Cover Feature

November 29, 2016

Ortloff Organ Company, LLC, Brookline, Massachusetts

Opus 1 – 2016

In collaboration with Russell & Company Organ Builders

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church,

Penfield, New York


From the builder

Organbuilders will likely say how their first contract was the hardest, or certainly one of the hardest, to procure. And why not? Spending a great deal of money on a product built by somebody with no previous track record is, in a word, insanity. But churches are necessarily in the faith business, and it was certainly an act of faith by St. Joseph’s Church to entrust my company to build this instrument, our Opus 1.

The road to Opus 1 began long before St. Joseph’s contacted me, long before I could even reach the pedals the first time I played a pipe organ at age four—a single chord on the 1933 Kimball at Trinity Episcopal Church in Plattsburgh, New York, after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. That one chord began a fascination with the pipe organ that led to the decision in my teenage years, while working for Stephen Russell, to devote my life to this craft. Nine years of training at Russell & Company, further work for C. B. Fisk, Inc., and Spencer Organ Company, and six years at the Eastman School of Music and University of Rochester provided a broad range of experience that has informed how I play and how I wish to build. By 2014, I saw an opportunity to fulfill a dream of running my own shop and founded Ortloff Organ Company, LLC. Within just a few weeks, I was surveying St. Joseph’s Church in Penfield, preparing to draft my first proposal for a new pipe organ.

In 2013, St. Joseph’s received a generous bequest specifically to enrich the musical life of the parish. This happy event led to a decision to commission a new pipe organ, which would replace a failing 30-year-old electronic. Nathan Davy, the director of music and a fellow Eastman alum, approached me about the project, and from there he championed my firm, expressing faith in my ability to produce a high-quality instrument of distinction.

This abundance of faith was, however, fully sighted, and St. Joseph’s requested that the contract be co-signed by an established organbuilder to provide a level of security in the project’s success. It was only logical that I should collaborate with my mentor Steve Russell, to which Steve enthusiastically agreed, and we began discussing the instrument’s mechanical and tonal design shortly after my initial visit. This particular show of faith was perhaps the most important. Knowing my training and ability better than anyone, Steve’s tacit “You can do this. You’re ready. It’s time,” propelled me forward with confidence and excitement.

Distilling many musical requirements into 18 stops, particularly within a fixed budget and limited space, is naturally a challenge. Moreover, working in the shadow of our alma mater, Nathan and I were all too aware of the scrutiny the organ would receive, adding pressure to how the stoplist, scaling, and tonal approach were developed. But a suburban Catholic parish is not the academy, and my vision for the instrument was that it need make no apology for serving its liturgical requirements first and last. In the broad picture, the organ should subscribe to certain guiding principles. As much as possible, slider chests are used, for simplicity of mechanism, the benefits of tone-channel chests, and the honesty they enforce in design. Chorus work should be silvery and bright but not shrill, made of a high-lead alloy, and supported by amply scaled, warm 8 tone. Reeds are ideally placed on higher pressure for improved speech, better tuning stability, and noble power. Applying these principles to St. Joseph’s, seating about 600, we strove to create an ensemble that would have plenty of energy and clarity without being unduly powerful. It should lead without overwhelming, not only a largely volunteer choir, but also occasionally reluctant congregational singing. The color palette should tend unapologetically toward the romantic, but be based firmly in sparkling classical choruses.

While organs of this size are often treated essentially as giant one-manuals spread over two keyboards, the architecture of St. Joseph’s necessitated the two manual divisions being too physically divided for that kind of approach. Furthermore, the ultimate design felt more honest; a few Swell stops are duplexed to the Great for accompanimental variety, but otherwise each division is independent, with its own chorus. While the organ’s original design included an independent Swell 8 Diapason, a funding shortfall necessitated its elimination, as well as independent Pedal registers, a Clarinet on the Great, and mutation bass octaves. In turn, we modified the design of the Chimney Flute and Viola, and repitched the Swell mixture lower, introducing 8 tone by treble C.

In these and many other details throughout the design process, Nathan, Steve, and I found ourselves largely on the same page. Thus it was a jolt when, shortly after signing the contract in November 2014, Nathan accepted the position of assistant organist at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C. Happily, Nathan’s successor, Jacob Fuhrman, picked right up where Nathan left off and has proven to be just as collaborative as his predecessor.

