrazzo- hooray! I'm guessing this will usher in a new era wherein the world may soon be able to encounter something of this instrument's amazing sound. They have quite the choir too!

But, there is no better way to know an instrument than to play it. And play it I did! (Not so much as I would have liked). There were ongoing First Friday devotions in the Eucharistic Chapel so I was limited to smaller combinations or more delicate sounds. Nevertheless it was quite amazing. Ricardo gave me a brief demonstration. Some interesting highlights: certain chorus reed stops can be turned so that they are controlled by a pedal lever. Though they aren't on separate chests they act "effectively as ventil levers." This certainly comes in handy with French Romantic literature. Also, on the swell sits one of the finest voiced 1' flutes anyone will encounter. It's not at all shrill, not like olden-times Reuter upper-work- this positively glistens. Ricardo played a little Messiaen excerpt to show off the stop. Though there is no mechanical assistance he said it is never terribly heavy. A four manual tracker looks quite formidable! And speaking of which, glancing at the console you think you're looking at a giant 17th Century North-German instrument. Not so- this has all kinds of reeds, foundations, and mutations. And some of the voicing seems downright warm. In noodling around for a bit I found that the flutes have a fairly rich sound- and the celeste is hardly anemic. I expressed my surprise and Ricardo concurred, "there's nothing you can't play on it."

...Which brings me to the one downside- there are absolutely no combinations. So, the stops are all there (and they are quite large and pull out about 2 feet) but without a diligent assistant or eight arms it would be a bit difficult to play...oh...let's say Howells. But all reservations aside it's something positively amazing to behold. I understand every instrument has its limitations. As my old organ professor once said, "every time you choose one thing you necessarily loose another, in getting something new you loose something that was before." In this case it seems that the choice for the unmatched connection and control that mechanical action provides (especially for this size of instrument!) precluded the option of combinations.

The Holy Name Flentrop, like all good church organs, supports both the liturgy and the great solo literature. For more immediate sound at the front of the sanctuary Holy Name has an additional instrument. This choir organ, a 1981 Casavant (revoiced by Martin Ott in the later '80s), sits up on the south side of the sanctuary behind the ambo. Unfortunately I didn't get to hear that one. But this is just one more reason to return! The AGO has an excellent website from a 2006 convention which contains information, specs, and multiple pictures of the Cathedral organs. Check it out at

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