Organ Evaluation

A New Instrument of Praise

By M. Jason Abel, Director of Music

In the fall of 2012, organ consultant Jonathan Ambrosino visited Christ Church to give us an assessment of the 1975 Austin Organ in our church. His detailed report analyzed the condition of our organ as well as its limitations. He noted that the instrument should likely continue for another decade before requiring any major attention, but also noted that the organ is not musically remarkable, lacking in “character, variety and loveliness of tone,” and that its appearance “gives itself away as a child of the Modern Movement. Rather than echoing the ornamental grammar of its surroundings, it gives the impression of an industrial object.” Guest organists over the past 13 years have all made similar comments.

In recent years, the cost of upkeep on this instrument has been increasing. Due to consistent electrical problems, I regularly have to maneuver some of the interior electrical circuits to restore the memory system; this is why the back of the organ is now always left off (to save time when the problems develop in the middle of a service – which is often). And, there are a number of significant (and expensive) repairs looming in the near future. I have been worried for some time about funding for these costs, and dreading the energy and expense we would be devoting to an instrument that would, in the end, still be undistinguished and not visually suitable for our historic space.

Cap & Marilyn Bromley made a significant gift to the parish for the purpose of the organ in 2016. Shortly after receiving their gift, an organ committee formed to consider our options. The committee members are Cap & Marilyn Bromley, The Rev. Dr. Bill Roberts, Jay Bartol, Anne Shine, Barry Stauffer, Julie Wommack, Bill Usher, and myself.

The committee carefully reviewed Ambrosino’s report, and received an update on some recent problems with the organ. We also consulted organists who were familiar with our instrument. Before long, the committee came to the unanimous decision to consider a new organ for Christ Church rather than continuing to rely on the 1975 instrument.

Many organ builders expressed interest in this project. We decided to solicit proposals from seven excellent builders. Each firm came to visit Christ Church, listened to the current instrument, carefully considered what our musical needs are, and submitted a proposal on the instrument they would be capable of building for us. 

Our committee narrowed the search to two builders. I traveled to play and listen to instruments by each firm. We would not have gone wrong with either one. Both finalists showed great respect for our historic building, the need for an instrument that visually belongs in such an iconic church, and one of great artistic beauty.

Our historic building was not designed with an organ in mind. The low ceiling and limited space for pipes present a unique challenge. However, we made it clear that we hoped to have a new organ that “looks like it has always been here.” Both of our finalists presented wonderful renderings of how the new organ would appear in the church. After discussions with many organists and reviewing financial elements of the companies and histories, we came to the decision that the sixth organ installed in Christ Church will be built by Harrison & Harrison Organ Builders. They are located in Durham, England. The first organ installed in Christ Church was also ordered from England! In the summer of 2017, the vestry unanimously approved our committee’s decision and we signed a contract with Harrison & Harrison.

Harrison & Harrison (H&H) is well known to organists. Some of their most notable instruments are in place at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, Westminster Abbey, and Wells Cathedral. They have built several organs in American churches as well.

Additionally, the favorable exchange rate works to our advantage financially.

The H&H proposal calls for a smaller yet more efficient organ than what we currently have. The new instrument will be two-manuals with mechanical action. This means that pressing a key down physically opens a wind supply via pulleys to the appropriate pipe(s) rather than using an electronic relay. From the congregation’s viewpoint, the main benefit of mechanical action is longevity, and rather less costly overhauls. Similarly, it will occupy a different footprint (space) than the current one. The organ will be housed in one case that will be at the center of the balcony (returning somewhat to the layout/design of two of the previous instruments that have been in Christ Church). Due to our dry acoustic, nearly all of the builders recommended placing a central case in the gallery so that the sound comes from one location and not from the sides of the gallery. Nevertheless, the new layout will actually allow us more open floor space in the gallery than currently exists.

The new organ will be designed with the accompaniment of singers in mind – H&H has stated that warmth, breadth, and blending will be among its characteristics. It will be voiced to provide excellent accompaniment for the choir and also support a strong singing congregation. The new organ will not be louder than the current one, nor will it be bigger, but it will have a gentler tone and a more pleasing palette of sounds. 