Built in 1967, St. Joseph’s wasn’t designed with a pipe organ in mind. Its low ceilings, quirky acoustics, and lack of obvious location for an instrument all contributed to the challenge of layout and visual design. Fortunately, the church was amenable to placing the organ front and center, giving it the best possible advantage. My older brother, Buffalo architect Chris Ortloff, Jr. developed a striking multi-tiered design of flamed and polished copper, with gentle curves and multiple layers. The façade also creates a useful arcade between sacristy and church, integrating into the room in an organic way. Great care was taken to maintain focus on the altar and to complement, not compete with, the gold mosaic surrounding the crucifix.

Behind the façade, the organ proper is arranged on a new, single-level, 37-wide platform. The wind system lives in the center, with Great and Pedal to the congregation’s left and Swell on the right. Two fields of shutters direct tone both down the nave and into the south transept, where the choir sits. Electric-slider chests form the basis of the chassis, with electric and electro-pneumatic chests serving bass pipes and unit registers.

Of the organ’s 18 voices, six are vintage ranks, including reeds, wood flutes, and strings. All have been restored and revoiced. New flue pipes, built in the Russell & Co. shop, are made from a 94% lead alloy to promote warm, singing tone. Reed renovation and voicing was carried out by the Trivo Company, who also built a new 16 Trombone of generous scale. A somewhat higher pressure is employed for the reeds, allowing a warm, rich voicing style.

Construction began in August 2015, with a deadline to have at least part of the new organ playing by Easter 2016. To ensure an installation process as free as possible from complication, everything was pre-erected and tested in our shop. On a twenty-below-zero Valentine’s Day, 2016, a truck left Waltham, Massachusetts, bound for Penfield with the Great and Pedal. Amory Atkins, Terence Atkin, and Dean Conry brought their signature steam-shovel efficiency to the installation, accomplishing in 10 days what I thought would take three weeks. By Holy Week, five stops of the Great and the Pedal divisions were playing, and much of the Swell mechanism was in place. Over the next few months, the remainder came together in the shop, with final installation in May and tonal finishing completed by early August. Much beloved by his former parish, Nathan Davy returned to dedicate the organ on September 9. His careful thinking about repertoire demands during the design phase paid off in a colorful, varied program that made the instrument seem far larger than its actual size.

This project brought together both the seasoned and the newcomer. Bart Dahlstrom, Ortloff Organ Company’s first employee, flunked retirement at age 62 when he decided to join his woodworking skills to his organ-playing talents and become an organbuilder. His steady hand, impeccable work, and unfailing cheer have been a blessing throughout the project. Andrew Gray, a precocious 16-year-old son of an organist and a singer, had expressed interest in organbuilding for a few years; he came on as a summer employee in 2015. His meticulous wiring and pipe racking speak to his quiet diligence. Kade Phillips, an MIT student, lent help when not busy studying computer science 80 hours a week. Robert Poovey, organist-choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, and someone with not a little of the organbuilding bug himself, provided generous local assistance for installation and some of the tonal finishing. And Jonathan Ambrosino helped in scratch-tuning the organ on Labor Day, four days before its dedication.

Finally, the support from Steve Russell’s shop has been vital, principally in the construction of the console and 971 of the organ’s 1,390 pipes—each meticulously handcrafted. An organ’s soul lies in its pipes, and these are gorgeous indeed. Steve himself provided the sober foundation of over 40 years’ experience in all aspects of design and construction and was invaluable in helping me to shape the instrument’s final sound, both in shop and site voicing.

On behalf of the 14 people who had a hand in crafting this instrument, my thanks go to St. Joseph’s Church, and especially to its pastor, Fr. Jim Schwartz, for the vision not only to commission a pipe organ, but for putting faith in untried quarters. He and members of St. Joseph’s offered generous support and hospitality at every turn. It is my hope that the faith this parish demonstrated in all of us will be repaid by generations of faithful service from this instrument, our proud Opus 1.

—Jonathan Ortloff



Ortloff Organ Company:

Bart Dahlstrom

Andrew Gray

Jonathan Ortloff

Kade Phillips


Russell & Company:

Mayu Hashigaya Allen

Paul Elliott

Erik Johansson

Carole Russell

Stephen Russell


From the former director of music

I remember the beginning of the organ project at St. Joseph’s very clearly. I was in the church office kitchen, making tea, when Father Jim Schwartz walked in and said, “We need a new pipe organ. You should go talk to some organ builders.” How often does it happen that the pastor approaches the organist about a new instrument?! Though not entirely without context—the church’s electronic instrument was old and ailing (a few months later it caught fire during a funeral)—I was still dreaming wistfully of a pipe organ and considering how to broach the issue persuasively.

