Dobbs Chapel at Trinity Presbyterian Church Atlanta, Georgia Petty-Madden Organbuilders

The American Organist, August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Dobbs Chapel at Trinity Presbyterian Church Atlanta, Georgia Petty-Madden Organbuilders

An Introduction

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, has had a rich musical tradition from its founding. With the arrival of Norman Mackenzie in the early 1980s, this paradigm continued and was fostered not only by this extraordinarily talented young man but also by his mentor and fellow parishioner Robert Shaw. By the mid-'80s, Trinity Church commissioned Petty-Madden to build a new organ, one that was radically different from the previous Austin organ installed there in the '5Os. This new instrument broke ground with its bold singing chorus, its endless palette of tonal color, and its consistently vocal voicing. In a handwritten letter to Bynum Petty, Mr. Shaw praised the organ as "... a superb accomplishment: at one and the same time capable of extreme ranges of color and sonority-yet perceiving a unique human and collaborative quality with both voices and orchestral instruments."

In the ensuing years, numerous concerts have featured this unrepentant "American eclectic" instrument; Stephen Paulus's first organ concerto was written specifically for this organ; the organ played a solo role in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's recording of JaneCek's Glagolitic Mass; and it was featured in two concerts at the 1994 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists.

That the client should commission a second instrument almost 20 years later is indeed a rewarding experience for the builder. From Opus 22 we leap to Opus 53 with the tonal concept being little changed. The principal chorus is at the same time bold yet gentle; there is a certain vocal breathiness in the speech of the flue pipes; the reeds are colorful, quick, and consistent in attack and timbre; the ensembles are tight and cohesive; and the tonal style eclectic.

All of this is wrapped into a tidy case of painted and stained hardwoods, topped off with a silky-smooth mechanical key action. In order to meet the church design team's vision of an organ with minimal visual intrusion into the chancel, the organ case is unusually deep-18 feet to be exact-with the Swell division located behind the Great and Pedal. Since most of the organ is tucked behind a false wall, its physical massiveness is not apparent to the unsuspecting eye.

A Collaborative Process

Planning, designing, and producing an organ typically present new challenges for the organbuilder. If one adds to this list that the client church is one of the country's pre-eminent Presbyterian institutions, that its music director is one of the world's greatest choral conductors-he has two (or is it three?) Grammy awards for his recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus-and that at the time the chapel was only an idea on paper, there could be considerable cause for trepidation. To the contrary and throughout the entire project, mutual trust and respect proved to be the coin of the realm, making working conditions exceedingly pleasant and rewarding. The quality of talent and cooperation gathered around the conference table produced extraordinary results. The chapel architecture is lavishly elegant in its simplicity; the acoustics-even for a space that seats barely more than 200-are as good as it gets; and the organ is ideally suitedboth visually and aurally-for its home.

A Closer Look

Yes, the sounds of the two organs at Trinity Church are the same in concept but radically different in reality. The older of the two exhibits a youthful exuberance and a certain confident impudence that is tempered whenever a moderate-sized audience is present. Speaking on electro-pneumatic (pitman) windchests from two chancel chambers, the 1987 organ boldly asserts its presence in a favorable acoustical environment.

Completely encased, the new tracker organ in Trinity's Dobbs Chapel eloquently displays the effect of time and experience on the core values of Petty-Madden's tonal style. Each voice sings with the beauty of a solo stop, yet each contributes anonymously to its respective ensemble.

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Dobbs Chapel at Trinity Presbyterian Church Atlanta, Georgia Petty-Madden Organbuilders


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