A seat at the world's largest organ

January 6, 2013 

One of Michael Bennett’s organ teachers is Peter Richard Conte, Grand Court organist for the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest functioning pipe organ.

The organ, with nearly 29,000 pipes and six keyboards at the console, isn’t housed in some giant church or concert hall. It’s in a Macy’s department store in downtown Philadelphia.

As Conte’s student, Michael has gotten to play the Wanamaker organ during lessons, which generally take place before or after store hours.

“It’s an amazing instrument,” Michael said, but playing it is not the bone-shaking experience you might expect.

“It’s not hugely loud, he said. “It’s a mellow organ. Its trademark is actually how quiet it can go. It has so many different kinds of stops and sounds, and it can just go down to nothing. That’s the thing that actually gives you goosebumps. It’s not how loud it can go, but how soft it can go.”

Sometimes, Michael said, Conte asks him to play in the daily 5:30 p.m. recital, so he gets to open things up a bit.

But in an effort to “protect shoppers’ ears,“ he said, “in the store hours we really don’t push it to its limit in terms of the full loudness.”

– Stacy Chandler

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