Shake, Rattle and Roll with the Wurlitzer
By Richard Scheinin

March 15, 2009 — There were two story lines in play during Symphony Silicon Valley's extremely fine and fun concert Saturday at the California Theatre.

One story had to do with guest conductor Paul Haas, who shook up the orchestra, opening up new expressive possibilities. The other had to do with the night's soloist, Jonas Nordwall, who nearly unhinged the San Jose theater from its foundations with his finely wrought, yet supercharged performance on the California's mighty Wurlitzer organ with its 1521 pipes.

When Nordwall sat down at the 1925 Wurlitzer console, which has a glazed-honey finish and 330 levers and buttons — not to mention four keyboards stacked like layers of a wedding cake — he looked like Captain Nemo at the control panel of the Nautilus. Haas, up at the podium, turned around, glanced down at Nordwall — the platform on which the organist was situated had been hydraulically lowered toward the stage pit — and snapped a salute.

Greetings, Captain.

Then came the plunge into Felix Alexandre Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra, from 1878. Nordwall began this work of sacred razzle-dazzle with a thunderclap, answered by a flash from Haas and the orchestra, generating a Nordwallian lightning strike to the keys.

Thus began the conversation between organ and orchestra, creating a double orchestra, really, given the Wurlitzer's vast sonic possibilities. Drawing on one rank of pipes and then the next, Nordwall would almost imperceptibly enhance the violins by drawing upon the organ's string effects. Or he would subtly underline the flutes with the Wurlitzer's flute sounds, always mixing and matching sonorities, in other words, to blend with the orchestra, step by step.

What a show: buttons and levers, keyboards and foot pedals, some resembling bus accelerators and allowing Nordwall to calibrate the volume of every note and nuance. The pipes, of course, are hidden inside the theater's walls. Sometimes the sound would hit the audience from the right — and sometimes from the left. Sometimes you couldn't tell where it was coming from: a new (or maybe an old) kind of Surround Sound.

In the first movement, Nordwall and Haas pushed the beat like tandem downhill skiers. The second movement was liquid gold, with Nordwall melting through the orchestra. In the third, he punched out rapid-fire notes with pizzicato articulation, rising with the orchestra to a loud and imperial finish.

The audience loved it, and the Portland-based Nordwall, a real grandmaster of the organ arts, responded with two solo encores. They were "Music of the Night" (from "Phantom of the Opera") and "Stars and Stripes Forever," which unleashed the Wurlitzer's cymbals, piccolos and trumpets.

Thanks must go out to Hayward-based Ed Stout and Dick Taylor, the master organ technicians who have restored this remarkable instrument.

This isn't leaving much room for Haas' story. A San Francisco native, the 30-something conductor lives in New York and has been carving out a go-to reputation with established orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and in cutting-edge, contemporary music settings.

Throughout Saturday's program (which repeated once, on Sunday afternoon), he drew the orchestra through nitty-gritty explorations of the scores, building out from the details to tell big, gutsy stories.

In Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," which opened the program, his flowing-waters baton shaped a mysterious whispered response from the players. Incrementally, the performance ascended to a rare fervor.

Closing the program, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 ("The Great") grew in waves: pastoral, light on its feet, pouncing. A startlingly articulated sound was emerging, a thoughtful blending and highlighting of sections that seemed on the verge of releasing this already fine orchestra's "inner voice."

If only Haas could come back, we might get to hear some Wurlitzer-sized surprises.