Seven years ago, the Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Northrop auditorium was taken apart and put in storage on the University of Minnesota campus.

With no money available to reinstall it when the refurbishment of Northrop's interior was completed, there was a real possibility that the historic 1932 instrument had played its last concert.

On Friday evening at Northrop, the organ breathed again, thanks to a $3.2 million restoration funded largely by a bequest from U alumnus Dr. Roger E. Anderson.

The retooled organ was the centerpiece of a Minnesota Orchestra concert led by music director Osmo Vänskä and featured in the two main pieces on the program.

First impressions were that the work done by the Foley-Baker restoration company of Connecticut has been splendidly successful.

In John Harbison's "What Do We Make of Bach?" a new work co-commissioned by Northrop, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, the organ's voice emerged with vernal freshness and a tingling clarity of texture.

The pipework, located above the proscenium arch, remains invisible. But the constricted wooden grilles of old have been replaced by mesh-like membranes which allow the sound to flow out in a more open, organic fashion.

Harbison's colorful writing for the organ in "What Do We Make of Bach?" was counterpointed by striated figurations in the strings, skewing perception of the great composer through the more agitated sensibilities of our own era.

Paul Jacobs displayed sparkling fingers in the cadential passages but kept his most dazzling work for the Bach fugue that he played solo as an encore.

In that piece, he really put the Aeolian-Skinner through its paces, paring off dynamics to the merest whisper, then unleashing a tidal wave of volume on the final cadence.

Would Bach have played the piece like that? Probably not. But the overall effect was undeniably thrilling.

A different side of the instrument emerged after intermission, as university organist Dean Billmeyer took on the solo duties for Saint-Saëns' mighty Organ Symphony.

Billmeyer has played a crucial role in the Northrop organ's restoration process. So it was fitting to see him center-stage on this occasion, poised at the handsome, four-keyboard console in front of the orchestra.

Together with Vänskä and the players, Billmeyer conjured a magically lyrical account of the symphony's slow movement, displaying the refurbished organ's ability to produce glowingly warm, expressive textures.

Both the first and third movements benefited from Vänskä's pin-sharp definition of rhythms and his scrupulous differentiation between different levels of dynamics.

In the exuberant finale, Billmeyer finally let rip, powering the music to a resplendently full-throated conclusion.

The Northrop auditorium is smaller than it used to be, and some of the organ's deep pedal notes did not possess the floor-juddering vibration they might have had in a more resonant arena.

But that's a smallish price to pay for the instrument's newfound immediacy of impact. A caged animal has been unfettered and is on the prowl again.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at