ORGAN CONCERTS – At The Legion of Honor, Today and Sunday at 4:00

John Karl Hirten plays Mathias, Vivaldi, Langlais, Hampton, and Elgar

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The magnificent Skinner organ is a special treasure at the Legion of Honor. Situated in the Rodin Gallery, the tones resonating from its 4,526 pipes are heard and felt throughout the building. It is truly amazing how a melody – wafting around the many galleries of the museum – can influence one’s perspective and relationship with a work of art. El Greco’s full-length John The Baptist takes on a whole other vibe during a Sousa March. Rodin’s male nude in the center of the rotunda invites a careful study when Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” is in the background. And if Bach’s great and familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is shaking the marble, then I’m in the mood for Egyptian high priest Irethorrou – whose coffin, mummy, and graphic bodily interiors are now on display (I mean, everything!) in the Legion’s latest exhibit, VERY POST MORTEM: Mummies and Medicine. A recent tour of the Rodin Gallery’s upper regions (they only look like walls) revealed a stacked and staggering maze of pipes, drums, cymbals and dampers.

The Legion’s magnificent Skinner pipe organ was built in 1924 by the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company in Boston. Public organ concerts are presented at the Legion on Saturdays and Sundays at 4:00 pm. The organ concert program has recently expanded its repertoire with music ranging from Bach to Gershwin to musical thunderstorms, Sousa marches, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the great film music of Hollywood.

Pump those pipes. All photos by Seán Martinfield

The instrument represents the apex of Ernest M. Skinner’s philosophical approach to organ music. The classic ideal for the instrument seeks to emphasize the elaborately intricate voices moving in opposition that characterizes baroque musical styles. In contrast, Skinner championed the romantic ideal, which reproduces the rich, full sound of an entire orchestra, capturing its bold symphonic layering of strings, horns, reeds, and percussion.


The sound is meant to resonate in a non-directional manner, creating a musical quality that seems to float, saturating the space with its presence. Through a series of businesses, beginning with the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston in 1901, the talented inventor left an indelible mark on American cultural history, implementing many innovations that almost single-handedly raised the organ to the premier status it gained in the first half of the twentieth century as an instrument of unparalleled majesty.


Working with the Legion of Honor architect George Applegarth (1875–1972), Skinner developed a customized plan to accommodate the 4526 pipes seamlessly within the structure of the museum, primarily through a canvas apse painted to look like marble in this gallery. The impressive mahogany, ivory, and ebony console, along with the comprehensive range of stops and additional effects, make this one of the world’s finest organs, comparable with Skinner’s other masterful achievements at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and at Washington Cathedral in the nation’s capitol.


The organ was given to the people of San Francisco by John D. Spreckels in 1924.
The organ’s pipes range in size from one-half inch to 32 feet.
The apse in the Rodin Gallery is thin cloth, trompe l’oeil-painted to look like marble in order to allow the organ to “speak” through the dome.
An organ is an acoustic wind instrument. Three high pressure turbines with a total of 48 horsepower provide the main wind supply for the organ’s pneumatic system.
Skinner was famous for building organs with the capacity to imitate orchestral colors such as the English horn, clarinet, French horn, and oboe; this organ has pneumatically operated percussion instruments, a set of large tubular chimes, and a thunder pedal as well.
The organ’s beautifully crafted console is made of walnut, with ivory and ebony keys and stops.
The frieze over the main entrance to the museum is made of plaster and can be cranked open on rails so that the music can be heard in the Court of Honor.
The Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the Court of Honor also contains pipes and ten large chimes, concealed behind new louvered doors that can be opened during performances.

Saturdays and Sundays at 4:00, Rodin Gallery. Free after museum admission

Today and Sunday, November 22nd:
John Karl Hirten playing the music of Mathias, Vivaldi, Langlais, Hampton, and Elgar.

November 28th and 29th: 
Keith Thompson presents an organ pops concert, including Broadway favorites, programmatic works, and highlights form organ literature.

December 5th and 6th: David Hegarty presents a pops concert of Hollywood film music, Broadway medleys, and light classics.

December 12th and 13th:
Guest Artist: Angela Craft Cross

December 19th and 20th:

John Karl Hirten plays Bach, Gigout, German, Yon, and Mulet.

December 26th and 27th:
Keith Thompson presents an organ pops concert, including Broadway favorites, programmatic works, and highlights from organ literature.


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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:


Telephone: 415-846-2475




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