ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The only full-size Italian baroque organ in the Americas, a 17th-century marvel with 600 pipes and more than 2,000 parts, goes on permanent display next week at a University of Rochester art museum and will be featured in public concerts starting in the fall.
Built in the late 1600s, the 22-foot-tall, 9-foot-wide instrument was rescued from an antiques store in Florence, Italy in 1979 by a renowned German organ builder, Gerald Woehl. He recently sold it to the Eastman School of Music for nearly $700,000, which included its renovation, accompanying research and other charges.
“You can’t find an organ of this kind, this size, this lavish outside Italy,” says Hans Davidsson, a professor of organ at Eastman who is overseeing its installation at the Memorial Art Gallery.
“Three hundred years ago, this was like the most advanced computer and at the same time an art piece,” he says. “The people who built organs at this time were a combination of really skilled artists, craftsmen and actually scientists.”
San Francisco and Ithaca, N.Y., boast two smaller Italian organs from the baroque era, each about 9 feet tall, Mr. Davidsson says.
The school is assembling a diverse collection of historic and modern organs over the next decade to raise its stature as the nation’s premier educational center for organ musicians. The instruments, installed at various sites around town, will make Rochester a hub for organ playing, research and preservation in the United States.
The anonymously built organ and its ornately carved and gilded wooden case was probably created for a monastery, chapel or royal court in Naples or Tuscany. The case, dating from the mid-1700s, is decorated with two 10-foot-tall paintings of flowers in vases and has an elaborate crown featuring a portrait of St. Andrew.
Mr. Woehl first saw pieces of the organ on sale at the antiques store in Florence — the dealer had planned to dispose of the pipes and turn the case into furniture — and painstakingly restored the organ at his workshop near Frankfurt. “It’s the best-preserved instrument of its kind I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Davidsson says.
The organ had to be disassembled to be shipped by boat across the Atlantic. It will be rebuilt by Mr. Woehl next week in the gallery’s historic Fountain Court, but another two months of fine tuning and other adjustments will be needed to bring out its unique sound.
“It’s a combination of very soft, refined vocal sounds and very delicate flute sounds, while the full chorus, or ripieno — which means when you pull out all the stops — is a rich, powerful and silvery cascade of complex elegance,” Mr. Davidsson says.
The organ is to be officially inaugurated Oct. 8 with a performance of “Vespers” by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. Eastman students will offer mini performances every Sunday afternoon, and guest artists and faculty will also give regular recitals.
For Annie Kirk, 24, who is pursuing a master’s degree in organ performance, getting to play such a rare instrument “is pretty spectacular.”
“It really makes things click for a student,” she says.
“Part of it is the purity. It’s like a Renaissance concept — the harmony of the spheres and how it just all comes together. On this organ, people will be able to hear … an ancient tuning system.”