When Virgil Fox Met the Wanamaker Organ

Classical music is a hard genre to enter if you don’t know much about it. Rock, pop, country and even jazz organized by performers. Classical music is most often organized by composer.

As a novice, I tend to look for music by performers and secondarily composers, orchestras or conductors. Still, I had no idea who Virgil Fox was when I walked into Joe’s Classical Shop in Houston.

Rooting through a general bin, I pulled out a cd recorded at the Winterland in San Francisco in 1971. As a fan of rock bands from the era who often played at the Winterland (see Jefferson Airplane 30 Seconds over Winterland), I was naturally curious.

This concert, complete with a psychedelic light show, brought organ music to a younger audience. I discovered on Youtube that as a performer, Liberace had nothing on Mr. Fox. Yet, being a self-assured, somewhat flamboyant, grandiose organist didn’t take anything away from the respect for his performance in the classical world.

I couldn’t help thinking that Virgil Fox must have at some point between Evening Magazine appearances sought out a meeting with the world’s largest instrament, the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia’s former Wanamaker Department Store. Sure enough, he did. Recorded in 1964 and available on both compact disc and video, Virgil Fox Plays the John Wanamaker Organ doesn’t disappoint.

In the 1920s, French composer Louis Vierne (another name to explore) was brought to Philadephia by the department store to perform in the Grand Court. He composed the piece on the disc, Carillion and Westminster, which seems perfect for a performance by Fox. It imitates the Westminster Chimes in London’s Westminster Tower and includes the use of a 12-foot, 600-pound c-note chime. Because why waste your time on something small?

What was it like to play the Wanamaker Organ? Fox tells a tv reporter: “There’s no place on the face of the earth where one human being can be seated at an instrument and have this amount of tonal spread and this amount of power.”

Well, I might add, there’s no organist better suited to play it.

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