John and Alice Butler Hall
The University of Dubuque
Dobson Pipe Organ Builders
Lake City, Iowa
By John Panning
The University of Dubuque traces its founding to 1852 as a German-speaking Presbyterian seminary. Taking its present name in 1920, the institution now has over 2,000 students in three schools (business, liberal arts, and professional programs) and the theological seminary that continues from UD’s earliest days. Under the dynamic leadership of Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock, UD’s president since 1996, enrollment has more than tripled and campus facilities have greatly expanded. A prime example is UD’s Heritage Center, completed in 2013. Containing a 1,000-seat hall, a 200-seat black-box theater, an art gallery, classroom and rehearsal spaces, offices, and a café, Heritage Center is physically, educationally, and socially the crossroads of the campus.
From the start, Heritage Center’s main performance space, John and Alice Butler Hall, was to have a pipe organ. President Bullock took a personal interest in not only the hall but its organ as well. Following a search, we were engaged in 2011 to collaborate with the building’s designer, Straka Johnson Architects of Dubuque, to ensure proper provision was made for the eventual installation of an organ. Equally important, UD engaged Threshold Acoustics of Chicago, not merely as advisors but as central players in the design process. The result admirably accommodates the varied uses of the hall and provides one of the most supportive acoustics for organ in any multiuse hall we know. Though the hall was opened in 2013 without an organ, the desire to add its last major component remained, and John and Alice Butler, the hall’s benefactors, generously funded the organ project in 2017, resulting in the commissioning of our Opus 97.
The new organ, like the building that houses it, is a place of intersections. As the major instrument on campus, Opus 97 is used for teaching and solo performance, thus its design reflects a broad concern for solo literature. The nature of the space and the organ’s proximity to a stage, however, suggested something beyond a conservatory recital instrument, with resources to be a full partner with major choral and orchestral forces. A concert hall organ that is also a teaching instrument must balance the occasional with the daily. This aspect isn’t one of tonal design per se (the instrument plays much the same repertoire in a private lesson as during an evening program), but of overall power and controllability. Any organ in such a place, whether heard daily or occasionally, should be capable of grandeur appropriate to the occasion. One used daily must remember the ear of the daily listener: to consider it, caress it, respect it. One speaking at an occasion to an audience of a thousand in a hall with singers, a concert band, or an orchestra must provide the thrilling impact envisioned by composers and the profound bass that is characteristic only of the pipe organ.
Standing immediately adjacent to the proscenium at stage right, the area allotted for the organ is purposely shallow and tall. Opus 97 has a columnar shape, with the console on a new balcony at the lowest level and the Great immediately above, followed by the Swell and Solo. While the Great and Swell have a line-of-sight relationship with nearly every seat, the Solo and the gravest flue voices of the Pedal stand at a level above the apparent ceiling of the hall, speaking there into a space of tremendous volume that is acoustically coupled to the auditorium below. Though this is not a chamber per se, the effect of this placement is that all sound is heard via reflection. This is no hindrance for the nondirectional low frequencies of the Pedal 32′ and 16′ pipes located there, and moreover, we felt the position was well suited a Solo division, which in American organs often developed in chamber locations that offer benefits for subtlety of enclosure.
This physical situation and the needs of a teaching instrument in a concert hall guided the disposition of tonal resources. The specification is the largest in a line of Dobson instruments having a Solo as the third manual. The Great and Swell, voiced on 3½” pressure, are somewhat conventional in specification and large in the context of a mechanical-action instrument. With its multiple foundation stops and mixtures, the Great can, with clever use of the combination action, provide Great and Positive registrations in alternatim. The Swell falls happily in between, with its own diapason chorus on a dynamic par with the Great. The Great shares its reeds, built with tapered shallots, with the Pedal; the Swell chorus reeds have Bertounèche shallots. The Solo has both orchestral and brass sections: a pair of strings, a Harmonic Flute, and a Clarinet stand on a slider windchest on 6½” pressure, while a pair of tubas on 15″ speak on an electropneumatic one. The Pedal is broadly inspired by Ernest Skinner’s idea of “augmentation,” with several straight core voices, a number of ranks that play at multiple pitches, and some manual borrows. The largest pipes of the 32′ Diapason (made in Haskell construction) and the 32′ Bourdon lie horizontally above the proscenium, with their trebles located in an alcove directly opposite the organ on stage left. The full-length Pedal 32′ Bombarde, voiced on 6″ pressure, stands on stage left as well, from which place it speaks with unimpeded authority to underpin the full organ.
