Cover Feature

October 2, 2018

Bigelow & Co. Organ Builders, American Fork, Utah

Fortieth Anniversary

Opus 42

Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Fishers Island, New York

 

From the builder

Forty years—and forty-two organs— ago Bigelow & Co. was born. Looking back, it has been quite a ride. After training with master organbuilder John Brombaugh in Ohio, I set up shop in Utah, married the girl of my dreams, and went to work. Dr. David Rothe in Chico, California, showed incredible faith by signing our first contract. His organ featured “either-or” registration whereby a stop can be registered on either manual, thus lending flexibility with just a handful of stops. I liked the idea of giving broader appeal to the small, less expensive organ. In fact, we’ve built a number of “either-or” instruments since then, including our most recent work featured in this article.

I recall as a youth drooling over pictures of the great organs of Europe such as St. Bavokerk, Haarlem, and St. Johannis Kirche, Lüneburg, I never dreamed that I would visit them someday, sketch pad in hand, recording their beautiful cases not only on paper, but also in my mind and heart. Their visual excitement was equaled only by their magnificent sound. I was in heaven then, and I continue to be in heaven each time I get to design an organ case or experience a finished instrument. Opus 42 is no exception. It incorporates the church’s original 1929 organ case by Skinner Organ Company, which we upgraded to display new speaking pipes. We also replaced the original grillework in the two flats with new treble pipes and matching pipe shade carvings for heightened visual appeal.

My wife says it is time to retire, but I do not think she would like me hanging around the house so much. Besides, it is pipe organs that I love to build!

—Michael Bigelow

 

From the vice president and tonal director

I consider it a great blessing to have been employed at Bigelow & Co. during my entire organbuilding career—over thirty of the forty years of its existence. During that time I have learned much, and I still enjoy the challenge of designing mechanisms and sounds to fit different, sometimes difficult, situations. Our Opus 42 at St. John’s Church, Fishers Island, was not our first chamber installation, nor was it our first experience in building a mechanical-action instrument into existing casework. It was, however, our first experience with an instrument speaking into the chancel, and the low impost of the historic case presented significant mechanical challenges.  

Like most of our smaller instruments, Opus 42 uses our “either-or” registration system, whereby most stops can be registered on either one manual or the other. The availability of some re-usable pipes (16′ Bourdon, 8′ Principal bass, and Voix Celeste from Skinner, the bass octave of an earlier string, and the more recent wood 8′ Gedeckt) made for a somewhat richer disposition than would have been otherwise possible within our budget. In lieu of our more typical mutation stop,  the open metal 8′ Treble Flute was chosen, as it seemed to be more in keeping with late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century tradition. The sub-octave coupler was a special request—no other Bigelow organ has one—which, besides the more obvious advantages, makes it possible for an incredibly rich ensemble of six flue ranks to sound together at 8′ pitch!

I honestly cannot think of a happier installation experience than this one: wonderful people, a beautiful and relaxing environment, and a delightful instrument coming together in a lovely place. 

—David Chamberlin

 

From the organist

I first stepped off the Fishers Island Ferry in June of 2014. After several conversations with colleagues who had served the church in the preceding years, I knew St. John’s to be a summer community that values worship and the role the church plays in the unique pattern of island living. At the time of my hiring, the vestry communicated their hope that I might help them discern the best path forward for their organ, which had become as much a financial liability as a musical one. Having spent considerably on the instrument just a few years earlier, they were rightly cautious about continuing to sink resources into stopgap measures. Several conversations were held in regards to the respective merits of rebuilding the old organ or replacing it with a new pipe or digital instrument. To their great credit, the members of the vestry did considerable diligence in researching each option, and after a short period of prayer and discernment, the decision was made to commission a new pipe organ for the church. 