I believe this new instrument will have an amazing and monumental impact on the worship life at Christ Church. Several colleagues who are aware of our decision have expressed great excitement for our parish. I’ve even received a few calls from individuals who have heard through the grapevine of our plans, and are asking to play recitals here!

Patience, we are reminded, is a virtue. Due to the popularity of H&H, there is a wait-list for churches to get one of their instruments. So, we now must wait patiently in line. They project that our instrument will arrive for installation in the fall of 2020. It could happen slightly sooner, but as with most building projects, we probably should not expect that to happen.

What will happen to our current organ? Well, we hope to find someone interested in buying and removing it. It is possible that the pipes could be used in other instruments and/or the organ could be repurposed for a new space. There likely will be a gap in time when we no longer have the current organ but the new one has not yet arrived. During that period we will rely on a rented electronic organ or the piano. I have no concerns about us losing our parish’s ability to sing heartily regardless of the accompaniment!

I am certain this new instrument will be celebrated for generations to come and future worshipers will be thankful for our congregation’s decision to install this organ in Christ Church.

You can play an important part in helping this project come to a completion. We still need more money to pay for the new organ. An anonymous donor has augmented the Bromley gift. In addition, many people donated in memory of Bill Usher – an organ committee member who died last fall. We are grateful that his wife Fran is now a member of our group.

If you are interested in donating to this project (there is still approximately $400,000 to be raised), please speak with Noelle, myself, or any member of our organ committee. 

It might seem an odd time to be looking to spend money on a new organ. However, I remind everyone that we were looking at some significant expenses (perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars) on our current instrument if we planned to use it indefinitely into the future. And, at the end of that project, we would still be stuck with a “musically undistinguished” instrument which does not blend visually with the remainder of our church’s interior. The reality of our existing organ and the contract with H&H began before our more recent parish budgetary concerns. Yet, once it is installed maintenance will be lower – good news in the financial long run. 

This new organ could well have a lifespan more likely recorded in centuries than in decades. When one considers the weekly demands of the instrument (funerals, weddings, Evensongs, weekly worship services, etc.) over the course of many, many years, it ends up being a very good investment.

Our committee is deeply indebted to the following musicians who generously offered their opinions/insights/thoughts/suggestions during our process:

Dr. Daniel Aune (Christ Lutheran Church, Baltimore)

Nichols Bideler (The Church of St. Michael and St. George, St. Louis)

Dr. Kevin Clarke (St. Theresa Catholic Church, Sugarland, TX)

Dr. Robbe Delcamp (The University of the South, Sewanee)

Jacob Fuhrman (St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Penfield, NY)

Brad Gee (St. James Episcopal Church, Hendersonville, NC)

Dr. Brian Harlow (St. Luke’s, Gladstone, NJ)

Zachary Hemenway (St. Paul’s Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia)

Christopher Jennings (St. John on the Mountain, Bernardsville, NJ)

Dr. Robert Lehman (The Church of St. Michael and St. George, St. Louis)

Steve Loher (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston)

Robert McCormick (St. Mark’s, Philadelphia)

Dr. Bruce Neswick (Trinity Cathedral, Portland, OR)

Andrew Scanlon (St. Paul’s Church, Greenville, NC)

Dr. Patrick Scott (The Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta)

Thomas Smith (Christ Church, Georgetown)

The Rev. Benjamin Straley (Washington National Cathedral)

Dr. Richard Webster (Trinity Church, Boston)

This is an exciting moment at Christ Church – thanks be to God! 

“When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried – Alleluia!” – Hymn 420

 

 

Care, Management, and Maintenance of Our Musical Instruments

By M. Jason Abel, Director of Music

One of the responsibilities outlined in my job description at Christ Church is to manage the care and maintenance of our musical instruments. This typically means having the organ and pianos tuned regularly. Some of the pianos on our campus do not get tuned as frequently as others due to the limited amount of use they receive. However, even those rarely used pianos have to be tuned occasionally to prevent the soundboards from cracking.

