Bales Recital Hall
Organ Recital Hall is One of the Finest in the Nation
by Kay Albright
The afternoon sun streams through stained-glass windows, and vivid colors dance across the pipes of a 35-foot-high pipe organ. The 72-foot-high building with walls 2 feet thick provides perfect acoustics for this one-of-a-kind instrument.
The Dane and Polly Bales Organ Recital Hall has the distinction of being one of the finest facilities in the country for organ music. That's because every facet of the building has been selected to provide the optimum acoustical balance for the organ, christened by its maker as "Hellmuth Wolff, opus 40."
The new facility was planned in reverse of the usual way: The contract for the organ was signed before the building was designed. "We found ourselves in the most unusual position of having everything exactly as we would wish," said Hellmuth Wolff of Wolff and Associes-Ltee. of Laval, Quebec, a company widely considered to be among the leading organ builders in the world.
"All the conditions come together for the realization of a project with no artistic compromise whatsoever," said Wolff. "It is not every architect who is willing to be instructed by an acoustician and an organ builder."
Wolff waxes lyrical when he describes the organ. "It is an organ to wrap up this century and, we may hope, to carry us into the next. The organ's heart is what we have come to call among ourselves `historically authentic Wolff.'"
Robert F. Mahoney and Associates of Boulder, Colo., was the acoustical consultant for he hall, and the Topeka firm of Horst Terrell and Karst Architects designed the building.
"Unfortunately, very few spaces exist in the United States that are dedicated to organ music. In Europe, you seem to find them every three feet," said James M. Higdon Jr., director of the organ and church music division at KU.
"Americans are strange. They want their concert halls to be like their living rooms. Organ music was not composed for living rooms. It was composed for spaces like this."
Higdon guided the project, although a number of KU people were involved. At his first meeting with Mahoney, Higdon was able to provide a concrete example of what he wanted.
"The acoustics are modeled after Saint-Francois-de-Sales in Lyon, France. I had made a recording in the church, so I just handed Bob my CD and told him that's what I wanted," Higdon said.
Every decision about the building was made with the acoustics in mind. From the thick concrete walls to the special hardwood veneers on the seats, the idea was to make sure that the audience was comfortable but still able to hear the music the way the composers intended.
"It is primarily a teaching space and secondarily a concert space," Higdon said.
The three-manual organ has mechanical key action and electric stop action. It has 45 stops, which include both French and German reeds as well as exotic stops, such as those that emulate singing birds or the human voice.
Even the supply of air to the organ can be changed according to the composition. The air supply can be steady or variable.
Higdon explained that early organs were pumped by hand by students or the indigent. "Composers knew that there would be a variable air flow. Our students have the option of playing the piece as the composer would have heard it or with a steady air flow."
The hall has state-of-the-art recording equipment available to students for their lessons, rehearsals and concerts. "It is a very student-friendly recital hall," Higdon said.
Another modern addition to the organ is a small television screen connected to a camera that can be focused on conductors of musical groups assembled on a platform below the organ. Organists playing concertos with a small instrumental ensemble or choral group will be able to follow the conductor.
Despite the organ's size and appearance, Higdon said, it is actually a low-maintenance instrument. "There is very little that can go wrong with this organ." The key to its maintenance is the environment. The hall is maintained at a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity to protect the organ's wood components.
The visual aspect of the hall was not overlooked. The carefully neutral walls and seats highlight the three stained-glass windows in the front of the hall and the rich mahogany and butternut pipe shades that give the organ an ornate look.
The windows were designed by Peter G. Thompson, KU dean of fine arts, a painter whose expertise is in color. They are a celebration of rich color and light based on a geometric formula. Two of the windows are 12-foot squares, while the center window is 2 feet wide and more than 37 feet tall.
Wolff was so impressed with the window designs that he asked the dean to design the ornamental woodwork on the organ. Thompson designed the pipe shades on the organ and the ornamental pipe railing behind the organist's bench so they reflect the design elements in the windows.
The Bales Recital Hall was constructed with private funds. Dane and Polly Bales, Logan, gave more than $1 million to construct the organ and hall. The Hansen Foundation, Logan, also made a substantial contribution toward the hall. Construction on the hall started in fall 1994.