MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you want to play it?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Sure.

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SIEGEL: From Supreme Court to supreme sound.

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TOTENBERG: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Yes, that's our own Nina Totenberg. By day, she covers the nation's highest court, but by night, this daughter of a violinist is interested in all things musical, and that includes a brand-new pipe organ at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C.

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SIEGEL: The organ makes its debut tonight, and Nina has its story.

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TOTENBERG: It looks big, but you have no idea how big. There are some 5,000 pipes, ranging from six inches to 32 feet long and weighing a total of 20 tons.

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TOTENBERG: What powers the organ are three blowers in a separate room, two stories under the organ chamber. The gleaming pipes that now tower over the stage took two years and $2 million to build. The old Kennedy Center organ, to put it bluntly, was sick, so sick that the existing tapes of ruined performances have had the offending sound edited out. Suffice to say that at a Christmas performance in 2008, conductor Donald McCullough had to stop the concert so his organist could try to unstick a stuck pipe.

DONALD MCCULLOUGH: Well, we have to turn that off, or we won't be able to continue. Anybody know any good jokes?

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Two years ago, the Kennedy Center reluctantly concluded the instrument was not salvageable. So with help from a generous donor, the center took the plunge and ordered a new organ, this time from Casavant Brothers, near Montreal, a company that's been making organs since 1879.

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TOTENBERG: Now, nothing about building and installing a massive new organ is simple. The partially assembled instrument was delivered in August by a trio of 53-foot long semis. Then after it was put together in the hall, the delicate process known as tonal finishing began.

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BILL NEIL: It has to be very lush. I'm not sure that I want to give away the swell strings, you know, on...

TOTENBERG: That's organist Bill Neil after weeks of changes made by two Casavant technicians, men who work from 11 each night to 8:30 in the morning when the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is silent. These nocturnal magicians say people tend to confuse the two functions they're carrying out: tuning and voicing.

RICHARD MARCHAND: You can sing with an ugly voice but in tune, but you'll still sound ugly.

TOTENBERG: Technician Richard Marchand.

MARCHAND: Voicing is to work on the quality of the tone you're projecting with your voice.

TOTENBERG: Tuning, it turns out, takes just a few days, but the voicing takes a couple of months. Marchand and his co-worker, Daniel Fortin, both of them musicians, work together, one sitting at the organ itself, the other climbing up and around inside the organ, using special tools to shift parts of the pipes, opening or closing an air hole here, shaving or moving a part of the pipe there. Much of this work is done 40 feet in the air with tiny crevices to use as footholds.

MARCHAND: If you are afraid of the height, of course, it's not a job for you at such a place.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCHAND: No.

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TOTENBERG: The polished wood console of the organ - the part you see the musician play - is amazingly complex. It has four manual keyboards, 32 pedals and 104 stops. The stops look like porcelain knobs, each one controls a set of 61 organ pipes, regulating the balance of highs and lows and the volume.

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TOTENBERG: Organ consultant Jeff Weiler observes that in a concert hall like this the organ has to have tremendous sonic power so it can soar over a large orchestra and chorus, hence the term pulling out all the stops.

JEFF WEILER: Pulling out all the stops would make the organ truly a colossal sonic force.

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TOTENBERG: But there's another balance to work out.

WEILER: At the other extreme, it has to have great subtlety in order to achieve the seamless blend with the orchestra.

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TOTENBERG: In other words, the organ has to be able to play as if it were just another instrument on stage. Listen carefully here for the organ.

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TOTENBERG: Here it comes.

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TOTENBERG: Now, that might sound great to us, but not to the discerning ear of Jacquelin Rochette, the Casavant artistic director. He was pleased last month after a test drive with the full National Symphony Orchestra, but he thought some of the higher tones lacked full color, that they were barking, not singing.

JACQUELIN ROCHETTE: At this point, the pipes are barely speaking, you know? Some pipes are simply barking, you know? It's not clean.

TOTENBERG: So with just weeks to go, the search for perfection continued.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We've been working that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And we are getting the effect in the room.

TOTENBERG: What's so fascinating about watching the whole process unfold is the anthropomorphic way everyone talks about the instrument. Organist Bill Neil.

NEIL: The creation of an organ is very much like the birth of a child. It's brand new, and it starts very humbly, very small, and it grows. And as it matures and becomes a full-blown musical instrument, we have almost created here the adult. It's not quite there yet, but it's on the way.

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TOTENBERG: That was more than a month ago.

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TOTENBERG: This morning, the organ, now fully tuned and voiced into adulthood, had its final dress rehearsal, ready for its official grownup debut at the Kennedy center tonight.

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TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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BLOCK: This is NPR.

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