Explore Northrop's newly restored organ with 'Pipedreams' host Michael Barone

The Northrop organ, recently refurbished by Foley-Baker, now plays into a space half the size of the original auditorium, with twice the presence.Provided

October 11, 2018

"When the Northrop organ was installed, they made a wise choice: They got the best," says Michael Barone, host of Pipedreams and our in-house organ expert at Classical MPR.

"In the earlier part of the 20th century, the name Skinner represented the Duesenberg, the Lincoln, the Cadillac of organs. It was the prestige builder, and they made fantastic instruments. In the 1930s, they absorbed the Aeolian Co. and continued through the '60s to be, in many people's minds, the prestige builder of organs in the United States."

The Aeolian-Skinner organ that Barone describes is the stunning 7,000-pipe instrument housed at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. When the venue was being restored, Twin Cities organists and organ lovers banded together to add the restoration of the organ to the to-do list. Why? Because it is one of the finest historic pipe organs in the country, and the third-largest of its kind.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone is the host of 'Pipedreams.'
American Public Media

"The original auditorium exceeded 5,000 people and was kind of a cavernous space," Barone says. "It was not really meant for music. But in convocation halls of those days, a pipe organ was an essential element, and the organ at Northrop accompanied events in a grand space like this, most specifically graduations. Most of the time, there were no pipes that you could see, and the console was down in the pit. Who knew?"

Over a three-year period, the nearly 90-year-old auditorium went through an astonishing transformation. At a price tag of more than $80 million, seating was tightened up with improved sight lines and acoustics, and the organ went through a complete overhaul.

"The difference between then and now is that formerly the organ kind of wafted down from the ceiling," Barone explains. "It was in a chamber and spoke through a grillwork above the auditorium. Depending on what the registration was, it could have been the most delicate of pastel hues to mix metaphors or it was like thunder and lightning from above.

"It's kind of like the Sistine Chapel has been cleaned or Chartres Cathedral. Suddenly, you see things that had only been vague references before. You can hear them with clarity and precision and appreciate the delicacy of the tones and the incisiveness of the big sounds. It's really a very different experience. If you know the Northrop's organ from before, you will be surprised, and I hope delighted, by what you hear now, because you surely hear it from a much better perspective than was ever before possible."

Friday night is your chance to hear Northrop's organ as it's never been heard before. It's a celebratory evening with new music for the lovingly restored organ at Northrop by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, as well as the Organ Symphony, by Camille Saint-Saens. Listen to Classical MPR at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, for the live broadcast of the Minnesota Orchestra's concert from Northrop Auditorium.

"It's wonderful that the Minnesota Orchestra is involved in the reintroduction of this great element of the Twin Cities' cultural life, which has been silent and largely unappreciated for far too long," Barone says. "If the Minnesota Orchestra pays attention to this instrument, it must be something substantial."

Intimate Introduction to the Northrop Organ
Host: Michael Barone.
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13.
Where: Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota (84 SE. Church St., Minneapolis).
Admission: Free.

Organist's Open House
Host: Michael Barone.
When: 2-4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13.
Where: Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota (84 SE. Church St., Minneapolis).
Admission: Free.

Northrop's Historic Pipe Organ: A Resounding Success
A new exhibit, located in Northrop's 4th-floor gallery, exploring the history, design and significance of the Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 organ.