November 25, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 5

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    Rockefeller Chapel’s new organist has set his sights on reviving old traditions, refurbishing instrument

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    In the shadow of the University’s Skinner organ, its master talks of infusing it with new life. William Neil, who was appointed in mid-September as organist for Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, is on a mission to restore the instrument to its original, magnificent state.

    An organist and harpsichordist for the National Symphony Orchestra, Neil will oversee the restoration of the chapel’s organ as well as perform at religious services and University ceremonies.

    Neil believes the instrument’s restoration will revitalize performances in the chapel. He said Rockefeller Memorial Chapel used to be known as the place to go to hear major musical works. The chapel attracted the most talented musicians and provided a dynamic atmosphere for live recordings. Neil said he wants to reclaim that reputation. “I’d like to see some of those events return, possibly expand that idea with some associations I might make in Chicago. I would like to do recordings in this place,” he said with conviction.

    The first step in improving the sound for performances has been accomplished. During the mid-1980s, loose tiles in the chapel were replaced, and the building’s interior was sprayed with a sealant to improve its acoustics.

    “The main thing in the way of going beyond this point is getting this beast fixed,” Neil said with affection for the instrument; “it’s a masterpiece.” Built in 1928, the organ “has sounds of a symphony orchestra.” However, leaks in windchests, worn leather and an outdated console have made it unreliable for performance.

    Neil likened the effect of the organ’s decline to the inadequacy of a conductor directing musicians who are leaving the room. “All of a sudden he gives the downbeat, and the brass section goes to lunch. It’s a nightmare,” Neil said. “Note by note (these deficiencies) will render the organ silent.”

    The chapel’s organ is one of four of its kind. The others reside at the University of Michigan, Princeton University and Yale University. Currently, the organ at Yale is the only one in original condition. Once restored, the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel organ also will produce the sound for which it was originally designed.

    “The organ was built to play romantic music rather than baroque,” Neil said. During the 1970s, pipes of the English Choir division were removed and sold. In their place, new pipes were added to make the organ more suitable for playing baroque music. However, the result was a set of sounds, or “voices,” that did not blend with the rest of the instrument.

    “The true art of building an organ is making all of the voices blend together,” he said. During the past few years, the University has located and purchased about 75 percent of the original English choir pipes that had been removed and acquired by churches two decades ago. The remainder of the missing pipes can be reproduced.

    Once restoration is completed, Neil hopes to invite world-renowned musicians from across the United States and Canada and revive the tradition of live recordings in the hallowed place.

    To realize his vision, Neil will rely partially on his own reputation as an acclaimed performer. Proceeds from three concerts Neil will perform will go toward the organ’s refurbishment. An estimated $1.5 million is needed to restore the organ.

    The Rev. Alison Boden, Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and a Senior Lecturer in the Divinity School, was happy to have Neil–who has worked with such legends as Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Slatkin and Mstislav Rostropovich–join the University. “We were very excited to receive his résumé because of his reputation,” she said.

    “Bill thinks expansively of how the organ can be introduced to more people, how to make the organ an instrument that more people value and how to make it a vehicle for spiritual worship,” said Boden, who called Neil an innovative artist with a positive outlook.

    He is a staff member who cares about all aspects of chapel life, said Boden; not only does he attend meetings about music, but he also contributes to discussions about liturgy planning and the chapel program as a whole.

    “The spirit is engaged by music, and he is interested in introducing more people to the potential that it has to engage their spirits.”