August 28, 2010

Wichita State has a good climate for organ

Halfdan Oussoren didn't so much learn how to tune an organ as he was born into the craft.

Halfdan Oussoren didn't so much learn how to tune an organ as he was born into the craft.

He is from a Danish family that founded the Marcussen & Son organ-building company, still located in the same small southern Denmark town of Aabenraa where it was founded in 1806.

"I've seen organs since I was this tall," Oussoren said earlier this week, leaning over to hold his hand a couple of feet off the floor.

Oussoren brought all that history and know-how to Wichita State University this week to tune a Marcussen organ at Wiedemann Hall.

This isn't an ordinary organ in an ordinary hall.

It's at least 30 feet tall and has more than 4,600 wood and metal pipes — some as big as 18 feet, others the size of a pencil. The organ's woods include European white Oak, Brazilian rosewood and mahogany, which you can't see because it's used on the back panels.

The organ has 65 different stops, which are used to make 65 different sounds.

"It's like an orchestra," said Lynne Davis, an associate professor of organ at WSU. "And the organist is the conductor."

As Davis briefly played the organ earlier this week, melodic sounds filled the empty hall.

Nothing about making such sounds is easy. It has 61 keys for the hands, 32 pedals for the feet.

So how many parts in this organ?

"The best answer is we don't count," Oussoren said.


The organ was built for WSU's 425-seat Wiedemann Hall, and the hall was built for the organ. Both came to life in 1986.

"They're inseparable," Davis said. "This is a very exceptional ensemble of acoustics, echoes, the organ and the hall."

Gladys Wiedemann donated the $500,000 to buy the organ 24 years ago. Today, the same organ would cost $2.5 million, Davis said.

To help protect that investment, the hall is kept at 72 degrees and 50 percent humidity.

Every four years, Marcussen & Son sends an employee across the Atlantic Ocean to tune the organ. Oussoren also made the past two trips.

The price tag for this year's work and Oussoren's travel — paid for by the Wiedemann Foundation — is $10,000.

But if it weren't for the hall's temperature and humidity control, a tuner might have to come as often as twice as year, Davis said.

Oussoren has found only typical small problems to work out with WSU's organ.

"It's amazing how very little," he said. "When I see organs in Copenhagen, Sweden or Norway, there are more problems. The main reason is climate. They keep a good climate here."

Oussoren, 44, has worked on organs since he was 18. The only way to know how to tune the WSU organ is to work on even larger ones, he said.

"There are organs so big we don't even know how many pipes are in them," Oussoren said.

Oussoren's family history with WSU's organ goes back to the instrument's beginning. "My father came over to give the organ its voice — give it the right sound," Oussoren said.

Or as Davis said, "His father voiced the pipes . . . making them speak as they should for the size of the room it's in."

Such talk is common for Oussoren at home.

"We try to talk about other things," he said. "But we do talk about what problems we might have, our experiences, how we solve certain problems.

"You're never finished learning because it's so complicated."

Plus, he said, those talks are "the way we give our experience further on to the next generation."

Speaking of which, Oussoren has two children — 10 and 13. Perhaps someday they will work in the family business?

"Oh, they're not interested," Oussoren said, then added with a smile, "I wasn't interested at that age either."

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