When many people think of organ music, they envision instruments so powerful that they rattle the fillings out of molars: the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium in Atlantic City, N.J., and the thunderous organ in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, for example.
But most aficionados of classical organ music agree that the finest instruments are the handmade tracker organs built during the baroque period (from about 1600 to 1750) in the Netherlands and Germany. This summer, Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University will have its own tracker organ, made by an Oregon master organ builder on the principles of the exquisite organs from baroque Europe.
In the music world, this is a very big deal.
In the 1960s, John Brombaugh, an electrical engineer and student of acoustics, wanted to learn how those ancient organs had such intimate, pretty and unique voices. He apprenticed with organ builders in America and Europe, studying the instruments’ construction, piece by piece and pipe by pipe, and began building his own.
A tracker organ uses mechanical push rods, activated when keys are pressed, to open valves that let air flow through pipes, as opposed to modern electrical switches. Tracker organs are more sensitive to the organist’s touch, producing a “handmade” tone.
In 1972, he built his ninth organ, Brombaugh Opus 9, for a Baptist church in Toledo, Ohio. Influenced by baroque organs, it has 1,248 pipes ranging from 16 feet long to shorter than a pencil. The case is made of richly colored red oak accented with rare wood, and organ has a bright, crisp, beautifully balanced voice. It’s not as enormous as some, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty.
Brombaugh Opus 9 was purchased and donated to the Green Music Center by B.J. and Bebe Cassin. He is a Bay Area venture capitalist who invested early in many of the high-tech businesses that now rule Silicon Valley.
Brombaugh, 76, has built 66 organs now located in 23 states, Canada, Sweden and Japan. He uses no plywood and fashions all the pipes by hand. His craftsmanship in “voicing,” or tuning the pipes to achieve a proper quality of tone, is renowned.
Schroeder Hall will hold its premiere organ recital this summer, likely in late August, according to Jessica Anderson, Sonoma State’s press liaison. Details will be released when dates are set.