Organ update, November 2023
The casual listener probably finds it hard to get their mind wrapped around the immense complexity of a pipe organ, both as a physical structure and as a musical instrument that delivers literally thousands of notes and different sounds. At times when the organ builder’s crew is working at St. Paul’s, a mind-boggling array of parts – from huge pipes and large wooden racks, to harnesses holding hundreds of fine electrical wires, to tiny metal collars and screws – lie spread around in the church waiting to be slotted into the exact position that has been planned for them. Yet what you see is just the tip of the iceberg, because over many months at the organ shop in Vermont, all those parts have already been carefully prepared – built, cleaned, repaired, made to measure, fitted together, voiced, tuned, and finally packed for transportation. The overall design of how everything eventually fits together in a very constrained space, and in a way that produces the purest and grandest music, is the brainchild of organ builder Stephen Russell. His training and experience both as an engineer and musician, along with a life’s work in organ building, enables him to envisage the big picture of architectural and technical construction, while giving painstaking attention to the finest musical details of tone and finishing.
Some pipes are still being worked on in the shop, but the preparation for their reinstallation in the church is close to completion. Much of the work in the last few months has been structural, providing support and casing for the working parts of the instrument. Russell has taken a creative and thoughtful approach in repurposing major components and material from the 1929 organ that was installed when the church was built; the swell shades (heavy wooden slats that open and close like a shutter to control volume), some partitioning and other original components made of durable high-quality wood have been refinished and reused in the new organ. Putting these together with newly fashioned parts, the reconstructed organ chamber behind the reredos now provides efficient, well-lit, and accessible housing for the intricate collection of organ pipes, wind chests and lines, and the modern electronic control systems that reside there. Other components from the existing organ are being reused. A switching system installed in the 1980s is being reintegrated into the instrument, as are some electronic relay boards.
At the same time, pipes have been steadily returning to St. Paul’s. The handsome display of pipework on either side of the reredos has been enlarged, with more ranks of pipes effectively arranged in the spaces coming from the east wall forward over the acolyte stalls. The largest metal pipes you can see – the pedal 16’ Principal – were previously situated horizontally above the choir stalls, and are now flanked by the pipes that had been in that position. Together they command visual attention that then drifts towards the serried ranks of smaller pipes on either side. For the first time a wood stop has made an appearance at the front of the church, the Contrabass stop that was relocated from a well behind the choir pews to a more acoustically advantageous position high up above the wooden carvings. Russell’s vision and experience has enabled this harmonious expansion to be accomplished in complete accord with the aesthetic design of open pipework that has been one of the hallmarks of the St. Paul’s organ.
Installation of the remaining new and renovated pipes will continue over the next couple of months. The final ones to be packed into the organ chamber will be the reed stops, which must be easily accessible as they typically require the most frequent adjustment and tuning. At the same time, the supplementary digital sounds that will remain part of the instrument are being enhanced through updating and repositioning the speakers in the gallery, for better acoustical performance.
Until the brand-new console is installed and fully functional in late spring 2024, we will not regularly hear the entire range of sounds that the “new” organ will be capable of making. The existing console simply does not have enough draw knobs to handle the increased number of stops.
“Updates” recently asked Andy Kotylo, Organist and Director of Music at St. Paul’s, what in particular about the current project excites him the most. He responded immediately, “To see this organ becoming all it can be, because it was a pretty darned good organ before, and it’s going to be so much better. It will be a very complete instrument, in a state that is faithful to the fabled 1956 organ, that has everything an organist could want, and does everything well. Sonically it’s an exciting organ to play; I get a rush playing it that feeds my desire for sound!” We can’t wait.
An Organ Rededication Series is in the planning stages. Here are the preliminary details:
Friday, September 27, 2024 (7:30pm) – Cherry Rhodes in recital
Sunday, November 17, 2024 (4pm) – Hymn Festival with John Schwandt, organist
Friday, May 9, 2025 (7:30pm) – tentative date – Andrew Kotylo in recital