The largest expense of instrument maintenance goes towards the organ. It is tuned a few times a year, usually based on significant changes in the weather (temperature affects the organ’s intonation). Each tuning session costs $750 to $1,000. Depending on the amount of work that must be done, the cost could be even higher. Over the past few years, the amount spent towards maintenance of the organ has increased steadily. It is still in good working condition (largely because we pay for its upkeep), but it is also 37 years old. For 37 years it has played for countless Sunday worship services as well as numerous weddings, funerals, Masonic services, Holy Week liturgies, Evensongs, and concerts. Additionally, for 37 years, the air return vents on our HVAC system have sat directly above the pipes pulling in dust and dirt from throughout the room in the direction of the pipe chambers. It has received LOTS of use and has actually been quite a good investment for Christ Church, given the demands that this large and vibrant parish has placed on it over time.

Some of you may recall reading an article I wrote in Rejoice several years ago, which spoke of adding some additional digital voices to our instrument. I was talked out of this idea eventually by a number of our guest organists who did not feel it would be wise to put that type of money into the instrument given the overall lack of quality in the sounds that it was making – in short, was it worth investing $100,000 in an instrument that was not best serving the needs of our congregation? In seven years here, every visiting organist has suggested numerous changes they would make to our organ if they had to play for it weekly in services. A recent visiting organist commented after Evensong that he was surprised that Christ Church was such an active parish with so many great things going on, and among those great things was our music program – yet we were handicapped by an instrument that did not best serve the needs of either the congregation or the choir.

No individual organ can accomplish everything that one might want – play organ repertoire spanning 600 years with authenticity, accompany choral anthems for choirs of 10 to 100 members, provide superb leadership for hymns, and provide an infinite option of sounds for supporting the liturgy. Even some of the world’s largest organs fail in some of these areas. Our organ, for example, lacks much foundational tone to provide support for singing without quickly overwhelming everyone. (To read about the organ's specifications, click here.) I have long thought it is a larger instrument than we need, and it seems to lack many of the colorful characteristics many other organs have. Nevertheless, I considered much of the problem to be the layout of the church itself, and the limitations any organ would have in such a space – low ceiling height, short balcony, and a number of acoustical impediments. After all, Christ Church was not constructed with the idea of being a place for a grand organ and reverberant acoustic.

During my sabbatical, I was surprised to visit a number of churches from a similar time period and style as ours – yet they had lovely instruments that well served the needs of the broadening Episcopal Church’s rich liturgical offerings. I even had the chance to play a number of these instruments and was pleased with the warm sounds and tones that these small instruments could make.

Last summer in Boston, I was fortunate to meet Jonathan Ambrosino, who is one of the nation’s leading organ consultants. He visits parishes around the country (and some beyond our borders) to evaluate instruments – describing their strengths and making proposals/suggestions for ways the organs can best be used for their congregations. I invited Jonathan to visit Christ Church this fall when he was in town for organ consulting visits at the National Cathedral and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. I wanted to seek an impartial party’s expert opinion on our instrument. Jonathan visited us in September and provided us a detailed report which I invite you to read by clicking here.

As I stated earlier, I am charged with being a steward of this parish’s instruments. You will note in Jonathan’s report that in about 10 years we will need to spend a large amount (in excess of $200,000.00) for the releathering of our organ. This will be necessary if the organ is to continue being used. There is a small light on the console that has been used for years for the clergy and wedding docents to signal from the sacristy that a procession is prepared to begin. The mechanism for this light stopped working over a year ago, and the cost for having it repaired was $1,500. I decided that it did not need to be fixed. For that amount of money, we can rely on someone giving me a thumbs up when the procession is ready. The light on the music rack also has not functioned for several months. This is a more pressing need, so we are paying the $1,000 to have this light fixed. There are already some very small air leaks that are temporarily patched, and there are a few dead pipes. At the same time, the cost of a new instrument is a considerable investment ($800,000 to $1,000,000 for what we would have space and need for). What I found of particular interest in Jonathan’s report were his comments about the physical appearance of the instrument and how it detracts from the simple elegance found elsewhere throughout the historic church.

Soon a committee will form that will help evaluate needs and plan for the future expenses associated with an organ. Our goal is to arrive at a decision based on what will best serve the needs of this congregation for many years to come. Music has long been an important part of the worship life at Christ Church. I look forward to working with the committee and seeing what it might recommend to assure that this continues for future generations. 

 

 

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