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Contemporary music on the Music Centre concert hall organ

by Olli Virtaperko

The new concert hall organ in the main auditorium of the Music Centre in Helsinki was put through its paces in contemporary repertoire for the first time at the solo recital given by organist Susanne Kujala in the Klang concert series on 12 February 2024. The audience, nearly 1,000 strong, was treated to a handsome selection of contemporary organ music, giving full rein to the features specifically designed for this purpose in the Rieger Orgelbau instrument.

Organ recital by Susanne Kujala at the Music Centre, Helsinki on 12 Feb 2024 Schneider – Lievonen – Wennäkoski – Tiensuu – Eggert – Kujala

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After a long and complicated design process, it was decided that the new concert hall organ at the Music Centre in Helsinki was to incorporate several features emphatically requested by composers and performers of contemporary music. These features include the Flexible Wind System, which affects pitch and volume; microtonal stops with 24 and 31 pitches per octave; overtone stops tuned to the harmonic series; a system for pre-programming registrations; and manual opening and closing of stops. These features are best accessed from the main console adjacent to the organ but can also be controlled on the portable console that may be placed anywhere on the stage. Susanne Kujala opted for the latter, audience-friendly and visually informative solution in her recital, although this came at a musical cost, as we will see.

A dive into the deep end of contemporary organ music

The recital began with Auswilderung – Sinfonie für Orgel by German composer Joachim F. W. Schneider (b. 1970), a brisk opening to Kujala’s daunting task – a challenge that we may say now she handled with aplomb. Schneider’s work was firmly rooted in the modernist ethos, making use of colour effects created by wind pressure changes and movements of sound masses upwards and downwards. Using pre-programmed combinations of partly opened stops, Schneider created a rich, noise-tinged and ambivalent colour palette. Clocking in at 22 minutes, the work might have benefited from tightening up structurally, but as an exploration of the potential of this new instrument it was quite feasible.

Ere Lievonen (b. 1972) has perhaps the closest personal contact with the organ of all the composers on this programme. He has been organist of the Fokker organ at the Muzikgebouw in Amsterdam (with 31 pitches to the octave) since 2009. His work Arctic Nocturnes utilises the opening and closing of stops to create undulations laying down a static yet rich texture underlying the musical events above. The expanding quarter-tone melodies and occasional comments in the low register contributed to an austere but pleasant and well-crafted impression.

Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970), one of the most important Finnish composers of her generation, was represented with Gedackt, gedacht – her very first organ work in an already extensive career. She was instructed by Susanne Kujala: “Don’t think of the piano, think of an orchestra”. The composer took heed and produced a work rich in sonorities and colours, orchestral in appearance and making use of the entire dynamic scale of the instrument. The use of flute-like melodic warbles in the high register was a striking and memorable element in the work; this device can be found in Wennäkoski’s other works too, such as the flute concerto Soie.

Organist Susanne Kujala took on a "challenge that we may say now she handled with aplomb", writes Olli Virtaperko. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Overtone stops, circus tricks and orgies of sound

The second half of the recital began with Valoon – a symphony for microtonal organ by Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948), who of all the composers on the programme made the most systematic use of the overtone stops in a microtonal harmonic environment. His typical bubbling energy and musicianship were very evident in this work. Relying heavily on quarter-tones, the music was airy and light, sensitising the listener’s ear to the composer’s precision deployment of his harmonic material.

The second German composer on the programme, Moritz Eggert (b. 1965), made inventive use of registration in Was können wir tun? The tonal, chaconne-like texture chasing around the circle of fifths was so kitschy as to be irksome for the listener, and it was not until the last minute that the ultimate idea of the piece was revealed: the pre-programmed registrations, 90 of them, were flicked through at lightning speed under a melodic texture growing to maximum density. This massively packed final minute with its constantly shifting colours provided a wonderful balance to the preceding cheesy ten minutes. In the end, the work left a positive impression.

