When you order a new car with “all the bells and whistles,” recognized or not, you’re tearing a page from pipe-organ history. Mighty theater organs like the Arlington Theatre’s Wonder Morton — great symphonic machines built during the silent-movie era — not only blow 10 thousand pipes but also shake and whirl a host of special effects like sleigh bells and train whistles. With the early-music revival of the mid-20th century, and its hunger for “authentic” instruments and styles, a lean, neo-baroque sensibility prevailed in the pipe-organ world, accompanied by a retreat from the electronic advantages of modern engineering and entertainment-culture excesses.
It comes as no surprise, then, that when designs were considered for a UCSB campus pipe organ to be installed in the late 1960s, the academic currents of the time prevailed, and a mechanical-action organ made by Dutch manufacturer Flentrop was chosen.
“These organs were built — are built — in the old style, the way that organs were always built before electricity,“ said organist and scholar James Welch by phone last week. Rather than using electronic servos or pneumatics to control the air flow into the pipes, so-called “tracker” organs put the player solidly in touch with the valves. “The trackers are connecting rods that go between the keys and the valves that let the air into the pipes,” Welch explained. “It’s an organ that if Bach were to walk in himself and sit down, he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, sure, this is what I know.’”
UC Berkeley organist Lawrence Moe gave the instrument its inaugural recital in 1972. Meanwhile, Welch was pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ performance from Stanford University. In 1977, he was offered an adjunct professor gig at UCSB, a position he held for 16 years. During his tenure, Welch performed at least 25 recitals on the Flentrop organ and sponsored regular recitals by his students. But Welch’s departure in 1993 marked the suspension of active life for the Flentrop. No one knew the instrument so well, and few have known it since. With a dwindling of music-department interest and funds (and no Sunday service to keep its bellows regularly inspired), the instrument has languished half its life largely unused.
But on Friday night, Welch returns to the keys, stops, and trackers of the formidable Flentrop — his first recital on the instrument since 1997 — for a slightly tardy 40th anniversary performance. The occasion, cosponsored by The American Guild of Organists, will also include a lecture by Occidental College professor and UCSB alumnus Edmond Johnson, who will speak on the mid-20th-century organ reform movement. Expect a tantalizing, varied, and solid program of J.S. Bach and California composers that leaves all bells and whistles behind.
The recital takes place Friday, January 10, at UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Visit music.ucsb.edu.