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Organist Peter Richard Conte: Performing Orchestral Works With Two Hands and Two Feet

Wanamaker Grand Court Organist Peter Richard Conte

The symphonic organ had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, when organists frequently transcribed and played works written for orchestra. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, that practice is now coming back into musical fashion.

Listen to more of Susan's interview with organist Peter Richard Conte, who plays the massive and magnificent Wanamaker Organ, among others. He started organ when he was only 9 years old, barely able to reach the pedals.

Radio script:

Organist Peter Richard Conte plays the Wanamaker Organ, built in 1909 for the St. Louis World’s Fair, then expanded in the 1920s for the seven-story Grand Court of what is now Macy’s Center City department store. It is a mega example of a symphonic organ, which is designed to have orchestral sounds.

Peter Richard Conte: So you’ll find a French horn or two or, like here at the store, three French horns, clarinets, English horns, big flutes, and, in the case of the Wanamaker Organ, 115 ranks of strings.

SL: Symphonic organs were often installed in civic spaces. So even people in towns without orchestras could still hear live performances of the repertoire.

PRC:  You could go and hear the organist play your favorite orchestral music. There were books and books of these transcriptions.

SL: Conte says that in the 1960s, the practice of playing such transcriptions fell out of favor, and symphonic organs stopped being built. But, now...

PRC: Builders are building them again, and organists are again transcribing music written originally for orchestras.

SL: Conte, who has transcribed and recorded numerous works, also teaches young organists.   

PRC: It’s so fun to watch this young generation embrace everything about the organ, including the art of transcription.

SL: So the future is in fine hands...and feet.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.