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The renaissance of the world’s largest pipe organ

By AFP - Nov 05,2022 - Last updated at Nov 05,2022

ATLANTIC CITY, United States — You’ve never felt Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor quite like this: in Atlantic City, the largest organ in the world is coming back to life.

The pipe organ in the New Jersey city’s Boardwalk Hall was constructed in the 1920s, during the seaside resort area’s golden age.

But the instrument suffered the wrath of a hurricane in 1944, and wear and tear after years of quasi-abandonment for a while left it unusable. Now, through private donations and careful restoration, it is coming back to ear-pleasing functionality.

From near the stage the antique wooden cabinet looks tiny, but inside it includes a record seven keyboards and rows of keys and pedals that control the pipes, only two-thirds of which are currently in working order.

“It’s an experience that’s hard to really describe,” said Dylan David Shaw, a 23-year-old organist.

“Every conceivable sound of the orchestra that you can think of is available at your fingertips: Strings and woodwinds, orchestral trumpets, flutes,” Shaw said. “Anything you can possibly think of: Percussions, glockenspiel, even a full grand piano in one of the side chambers.”

He added: “It’s a magical experience.”

The history of the instrument, which was constructed by the Midmer-Losh Organ Company, goes hand in hand with that of Boardwalk Hall itself.

The imposing arena facing the ocean has been the site of Miss America competitions, the 1964 Democratic convention, and boxer Mike Tyson fights.

The organ was built “to fill this enormous space with music”, said organ curator Nathan Bryson, who called the “enormous instrument” the “precursor of surround sound”.

 

50 per cent playable 

 

The pipe organ has a stunning 33,112 pipes, the most in the world, in wooden rooms accessible by a narrow staircase and ladders.

By comparison, the famous Grand Organ of Notre Dame in Paris has fewer than 8,000 pipes.

When the organist plays “The Star-Spangled Banner”, listeners feel almost as if their bodies are vibrating with the notes of the US national anthem.

While Atlantic City holds the record for most pipes, just an hour’s drive away in Philadelphia stands the “Wanamaker”, the world’s largest organ in working order that’s inside a Macy’s department store.

Since 2004 a historic organ restoration committee entirely financed through donations has been working to return Atlantic City’s organ to its full sonic power.

Behind the stage, Dean Norbeck, a retired electrical engineer, patiently mounts small magnets on a board, which conduct air in the pipes to produce sound.

Some repairs are easy to identify, but “sometimes it can be tricky to figure out why the pipes are not playing”, Bryson said, and “where the point of failure is along the way”.

For organist Shaw, the instrument is “over 50 per cent playable”.

The total restoration will cost some $16 million, Bryson said. So far $5 million has been raised.

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