In an effort to instill confidence in the project and to avoid saddling future organists with my own musical preferences, I encouraged the church to engage Jonathan Ambrosino as an independent consultant. Jonathan shepherded us through the process of soliciting and reviewing proposals, helped to communicate effectively with the congregation, and ultimately served as a liaison between the church and builder throughout the processes of design, construction, and installation. After reviewing compelling proposals from four builders, the unanimous decision was reached to engage Bigelow & Co. to build the new instrument. It was immediately evident to all that the proposal written by Mike Bigelow and David Chamberlin not only respected the understated beauty of the setting, but also addressed several of the challenges particular to an island organ that only sees full service for about sixteen weeks of the year. Their mastery of the “either-or” registration system resulted in an instrument that is uncharacteristically versatile for its size, while the added sub-octave coupler contributes an undeserved range of color and depth. 

Now having completed its first summer of service, it is clear that this instrument will be a lasting source of pride for the Fishers Island community and a testament to the artistry and craftsmanship of Bigelow & Co. A happier result surely could not have been possible.  

—Brent Erstad

 

From the consultant

Over the past fifteen years, I have been variously involved with the chapel organ at Saint Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Working there made me aware of Saint John’s Episcopal Church on Fishers Island, in Long Island Sound, a parish with a long connection to the school. A number of alumni are church members, and the current rector and many organists have served both institutions (the school term dovetails neatly with the summer service schedule). Colin Lynch and Brent Erstad are two Saint Paul’s chapel organists who also served at Fishers; Andrew Sheranian and Michael Smith have also served. While none of them ever raved about the organ, they all spoke warmly of the place and its people.

In July 2015, Saint John’s got in touch about how to proceed with the instrument. It had begun life in 1929 as a humble eight-rank Skinner, with much of the Swell duplexed to the Great, a lone Pedal Bourdon, and no reed. Its alcove location was about as enchambered as could be imagined. In the 1980s and later, Alan McNeely revised the instrument into a full-bore two-manual of 22 ranks, with additional Pedal, Antiphonal, and eventually a few memorial digital voices. But the organ’s environment spelled its doom. The blower and some mechanism lived in a basement rife with dampness; salt and moisture played havoc with key contacts; the disused 1929 Spencer blower stood in a corner, a pile of rust and humiliation. In its final years, Ed Odell and Scot Huntington serviced the instrument.

While a part of New York State, Fishers is reached by ferry from New London, Connecticut. My maiden visit, however, was by air. Patrick Aiken (organist-choirmaster of Central Congregational Church in Providence) kindly flew me down in his Cessna 172, and it made for a storybook introduction to the place: perfect weather, majestic island vista, corkscrew descent, a trim touchdown at Elizabeth Field. The senior warden’s smiling aunt met me in what Connecticut people call a “station car”—an old beater to take back and forth to the train. Saint John’s Church itself is a microcosm of the island: not fancy or ostentatious, a few dignified appointments of restrained beauty and appropriate scale, people of obvious class with nothing to prove. The grandeur of the island, the smart folk, the effort required to get there, a station car: here was a particular slice of vanishing old New England.

Later that morning, through a sea of intermittent notes and other issues, I heard Brent Erstad accompany two morning services. While twenty-two ranks is hardly large, still, this is a village church. The organ’s size had grown out of phase with the place, not merely the building but the congregation’s very sense of itself. These people clearly enjoyed singing hymns together. They needed only a solid and straightforward organ to lead them. A new tracker, flexible but in proper scale, seemed the thing. Once the vestry understood that a long-term solution did not need to be dauntingly expensive, four mechanical-action builders were invited to propose.

The church took this assignment seriously. Rather than dangle a prospect and see who would jump highest, the church gave each builder a stipend to cover at least some of the travel to Fishers and the warmest of welcomes. In place of a stern Request-For-Proposal, the church provided a statement of goals, outlining the vestry’s hope that each builder might be inspired to propose something as individual as the place itself. Ultimately, Bigelow & Co. was chosen, partly from their track record with appealing and flexible smaller organs, partly for a genuine enthusiasm to work with the original simple case-front.

In 2017, a Boston team of Joe Sloane, Amory Atkins, and Dean Conry took away the old organ, salvaging a few unaltered Skinner ranks. This set the stage for the church’s conscientious caretaker, Andrew “Ace” Ahrens, to prepare for the new instrument. The chamber was rehabilitated and shortened, and the rear portion sectioned off into a new blower room. Keeping the entire instrument out of the basement sealed it from the worst effects of dampness. In the church itself, floors were refinished, and a bit of new carpeting replaced a great deal of old. The organ arrived in April 2018 and was brought into use in May, the builders being beautifully seen to by Ace and other vestry members. Brent Erstad gave an opening concert on July 7, assisted by tenor Andrew Brown. He and Dan Moriarty have been playing this summer.

