Marchand, 59, has worked for Casavant Freres for 24 years. Fortin, 51, has been there for 12. The work they do is specialized and has been been passed down generation to generation, voicer to voicer within the company, and going back centuries before that. The timelessness of what they do can cast a spell.
“The kind of job we’re doing today, we could have been doing 400 years ago,” says Marchand.
“Like getting into a new Mercedes’
The truck carrying this new organ and its thousands of pipes arrived at the Kennedy Center in August, and a crew immediately began assembling the intricate, 20-ton, multi-story arrangement.
Marchand and Fortin arrived a month later. They have worked on organs all over the world and are used to traveling and spending hours making the organs sound just right for the location. But this trip has been particularly long and grueling. The race is on to have the organ perfectly ready for its debut. Their visit to Washington has been spent almost entirely in the Kennedy Center and at the Fairfax hotel where they crash for the day after their night shift ends.
They have to take turns, alternating between playing the notes at the console and working on the pipes with their bag of specialized tools: knives, hammers and rods employed with great care to ever so slightly close or open the mouth of the pipe or alter the angle by which the air flows through it. They can’t listen to high pitch tones all night, so they alternate that as well. Otherwise their ears would be damaged.
To spend every night listening painstakingly to note after note might seem like draining, even tedious work. But the search for the sublime is its own reward.
“We are listening to that same sound over and over again trying to find just that one little change that will make it perfect,” Fortin says.
Marchand describes the process of voicing as a conversation. “The pipes are our boss,” he says. “They tell you what they want to do. We help them to do that.”
Actually, Fortin and Marchand’s boss is Jacquelin Rochette, artistic director of Casavant Freres, who has made a few trips to Washington to check on the progress. He is soft-spoken but passionate about the work the pair are doing.
“It is moving to be a part of this process,” says Rochette. “The voicing is the artistic part of this work. It gives the instrument its artistic soul.”
After an opportunity to rehearse with the new organ in late October, Neil, the NSO’s organist since 1985, was effusive with his praise.
“It’s like getting into a new Mercedes-Benz and putting the pedal down,” he said. “It is total pleasure. The sound just envelops you. Of course, this is subjective, but this may be truly the finest symphonic hall organ in the United States in terms of what it can do and how it will sound with an orchestra and with a chorus and even by itself.”
Marchand and Fortin watched the rehearsal offstage. Their pleasure, too, was hard to contain.
“It’s joy when it’s done,” says Marchand, with a wry smile. “Like a chef when you have to cook for 90 hours just for a 30-minute meal. Not all of the 90 hours are fun. But when we finally heard the organ play with the orchestra it was really great for us.”
“It confirms what we were thinking,” Fortin says. “That’s what we were working all night for.”
Kennedy Center Concert Hall Organ Debut: Free Concert 6 p.m., Nov. 27
READ MORE: Kennedy Center’s new organ arrives to much fanfare