As in all our instruments, effective enclosure is an essential feature. I recall two Philadelphia Orchestra organ concerto rehearsals, different works and musicians but essentially the same situation. The conductor asked the soloist to make the organ a bit softer—but the organist was playing on the unenclosed Great. “I don’t want the color to change, I just want a little less of it.” The organist could only apologize. Not here—all three manual divisions are enclosed. All swell enclosures are made of multiple layers of veneered medium-density fiberboard, a massive material that discourages transmission of sound through the walls. All case doors are gasketed with felt to prevent leakage, and any incidental openings or gaps are sealed. While in our tracker-action organs we prefer mechanical linkages between shoe and shade, that seemed the wrong choice here. The sheer mass of the shade fronts, coupled to the desirability of an All Swells feature, led us to employ electric swell motors.
While we advised the architect regarding the necessary infrastructure for an organ during the building’s design, no consideration of the organ’s appearance was given until a construction contract was being negotiated. Several designs were explored; the more traditional ones among them seemed too mannered, and a more free-form arrangement that placed the facade pipes on a screen was developed. The grille’s horizontal wooden elements continue the curved profile of the “cheek wall,” as the architects described it, and the black horizontal bands that encircle the auditorium pass right through the facade, making the organ a fully integrated part of its surroundings. Made of black cherry stained to complement the rich colors of the hall, the wood screen is supported by a steel structure that carries the considerable weight of the cantilevered 85-percent tin facade pipes, drawn from the Great Principals 16′ and 8′.
The console occupies its own balcony, large enough to accommodate an instructor or several additional musicians, but small enough not to interfere with patron sight lines or stage lighting. A door concealed in the facade screen provides passage between the console and a circular access stairway within. Manual keyboards with bone naturals and ebony sharps and a pedalboard with hard maple naturals and rosewood sharps conform to AGO standards. Out of respect for its service in a performance venue, the combination action possesses over 15,000 levels of memory organized in 80 lockable libraries. A conductor monitor is provided to give a clear view of the stage when needed; at other times it resides, unseen, behind a movable panel.
The installation of the organ began in July 2020, with voicing completed in December. We could hardly have been more fortunate than to work in our home state during a pandemic, for which no flying was required. Our previous new organ in Iowa was Opus 67, built in 1996 for Wartburg College in Waverly—you can appreciate the serendipity. President Bullock felt strongly that the University of Dubuque should patronize an Iowa firm if possible, an action that has redounded to the benefit of both parties, we truly believe.
We are grateful to the many people who made this instrument a reality. John and Alice Butler, whose gifts made possible the hall and the organ, have extended their generosity still further by endowing four organ scholarships, renewable up to four years each, as well as providing an endowment for an annual recital series. Jeffrey Bullock’s enthusiasm for the organ has been the driving force behind the project, and Charles Barland, professor of music and university organist, has provided invaluable advice and counsel. Our thanks also go to UD staff, especially Randy Schultz, Heritage Center’s technical director/production manager, who assisted us in countless ways. We appreciate the competence of Conlon Construction and their project superintendent Delbert Southwick, who provided hoisting and rigging for an instrument that required a tremendous amount of lifting.
Reflecting its German seminary heritage, the University of Dubuque’s motto is a distillation of 1 Corinthians 12:4: “Mancherlei Gaben und ein Geist” (Many Gifts and One Spirit). While succinctly describing God’s earthly church, this statement is an equally appropriate representation of the enterprise of commissioning and building an organ. It has been our honor and pleasure to create this work of musical art for the education and enrichment of the University of Dubuque community.
John A. Panning is president of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd. Website.
All photos by Benjamin Hoskins except where noted.