The «Servants» of our «Queen»
The organ is the largest instrument that is heard in the concerts of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich. But who actually takes care of it?
4764 pipes, 25'500kg in weight and 67 sounding stops – these figures belong to the instrument that has been enthroned at the head of the renovated Grosse Tonhalle since the 2021/22 season: our Kuhn organ. This season, the «Queen of Instruments» will be used in twelve concerts, such as the second International Organ Days Zurich, where it will take centre stage for three days. For this to be possible, however, much has to be planned, considered and prepared in advance.
The organ builder as supervisor
In order for the organ to be ready for every concert, maintenance and tuning work must be carried out. This task is taken on by the Davos-born organ builder Stephan Wioland of Orgelbau Kuhn AG. He has been looking after the organs in the Tonhalle since 1996 – so he also regularly maintained the previous instrument. And how does tuning work? «It's a complex matter and requires an exceptionally good ear,» Wioland explains. «Various devices are attached to the pipes where detunings are corrected by length adjustments. Depending on how out of tune the organ is, individual stops are retuned, which can take different amounts of time.» And how could the instrument become severely out of tune? «The room temperature in the Tonhalle plays a central role,» says Wioland. So it must not be too cold, but also not too warm in the hall. Since the redesign of the house, the environment is ideal for the instrument.
The Artistic Directors of the International Organ Days Zurich
Once the instrument is ready, the organists can arrive to practise on it. To make sure this works, Tobias Willi, organ professor at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK, is often ready in the middle of the night. When all the concerts are over and the hall is empty, he introduces the musicians to the peculiarities of the organ. He also introduces the instrument on request as part of guided tours and ensures that it is played regularly – which he enjoys: «Of course I enjoy being able to play such an instrument. I admit that the first time I practised alone on the organ, I arrived at 10.30 p.m. – and when I looked at the clock again, it was already 2.00 a.m.!»
"I find the organ incredibly beautiful in sound. The Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich can be proud of this instrument. It offers an enormous number of possibilities, and you are simply happy as a player."
Tobias Willi about the Tonhalle organ
Since this season, Tobias Willi has been the organ keeper and artistic director of the International Organ Days Zurich together with Christian Schmitt, who has been instrumental in the design of the organ for four years and also inaugurated it last season as focus artist. What does that mean? They jointly design the programme for this festival An exciting task, because «it is suitable for the entire repertoire», says Christian Schmitt. «Bach, pre-baroque or romantic music, it all goes extremely well, and they have also thought of modern music. According to the latest technology, you can also make loops and connect instruments like synthesizers for 21st century music. You can also play and record instantly because the organ has a computer.»
The financial supporters
«It is the beautiful, full and warm-sounding fundamental tone of this instrument and the tremendous variety of sound, which is ideally suited for solo performance as well as for playing together with other instruments and with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, that never ceases to amaze you,» also enthuses Hans-Peter Fricker, president of the association «Friends of the new Zurich Tonhalle Organ». The association's goal is to make the instrument sound as often as possible so that it «steadily grows in fame and popularity». The first fruit of this work was the three continuous organ days at Whitsun 2022 – a format that will now take place annually.
The idea of founding an association to make such organ days possible arose in discussions between Fricker and the vice-president and treasurer of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich, Hans G. Syz, and the president of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich, Martin Vollenwyder; they are now all members of the board. In total, this consists of seven members, and a mini-office supports them in the administrative work. And how exactly does this association make the organ «sound»? «We have committed ourselves,» says Fricker, «to bear the direct costs for the five concerts of the Organ Days. That means the board is primarily busy raising money.» In addition, the board is in close contact with the artistic directors. Together, they plan a varied programme with outstanding organists – all in the service of the «Queen».