Silhouetted by the shimmering halo of the west rose window of Notre-Dame de Paris, the cathedral’s famous great organ awaits restoration after a devastating fire on April 15. “Pipedreams Live! – Organ Recital Celebration of Notre-Dame de Paris” at the Meyerson Symphony Center on November 17 celebrates the Great Organ and gives North Texas organ enthusiasts a chance to be part of the restoration.
The recital, part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Opus 100 Organ Series, is a tale of two organs. It will feature DSO resident organist Bradley Hunter Welch, Philippe Lefebvre, one of the three titular organists of Notre-Dame de Paris, and Shin-Young Lee, a former student of Lefebvre who is married to a Notre-Dame organist.
During the concert, there will be an announcement from the stage to allow people to make voluntary donations for the restoration. “We shared the anguish of seeing Notre Dame burn, but now we can come together and celebrate the resurrection of space and the organ,” Welch said. “Music is a wonderful thing, but when you can connect people to a place, it makes it even more meaningful.”
Welch became the DSO’s resident organist in 2018. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, he first discovered the power of the instrument while on a church excursion with a pipe organ. “For me, even before I started piano lessons, I was always fascinated by the sound of the organ,” Welch said. “I think it’s the huge range of possibilities that makes it an exciting instrument for me.”
Welch first heard the Lay Family Concert Organ while a student at Baylor University. In 2000, he played the organ for the first time in the Dallas International Organ Competition. Welch admires the instrument for its sound and the role it plays in the concert hall.
“It was really early in the re-visioning of the organ in a concert hall,” Welch said. “You can hear this organ create a full wall of sound, which you need to stand tall with the orchestra and choir. It also has plenty of bass to fill out the deep sound of orchestral instruments.”
As resident organist, Welch supervises the organ and performs on a variety of DSO concerts. “The organ is sometimes a solo instrument, but when I play with the orchestra, I’m a member of the ensemble,” Welch said.
The 4,535-pipe instrument is an American relative of the Grand Orgue de Notre-Dame, with its romantic French influence. “Both are instruments known for their massive sonic impact,” Welch said. “The Secular Family Organ has many stops that speak with a French accent. They’re both impressive and I think it has to do with the space they live in,” Welch said.
Lefebvre, organist at Notre-Dame since 1985, credits the heroism of the Paris firefighters with saving the cathedral and the Grand Orgue, making the fire another chapter in the extraordinary history of the instrument. “The fire just stopped at the nave,” Lefebvre said. “The organ didn’t have any water. We were lucky for that.”
Friedrich Schambantz built the first organ of Notre-Dame in 1403. This organ was replaced between 1700 and 1738. It was improved several times, using the pipes of the earlier instruments of Notre-Dame and relying on the best traditions of French organ building. About 40% of its 8,000 pipes date from the 18th century. Modernizations of the organ and its links with the past make it a versatile instrument. “You can play the music of the era with great sound,” Lefebvre said.
The organ survived the French Revolution and the two world wars. One of its world-renowned organists, Louis Vierne, died while playing the Grand Orgue in a recital in 1937. Olivier Latry’s rendition of “La Marseillaise” at the Grand Orgue united France in mourning following a terrorist attack in November 2015. “When you play Notre-Dame, you play with centuries behind you,” said Lefebvre.
The architecture of the cathedral is an important part of the majesty of the great organ, the sound reverberating in the long nave of the cathedral. “The acoustics of the church are so good. You play the sound of the church,” Lefebvre said.
The pipes and the acoustics are Lefebvre’s main concerns for the restoration of the organ. Although the organ did not suffer water damage like the chancel organ of the cathedral, a dust of wood and lead particles covered the organ. “All the pipes are full of this dust,” Lefebvre said. Lefebvre explained that sometime next year the pipes will be removed, cleaned and restored. During the hot Paris summer, the dust in the pipes remained dry. Humidity changes in the cathedral and the structural integrity of the cathedral will determine the timing of pipe removal.
Dust plays an important role in how the Grand Orgue will sound after restoration. “It will be different at the start,” Lefebvre said. “When they restore the roof, they will use the same stones, so it will change the acoustics.”
The stones used to rebuild the roof will be cleaned, eliminating centuries of dust. Cleaner stones mean cleaner sound. “We need dust in the church,” Lefebvre said.
Welch has a keen interest in the restoration and its impact on the organ. “The bottom line is that it’s done with the highest quality and with the safety measures to prevent it from happening again,” Welch said.
Lefebvre was unable to enter Notre-Dame de Paris in the months following the fire. He gives concerts and recitals to raise funds for the restoration and to keep the essence of the cathedral alive. “When Notre-Dame burned, everyone cried,” Lefebvre said. “It’s not just for the money. It’s for the soul and spirit of the church.”
CONTINUED: Dallas Symphony Orchestra