Classical Minnesota Stories

Hear Northrop's organ sing again with the Minnesota Orchestra live on Classical MPR

The newly restored organ at the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium has 7,000 pipes.University of Minnesota

October 11, 2018

In December 1932, the Minneapolis Symphony and organist Charles Courboin teamed up to christen Northrop Auditorium's new $30,000 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.

"A combination like this could not fail to give the highest artistic satisfaction. We learned quite definitely what we are to expect from the new organ," the Star Tribune reported approvingly then.

The instrument was one of the great concert organs in America, and it served valiantly for decades. By the 1960s, however, it had deteriorated to a point where it could fail midconcert. Patchwork restoration ultimately kept the organ playable, but a full restoration had to wait until the recent three-year-long renovation of Northrop Auditorium.

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

Fundraising for the organ restoration was completed separately from fundraising for the auditorium renovation. After the necessary several million dollars were secured, the organ was meticulously removed piece by piece from storage and every part sent to Connecticut to be restored by Foley-Baker and Associates.

Now, finally, the organ is ready to sing again.

This week the Minnesota Orchestra plays at Northrop to help celebrate the organ's return, including a live broadcast on Classical MPR at 8 p.m. Friday. Its program features strong echoes of that December 1932 performance, even starting with the same curtain-raiser: an orchestral transcription of the Bach Chaconne, by Jenö Hubay. ("I am not so sure that tinkling triangles would fit into the Bach scheme for the music," wrote the politely skeptical reviewer, "but … the composition was given a magnificent rendering.")

After Hubay's take on Bach, concertgoers will hear a new piece by composer John Harbison. His What Do We Make of Bach? for orchestra and obbligato organ will be premiered this weekend.

Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs will solo.

"John Harbison probably possesses as profound a knowledge of Bach's music as any living composer," Jacobs says. "He's spent years studying and conducting many of the cantatas and other works. And it shows in his own writing, which draws upon various musical themes from Bach's life."

Organist Paul Jacobs
Organist Paul Jacobs will play the newly restored organ at the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Ficarri Zelek

What Do We Make of Bach? consists of three parts played without pause. In them, Harbison takes inspirations from a variety of forms dear to Bach and lovers of Bach's music: chorale-variation, fantasia, antiphon, chorale and fugue.

Jacobs is a shrewd choice for soloist, given his intense affinity with Bach. At 23, to honor the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Jacobs gave a marathon performance of the complete organ works. That performance lasted 18 hours.

Despite his delight in music of the past, Jacobs also is clearly a fan of the new Harbison work, praising its "marvelous sense of drama, mastery of counterpoint and deep feeling — and the colorful dialogue between organ and orchestra is excellent."

To sum: "Any friend of Johann Sebastian Bach is a friend of mine."

To prepare for his performance, Jacobs is planning on spending "many hours" at Northrop, getting to know the instrument's countless stops, pistons and pedals.

"Organists must be the most adaptable of all musicians," he says.

When you realize that he has to get acquainted with an instrument that boasts 7,000 pipes ranging in size from a few inches to 32 feet, it's hard to disagree.

Generations have passed since the Minnesota Orchestra enjoyed regular access to such a mighty instrument, and not many of us have had the chance to hear works for pipe organ and symphony orchestra live. But now that one of America's great concert organs has been restored in our own backyard, it seems likely that future audiences will be exposed to this kind of repertoire more often.

(In fact, this weekend after intermission, Dean Billmeyer, organ professor at the University of Minnesota and longtime advocate for the Northrop organ, takes to the console to perform Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, famous for its pipe-organ part.)

Jacobs feels that this breaking down of walls between the organ world and the orchestra world is important, going so far as to say that it "cuts to the heart" of his work as performer and evangelist.

"The rich musical culture involving the organ can be life-changing," he says. "For all of us, there are many more exciting discoveries yet to be made."

At the end of its review, the Star Tribune called the historic 1932 Minneapolis Symphony performance "one of the most striking concerts we have had this season." It seems very likely that history is about to repeat itself.