It is wonderful to work with a church that suffers no confusion of aims. Not even six months from the first email, Saint John’s had contracted with
Bigelow. Having decided what was right, they dove in headfirst, kept sharp at every turn, and celebrated in style. It is always a delight to work with such fine people and good builders. The best part comes in knowing that the people of Saint John’s now have a tasteful organ as timeless as their parish, their building, and their faith.

—Jonathan Ambrosino

From the rector

Over three years ago, when Saint John’s Church on Fishers Island was facing the challenge of replacing the failing ninety-year-old Skinner organ, installing another pipe organ was not the preferable option. In fact, the challenges of maintaining the current instrument, the weather fluctuations on the island, and the limited use of an organ in this seasonal summer chapel were all compelling reasons to go the digital organ route. However, St. John’s was also gifted with a plethora of accomplished organists who had visited the church over the summers, connected with our vestry and congregation, and encouraged us to consider another opportunity to install a new pipe organ in the church. 

We are a congregation that loves to sing, and we value an instrument that not only provides the backdrop to our voices, but also can join with us as a living presence in the worship space. Brent Erstad and Jonathan Ambrosino walked with us down the road towards another pipe organ and encouraged the welcoming of a new instrument. When we met Michael Bigelow and read his carefully prepared proposal, we knew that he was the one who would not only create a wonderful and appropriate instrument for the church, but also would do so in a way that honored our history and supported our future with a beautiful instrument. 

Over two years later, we were pleased this summer to share the voices of the W. Richard Bingham Memorial Organ, Bigelow Opus 42, in an inaugural concert played by Brent Erstad. The congregation is very appreciative of the new instrument and we have launched an organ concert series this summer that we hope to continue in the future, featuring not only organ recitals, but also silent films with organ accompaniment, spirited hymn sings, and a three-day choir camp on the island for students from a local independent school. We look forward to continuing these offerings as an outreach not only to our church community, but also to the community of Fishers Island and beyond. 

Saint John’s is immensely grateful to all those who contributed to this project: the many donors whose support made this a reality, especially the family of W. Richard Bingham after whom this instrument is named, the counsel and expertise of Jonathan Ambrosino and Brent Erstad who shepherded us through the process, the artistry and skill of Michael Bigelow and his team at Bigelow & Co., and the support of the vestry and members of St. John’s Church. We look forward to many years of enjoyment as this new organ adds its voice to ours in celebrating all of the moments of our spiritual journey for generations to come.

—The Reverend Michael Spencer

MANUAL I

8′ Open Diapason (1–6*) 

8′ Treble Flute, MC (open metal)

8′ Stopped Diapason (wood)*

8′ Viola Dolce (1–12*)

 

4′ Principal

4′ Chimney Flute

III Mixture 2′–11⁄3′–1′

Man. II to Man. I 

Man. II to Man. I 16′

PEDAL

16′ Bourdon*

8′ Bourdon (ext)*

Manual I to Pedal

Manual II to Pedal 

 

Double-headed arrows indicate “Either-Or” stops. Registering a stop on one manual automatically cancels it from the other.

Previous case front with newly attached keydesk, speaking façade pipes, and new carvings.

Pipes in projecting clusters of three are non-speaking, retained from previous organ. 

 

MANUAL II

8′ Stopped Diapason

8′ Viola Dolce (1–12*)

8′ Voix Celeste, TC*

4′ Principal

4′ Chimney Flute

2′ Fifteenth

8′ Cornopean

Tremolo (affects entire organ)

 

* From previous organ, modified

 

58/30 notes – flat pedalboard.

Manual keys of bone and ebony.

Key-tensioned mechanical key action.

Mechanical stop action.

Mechanically operated swell shades enclose all stops except Open Diapason (in façade).

10 voices, 12 ranks

 

Builder’s website: www.bigeloworgans.com

Church’s website: www.stjohnsfi.org

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