The final work on the programme, the flamboyant Aurora Borealis by Veli Kujala (b. 1975), was inspired by the eponymous progressive rock track by guitarist Jukka Tolonen, dating from 1974. In this entertaining and rewarding work, my attention was drawn to the controversial acoustics of the Music Centre, which had performed excellently throughout the recital. The sound of the organ in the hall was crisp yet had just the right level of echo and reverb. This acoustic allowed the metric modulations and polyrhythms used by Kujala to be precisely executed and heard. The audience rewarded this virtuoso performance with shouts of bravo and gave Susanne Kujala a standing ovation for her impeccable performance of this extremely challenging programme.

Notes and observations on the Music Centre organ

The quarter-tone stop proved to be the most often used contemporary music feature on the Music Centre concert hall organ in this recital. Unlike on the main console, on the portable console this stop must be played on two differently tuned manuals that together cover 24 pitches per octave. On the face of it, this is a clumsy solution necessitating constant switching between manuals, but for a virtuoso like Kujala this seemed to be no problem at all. By contrast, the limitations of the portable console were very apparent in the manual opening and closing of stops required in Lievonen’s work, as the process revealed an audible stepwise progression in tonal colour – the wind pressure was not continuously variable.

I noticed this myself when testing the console in September 2023, and Ere Lievonen pointed this out to me after the recital as well. Continuous variability would have required machinery with a greater resolution, which one would assume would not have been an impossible investment. Moreover, the stop knob rods governing the change in wind pressure are unnecessarily short, which further complicates their use. Obviously, the needs of contemporary music were not considered at all in calibrating the active area of the stop knob rods.

By contrast, the possibility of pre-programming the precise positions of the stop knobs was particularly gratifying, as these positions govern the wind pressure fed into the stop. This programming option is a significant addition to the colour potential of the instrument. The Wind Pressure function, allowing for continuous migration of a sound mass upwards or downwards, was not used as much in the recital as I expected, nor was it as effective as I had anticipated. In the Music Centre concert hall organ, the wind pressure regulation interface design is different from that of the organ in Kassel Church, which was built by the same organ builder and served as a model for the Music Centre organ in terms of its contemporary music features. On the Music Centre instrument, the organist adjusting the wind pressure with the pedal does not have a tactile sense of the base level of wind pressure, and the wind pressure is not shown as an absolute figure but on an adaptable scale of 0 to 100. This makes the Wind Pressure function more haphazard, which is a shame.

Of the other features added for contemporary music, it was striking that the stop dividing the octave into 31 pitches (oddly named the ‘glissando stop’) was never used in the recital. One possible reason for this is that the stop only has a range of two octaves and is too low for practical purposes – C3 to C5. When employing spectral harmonies or tall column-like chords, the principal range begins where this ‘glissando stop’ ends. Add to this, as 31-tone specialist Ere Lievonen had noted in testing, that this stop at the Music Centre is erroneously tuned to 30 pitches (!), we must rule that the ‘glissando stop’ fails to deliver. By contrast, the plentiful range of overtone stops on the organ worked faultlessly just as expected, although their harmonic potential was little used in the recital programme apart from Tiensuu’s work.

Susanne Kujala with composer Ere Lievonen at the Rieger organ console. Photo: Olli Virtaperko

Enabler of new ideas

Notwithstanding the critical observations above, the Music Centre concert organ proved to be very usable and quite effective as an instrument for contemporary music. The most important takeaway from the recital was how excellently the instrument performs in contemporary music in the opinion-dividing acoustics. The Music Centre organ is no doubt one of the most significant organs in the world for contemporary music, although it must be said that its competitors are few and far between in the conservative world of major concert halls. If the ambitions of the music of today and of tomorrow had been selected as the first priority in building this instrument, the end result would have risen to quite another level. Yet even as it is, a sum of compromises, the instrument is a significant enabler of new musical ideas.

Olli Virtaperko is a Finnish composer whose new orchestral work for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Music Centre concert hall organ is to be premiered in February 2025.

Featured photo: Olli Virtaperko
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi