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Bales Recital Hall

Organ Recital Hall is One of the Finest in the Nation

by Kay Albright

The afternoon sun streams through stained-glass windows, and vivid colors dance across the pipes of a 35-foot-high pipe organ. The 72-foot-high building with walls 2 feet thick provides perfect acoustics for this one-of-a-kind instrument.

The Dane and Polly Bales Organ Recital Hall has the distinction of being one of the finest facilities in the country for organ music. That's because every facet of the building has been selected to provide the optimum acoustical balance for the organ, christened by its maker as "Hellmuth Wolff, opus 40."

The new facility was planned in reverse of the usual way: The contract for the organ was signed before the building was designed. "We found ourselves in the most unusual position of having everything exactly as we would wish," said Hellmuth Wolff of Wolff and Associes-Ltee. of Laval, Quebec, a company widely considered to be among the leading organ builders in the world.

"All the conditions come together for the realization of a project with no artistic compromise whatsoever," said Wolff. "It is not every architect who is willing to be instructed by an acoustician and an organ builder."

Wolff waxes lyrical when he describes the organ. "It is an organ to wrap up this century and, we may hope, to carry us into the next. The organ's heart is what we have come to call among ourselves `historically authentic Wolff.'"

Robert F. Mahoney and Associates of Boulder, Colo., was the acoustical consultant for he hall, and the Topeka firm of Horst Terrell and Karst Architects designed the building.

"Unfortunately, very few spaces exist in the United States that are dedicated to organ music. In Europe, you seem to find them every three feet," said James M. Higdon Jr., director of the organ and church music division at KU.

"Americans are strange. They want their concert halls to be like their living rooms. Organ music was not composed for living rooms. It was composed for spaces like this."

Higdon guided the project, although a number of KU people were involved. At his first meeting with Mahoney, Higdon was able to provide a concrete example of what he wanted.

"The acoustics are modeled after Saint-Francois-de-Sales in Lyon, France. I had made a recording in the church, so I just handed Bob my CD and told him that's what I wanted," Higdon said.

Every decision about the building was made with the acoustics in mind. From the thick concrete walls to the special hardwood veneers on the seats, the idea was to make sure that the audience was comfortable but still able to hear the music the way the composers intended.

"It is primarily a teaching space and secondarily a concert space," Higdon said.

The three-manual organ has mechanical key action and electric stop action. It has 45 stops, which include both French and German reeds as well as exotic stops, such as those that emulate singing birds or the human voice.

Even the supply of air to the organ can be changed according to the composition. The air supply can be steady or variable.

Higdon explained that early organs were pumped by hand by students or the indigent. "Composers knew that there would be a variable air flow. Our students have the option of playing the piece as the composer would have heard it or with a steady air flow."

The hall has state-of-the-art recording equipment available to students for their lessons, rehearsals and concerts. "It is a very student-friendly recital hall," Higdon said.

Another modern addition to the organ is a small television screen connected to a camera that can be focused on conductors of musical groups assembled on a platform below the organ. Organists playing concertos with a small instrumental ensemble or choral group will be able to follow the conductor.

Despite the organ's size and appearance, Higdon said, it is actually a low-maintenance instrument. "There is very little that can go wrong with this organ." The key to its maintenance is the environment. The hall is maintained at a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity to protect the organ's wood components.

The visual aspect of the hall was not overlooked. The carefully neutral walls and seats highlight the three stained-glass windows in the front of the hall and the rich mahogany and butternut pipe shades that give the organ an ornate look.

The windows were designed by Peter G. Thompson, KU dean of fine arts, a painter whose expertise is in color. They are a celebration of rich color and light based on a geometric formula. Two of the windows are 12-foot squares, while the center window is 2 feet wide and more than 37 feet tall.

Wolff was so impressed with the window designs that he asked the dean to design the ornamental woodwork on the organ. Thompson designed the pipe shades on the organ and the ornamental pipe railing behind the organist's bench so they reflect the design elements in the windows.

The Bales Recital Hall was constructed with private funds. Dane and Polly Bales, Logan, gave more than $1 million to construct the organ and hall. The Hansen Foundation, Logan, also made a substantial contribution toward the hall. Construction on the hall started in fall 1994.

A Case Study in Design Collaboration Among the Arts

by Steven A. Scannell

[Outside of the Bales Recital Hall] One of the most satisfying aspects of the Bales Organ Recital Hall's design is that it is such a successful collaboration among many different branches of the arts. Due to this collaborative effort, there are many who can proudly claim a measure of authorship in the completed building. The need for collaboration was apparent from the beginning and it has continued through to the end.

HTK Architects was selected to provide the design services for this project in April 1993. The University had already selected Robert F. Mahoney & Associates as acoustical consultant and Wolff & Associates as the organ builder. HTK's team consisted of Joe Terrill as principal-in-charge, Gary Karst as HTK's director of design and Steve Scannell as project manager. Terrill and Scannell are both KU alumni and were particularly excited about the opportunity to add to the proud history of their alma mater.

The process of design began with the collation of information about the Lied Center and entering it into computers as CAD files, for use as underlays and references during the initial design stages. Simultaneously, Bob Mahoney was working with James Higdon, professor of organ, and Hellmuth Wolff and James Louder of Wolff & Associates to develop sketches of several basic volumes which would be most conducive to desired acoustics, based upon existing successful spaces.

The entire design team met for several days to participate in design and review sessions. The team was many and varied in its membership, and included the following persons, all of whom contributed directly to the design of this project. Many others contributed at various points in the process.

The first activity of the design team was to verify the goals of the project. The primary goal was to create a world-class facility which would achieve the optimum acoustics for organ music. Mahoney and Louder presented their design criteria, goals, principles and concepts, specifically focusing the entire team on the unique needs of organ music and the Wolff instrument, in particular.

HTK then developed independent designs, based upon the information gathered during the program review. The group reviewed the design alternatives; good ideas were retained and refined, bad ideas were discarded. Eventually, an acceptable design was developed.

Numerous design challenges were resolved creatively. Supply air is delivered to the west galley ceiling by a mechanical duct, concealed within what appears to be a cross-over "choir loft", just north of the tall stained glass window in the south galley. Supply air is delivered into the hall through large open slots at the bottom of each sidewall, just above the concrete collonade beams. Return air travels through openings on the bottom of the stepped faces of the wood-framed ensemble platform at the lower front level of the hall. This arrangement both conceals the HVAC system, which is required to maintain a 70-degree and 50% humidity level within a very tight tolerance, and allows the air flow to be extremely slow, so that the sound of air movement will not be noticeable.

Another unique feature is the massive nature of the construction. To retain the low music frequencies, mass is needed to reflect and sustain them within the hall. The central ceiling, which is also the roof structure, consists of 10" thick precast concrete planks spanning custom-designed steel tube roof trusses. The side galleries have ceilings, in addition to roof structures, of 10" precast concrete planks, forming a massively-contained plenum space. The gallery walls are 18" thick reinforced and fully-grouted concrete masonry, with a brick cavity-wall veneer outside and a veneer plaster finish applied directly to the masonry on the inside. The upper walls are identical, but were reduced to 12" concrete masonry to reflect the less demanding acoustical conditions at that height.

The interior spaces and surface treatments were all designed for maximum acoustical effect. The angled front walls and ceiling serve to direct sound out into the audience. The pilasters, beams and columns of the side walls serve to diffuse the sound throughout the space. Over a dozen different sidewall treatments were developed on the computer to study this one aspect of the project. The design was felt to be aesthetically pleasing but more importantly, the varying sizes and shapes of the sidewall panels serve to diffuse the range of sound frequencies in richly divergent directions. The lower walls are 12" to 36" thick, cast-in-place concrete, with their faces angled 5 degrees to the building's centerline (10 degrees to each other) to avoid flutter echoes. Their curved profiles again enrich the diffusion of sound. The hard veneer plaster finish on all concrete and masonry surfaces adds to the reverberance of the space.

Other arts are incorporated in the building in several ways. The first and most obvious are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Peter Thompson for the south galley. He also designed the pipe shades on the organ and the ornamental pipe railing which is behind the organist's bench, so that they also reflect the same design elements used in the windows. Along both side galleries, the wall areas are designed to be available to display artwork. Track lighting along the collonades provides illumination of these areas.

Construction of the project was challenging and demanded far more attention than a typical project of this size. Many details were mocked-up or discussed at length, to better test their acoustic impact or to determine how to make them work to best effect. Acoustical testing by Mahoney was done often, leading to several key adjustments which retained the hall's acoustical integrity. Louder and Wolff visited the site periodically and assisted in coordinating the construction of the building with the needs of the organ. Coordination andcommunication among all concerned with the project was a major challenge.

As the building neared completion and the organ installation began, Peter Thompson became very involved in details related to color and the interconnection of the organ and building. The organ builder and mechanical engineer helped coordinate the organ's mechanical and electrical needs, and focusing, of the lighting for best effect. The acoustician's tests revealed details which needed attention before the contractor's work would be completed, and which again helped retain the acoustical integrity of the space. The collaborative effort which began many months before continued to the end and, we believe, has resulted in achieving the design team's primary goal of creating a truly world-class facility for organ music.

Horst, Terrill, and Karst Architects

Joe Terrill, Principal-in-charge
Gary Karst, Director of Design
Steve Scannell, Project Manager

KU School of Music

Peter Thompson, Dean and Building Committee Chair
Stephen Anderson, Chairman, School of Music
James Higdon, Professor and Director, Division of Organ and Church Music
Michael Bauer, Associate Professor of Organ and Church Music

KU Office of Capital Programs

Allen Weichert, University Architect
Dave Schaecher, Project Manager
Myron Reed, University Engineer
Greg Wade, University Landscape Architect

Lied Center

Fred Pawlicki, Director of Operations
Robert F. Mahoney and Associates
Bob Mahoney, Acoustical Consultant

Wolff and Associates

James Louder, Vice-President
Latimer, Sommers, and Associates
Bill Bassette, Project Mechanical/Electrical Engineer

Finney and Turnipseed

Alan Gast, Project Structural Engineer

Transparent Inspiration

by Robert F. Mahoney

Among the many stories told about the legendary Jascha Heifetz is one about his receiving audience members backstage after a recital at Carnegie Hall. "Oh Mr. Heifetz!" one fan is said to have gushed, "your violin makes such a beautiful sound!" Heifetz lifted his fiddle from its case and held it up to his ear. "That's funny! I don't hear a thing." Like Heifetz' fiddle, the acoustic of the Bales Recital Hall is nothing without a performance. Our intention from the very start of design was not to create a space for "good acoustics," but rather a space for outstanding music making and music teaching.

Building craft and building codes have changed greatly since that church was erected, but none the less, CDs of Jim's recordings and detailed photos he took there allowed a leap over the abstractions of physics into the reality of architecture, with enough rich aural and musical information to guide the way to where we are today.

No other instrument is as dependent upon its architectural setting as a mechanical action pipe organ. If a chorus or orchestra is unhappy with a space designed for them they can move about, modify the room or leave it altogether. (When the Sydney Opera House opened, the orchestra liked the opera house and the opera company liked the orchestra hall - so they swapped!) With a pipe organ though, you can't move it an inch once it's in place. So Hellmuth Wolff, James Louder and their associates took an exceptionally keen interest in the design and provided lots of fruitful ideas and essential critiques as the building took shape.

Our expectations of how a recital hall will sound are set from the moment we set eyes on the space. A voluminous space with richly modulated yet massive surfaces and spatial detailing, over a scale that ranges from inches to yards holds out the promise of an equally rich and developed sound. The chromatic variation and geometric subtleties of Peter Thompson's windows and his designs for the organ details give the eye plenty of places to wander and many levels to explore - you hope for the same depth and intrigue in the sound. And comfort! You have to feel at ease, yet inspired; supported, yet ready to explore and create.

It has been said that architecture resides not in walls or floors or roofs or plazas but in "the spaces in between." So too with acoustics. It is an evanescent quality that arises from all of the factors, skills and ideas we have been talking about. It is wholly dependent upon the volume, mass, solidity and interconnected volumes of every scale as well as the excitement and willingness to be engaged that is aroused in listeners and performers from the visual and spatial elements all around them.

So that, ultimately, is the sort of space we have tried to create: one that doesn't hinder the artists, teachers and listeners, but supports them, inspires them and carries them along.

The famous British lighting designer Richard Pilbrow has said "Great performances make great theaters." That is certainly true of music halls as well. If this hall inspires great performances within it, and perhaps even more important, if the teaching that takes place here leads to great performances in other spaces, then we will know we succeeded in what we set out to do.

The Artists' Challenge

by Peter Thompson, Former Dean of KU School of Music

Bales Recital Hall Stained Glass WindowsWe decided early in the planning of the recital hall that stained glass would be included if at all possible. However, it was not until after the architect's drawings were complete and the window openings established that it was suggested that I might work on a design for the glass. I found the prospect both exciting and intimidating. Because the construction drawings had to be prepared, structural window frames had to be located prior to any extensive designing of the glass. Initially a source of frustration, this essentially backward process resulted in the specific design solution and defined the character of the work.

Establishing the location of the frames was a simple problem of proportional relationship, and early possibilities included some rather whimsical experiments with the Fibonacci Series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ...) and the Golden Section (a: b = b: a+b). When I shared these early ideas with Jim Higdon, he produced several publications detailing the use of the Golden Section in music composition, most notably by Bartok. This was the connection that I had been missing, and the Golden Section became the genesis of both the specific linear structure and the rhythmic character of the design.

In the two outer rectangles, the horizontal divisions of the grid (12" and 8") were determined by my choice of 8"x12"xl" dalle glass. I selected this glass for its intensity of color and visual substance, and I wanted to retain some of the character of the uncut glass in the work. The various vertical divisions of the grid were determined by the glass dimensions, by Golden Section measurements, or by intuition. The curved linear elements are all arcs/spirals generated by the G.S. The main horizontal brace in the rectangular panels is located to form a Golden Rectangle in the bottom section; the upper section is a Golden Rectangle plus a vertical panel the same width as the tall center window. The three center vertical panels establish a third Golden Rectangle. Hence, the structural frames are all located according to the G.S., and they echo the proportions of the tall center window as well. Finally, a simple iteration of the Golden Rectangle can be seen in the curved pipe railing behind the organ bench.

I was apprehensive about the interrupted views of the windows from inside the hall, but that has turned out to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the work; I attribute this to the subtle but constant order in the parts/whole inherent in the Golden Section.

My approach to the organ pipe shades was simple enough, although the entire project turned out to be much more difficult for me than the windows. I took the areas of the case that were to be embellished, and determined the specific ways in which the G.S. fit, or did not fit, within the overall case geometry. To a greater degree than in the windows, I relied on intuitive judgment to develop the overall patterns of the design. The harmony/discord resulting from the use of G.S. ratios within the unrelated geometry of the case produced a design of curiously unpredictable tension and energy. The same stained mahogany of the case was selected for the linear elements mounted against a light butternut for color contrast.

I must mention that the craftsmen at Hopcroft Stained Glass and at Wolff & Associates have done superb work in translating my drawings into reality. I am most fortunate to have had the opportunity to contribute on a personal level to this project and to have my work represented in this wonderful architectural setting, energized by the glorious sound of the Wolff organ.

 

About the Artist

Peter Thompson holds a B.F.A. degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and the M.F.A. from Yale University. He is currently professor of art at the University of Kansas. Formerly he has served as dean and associate dean of the School of Fine Arts and chair of the Department of Painting and Sculpture.

Thompson has exhibited art works at the Spencer Museum of Art, the Art and Design Gallery, the SUA Gallery, the Chancellor's Residence, and the Spooner Museum at the University of Kansas. His work has also appeared at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York, Southwest Missouri State University, the Hays Art Center Gallery, the American Institute of Architects in Kansas City, the Art Studio Gallery in Hunstville, Texas, and the Public Library and Jewish Community Center in Kansas City.

Among the many administrative and service activities which Thompson has pursued throughout his career are the following chair of the Lied Center Planning Committee, member of the Hall Center Executive Committee, the Advisory Council for the Kansas Cultural Trust, the Capitol Dome Sculpture Advisory Committee, the Committee on Art in Public Places, and the Lawrence Arts Center Expansion Committee.

Recently, Thompson served as the chair of the Bales Recital Hall Planning Committee. He designed the stained glass windows for the hall and the case carvings which appear on the organ.


Pipedreams Radio Broadcast 2013

Click here » to listen to the KU Organ Studio
on the radio show Pipedreams Live! »
with host Michael Barone.

Bales Artist Series

Marie Rubis Bauer
Saint Cecilia Cathedral, Omaha
October 18, 2013

Christian Lane
Harvard University
Winner Canadian International Organ Competition
November 8, 2013

David Higgs
Eastman School of Music
April 11, 2014

Mark Steinbach
​Brown University
May 2, 2014

All recitals will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Bales Organ Recital Hall.
Tickets: Lied Center Ticket Office | 785-864-2787 | lied.ku.edu

There are no upcoming events at this time.

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