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Organ symphony celebrates religious diversity

The 'Kresge Organ Symphony' will debut at a free concert on Feb. 1.
The organ in Kresge Auditorium (W16) was designed and built by famed organ builder Walter Holtkamp.
The organ in Kresge Auditorium (W16) was designed and built by famed organ builder Walter Holtkamp.
Photo: Stephanie Keeler Hansen

Intermingled with MIT’s vibrant academic community is an equally bright religious community representing more than 20 religions. This week, the MIT community will have the opportunity to celebrate this diversity when organist Leonardo Ciampa debuts a multi-denominational organ symphony dedicated to the unique and beautiful organ in Kresge Auditorium (W16) and the religious tradition of which it is a part.

Ciampa will present the "Kresge Organ Symphony" on Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium. The free concert, presented in conjunction with Religious Life at MIT, will be prefaced by a short lecture that will begin at 7 p.m.

Kresge Auditorium was completed in 1955, at the same time as the adjacent MIT Chapel. Both buildings were designed by noted architect Eero Saarinen, who is most famous for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Since Kresge was designed as a meeting house and concert hall for MIT, an organ, designed and built by the Holtkamp Organ Company, was installed for services. At the time, Walter Holtkamp was the most avant-garde organ builder, so his organ matched the modern design of Saarinen's building.

The MIT Chapel also houses a Holtkamp organ, and as a result of the Chapel's primary use as a house of worship, the organ in Kresge soon fell into years of disuse and became in need of extensive repairs.

Then, in 2009, Ciampa offered to raise money to begin a restoration project that would bring the organ into use again. “The organs were heard more in the last few years than they have been in the thirty previous,” Ciampa says.

“The Office of Religious Life looks for opportunities to let their voices be heard and that is what the concert on the first is all about,” says Robert Randolph, chaplain to the Institute. “We want to remind people that music is still being made by these great instruments, sometimes even new music.”

Commissioned by Randolph as an opportunity to show off the organ’s unique voice, Ciampa says he composed the piece to reflect the diverse religious community at MIT, and incorporated a variety of religious themes. “I decided to write something in which themes peacefully coexist, just as all of the faith communities peacefully coexist in the religious life at MIT,” he says. “And, I believe, it is the first time ever that anyone has written a piece that combines Jewish and Palestinian themes.”

As a nod to MIT’s scientific community, Ciampa has also incorporated Fibonacci numbers throughout the symphony. The last movement contains exactly 233 measures, and the choral parts contain exactly 987 notes.

“This concert is an opportunity for students to hear an instrument that is not often utilized, despite the many events that are held in Kresge each year,” says Christina English, administrative assistant in Religious Life. “In addition, it is an opportunity to witness the premiere of a new and innovative piece of music written for a traditional and time-honored instrument.”

Ciampa, who has been an organist for twenty-six years, says that he wants to promote the organ as an instrument with its own musical integrity separate from its religious affiliations. “I am searching for ways to promote the organ as a musical instrument on its own terms — not just a church instrument, but a musical instrument,” he says.

Though the organ may seem very similar to the piano, it takes a unique set of skills to play. “Pianos are virtually identical, whereas organs come from all different countries and eras,” Ciampa explains. “Even the organs of the same organ builder can be completely different. Every organ is unique and every organist has to be completely flexible.”

The organist must also be able to play a foot keyboard in tandem with their hands. “You use your heels and toes to navigate this keyboard, which is called a pedal board,” says Peter Godart, a sophomore in mechanical engineering and an organist. “Getting the coordination down between hands and feet is the hardest skill to develop and it just takes time and practice. The organist also needs a comprehensive knowledge of which sets of pipes he/she wants to use. There are a ton of subtle differences in sound and texture that need to become familiar.”

“I love the organ because it’s like writing for an orchestra,” Ciampa says. “You have pipes that imitate strings, reeds, brass — a whole orchestra under the command of one player.  I love being able to write colorful, orchestral-sounding pieces and then being able to hear them right away, because all it takes is one performer, not eighty.”

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