Among those from whom we sought a proposal was Jonathan Ortloff. Jon and I had been at Eastman together, and I had been his assistant when he was one of the organ department’s staff technicians. I knew his work ethic, and I knew his preferences and values in organ sound. Upon receiving his proposal, we were taken with both the tonal and physical design. Each voice would be able both to stand on its own and to contribute uniquely to the united chorus. The façade would adorn the front of the church, catching the eye, but directing attention to the altar.

Now, Jon would be among the first to grant that to sign a contract with an unproven organ builder is not without a certain amount of risk. The parish was mindful of that risk, but two factors allayed our concern. The first was my above-mentioned firsthand knowledge of Jon and his work. The second was that Stephen Russell, with whom Jon had apprenticed, and whom I knew by reputation, had agreed to work alongside of Jon throughout the project. It was Jon and Steve’s combined presentation to the Parish Pastoral Council on a memorable night in the summer of 2014 that won over the hearts of the parish and persuaded us that we would be in good hands.

I could not have been more pleased with the completed instrument when I first played it in September. Never have I seen flamed copper so well integrated into a church’s interior architecture. The broad richness of the foundations fills the room, the mixtures add clarity and brilliance without stridency, and the reeds balance smoothness of tone with a prevailing warm effulgence. This is an instrument perfectly suited to congregational and choral accompaniment, but also fully capable of realizing a wide variety of organ repertoire in a thoroughly satisfying way. It is my sincere hope that it is the first of many.

—Nathan Davy


From the current director of music

Our organ’s arrival over the past six months has fulfilled my hopes and expectations of almost two years. When I began my work at St. Joseph’s in March 2015, the contract had already been signed, the stoplist was finalized, and design had begun. I am as fortunate as an organist can be, enjoying a world-class new organ without having had to do any of the groundwork—convincing committees, raising funds, and the like. 

It was exciting for me, as a relatively early-career musician, to work with an organbuilder who is at a similar point in his own career. The entire church staff enjoyed Jonathan’s sincere, energetic love for the organ. His combination of youth, expertise, and passion helped give St. Joseph’s parishioners confidence that our art has a future.

Those of our parishioners who were at the dedicatory recital had an epiphany singing a hymn with a large audience of organists and choristers—this organ really sings, and it supports full, vibrant congregational singing. The choruses are bright without ever losing gravity. The reeds are penetrating, yet admirably vocal. The console is extremely comfortable and manageable, and it is light enough that one person can move it easily in just a few minutes: I can play from the middle of the church whenever I want to, which helps tremendously for preparing performances. The physical design of the organ, with its outward-radiating flamed copper façade, draws the eye to the altar, complementing both the shape of the building and the color profile of its stained-glass windows. I couldn’t be more pleased with this instrument.

—Jacob Fuhrman



16 Bourdon (Pedal/Swell)

8 Diapason (1–12 façade) 61 pipes 

8 Harmonic Flute 61 pipes

8 Viola (Swell)

8 Chimney Flute (Swell)

4 Octave 61 pipes

2 Fifteenth  61 pipes

113 Mixture III–IV 204 pipes

8 Trumpet* 61 pipes

Great 16

Great Off

Great 4

Swell to Great 16

Swell to Great

Swell to Great 4


16 Bourdon (tc) (from 8)

8 Chimney Flute* 61 pipes

8 Viola* 61 pipes

8 Viola Celeste (tc) 49 pipes

4 Principal 61 pipes

4 Flute* 61 pipes

223 Nazard (tc) 49 pipes

2 Flute* (ext 4) 12 pipes 

135 Tierce (tc) 49 pipes

2 Mixture IV 244 pipes

8 Trumpet* 61 pipes

8 Oboe* 61 pipes


Swell 16

Swell Off

Swell 4 


32 Resultant (Bourdon)

16 Principal (1–34 façade) 56 pipes

16 Bourdon* 44 pipes

8 Octave (ext 16)

8 Bourdon* (ext 16)

8 Chimney Flute (Swell)

4 Choral Bass (ext 16)

32 Harmonics (Trombone/derived)

16 Trombone* (ext Great) 12 pipes

8 Trumpet (Great)

Great to Pedal

Great to Pedal 4

Swell to Pedal

Swell to Pedal 4



18 stops, 24 ranks, 1,390 pipes


wind pressure throughout

*5 wind pressure

8 general pistons

8 divisional pistons per division

300 memory levels

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