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Cover Feature

August 30, 2020

This isn’t the article we had intended to publish in this issue of The Diapason. As with so many other things this year, the completion of a pipe organ we had anticipated sharing here has been delayed by complications arising from the coronavirus pandemic. We will provide details about our 75-rank instrument for First United Methodist Church in Lubbock, Texas—the rendering of which is featured on the cover—in a later issue.

Nonetheless, we felt this is an opportunity to detail some of the recent changes at Orgues Létourneau. The news of Fernand Létourneau selling the company last November to Dr. Dudley Oakes was publicized widely but was necessarily brief. 2019 was Orgues Létourneau’s fortieth year of continuous operation. Over this time, the company has built over 140 new pipe organs around the world and has rebuilt or restored countless others.

The sale of an organbuilding enterprise is delicate, as is surely the case with any business providing personalized products that are evaluated subjectively. This sense of risk is heightened in our unique industry, thanks to some well-known collapses, even if they were decades ago. Then again, there are examples of well-planned and orderly ownership changes, including the recent transition at Dobson Pipe Organ Builders. Any success-fail probability equation would involve changes in the quality of the product post-sale, the circumstances of the sale, the actors involved, the overall economic climate, and broader trends in the pipe organ world. The role of simple luck can’t be overlooked either.

Despite the global uncertainty at present, we are thankful that our organ building team at Létourneau will be busy well into the future. The aforementioned instrument for First United Methodist Church, Lubbock, will be followed later this year by a 36-rank instrument for Alumni Chapel of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. The Aeolian-Skinner/M. P. Möller pipe organ from Market Square Presbyterian Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is currently in our workshops where we are hard at work transforming it into our Opus 136 (IV/83). Létourneau’s Opus 127 from St. Mark’s School of Dallas, Texas, has also returned to our workshops; this 61-rank instrument suffered considerably last fall when a tornado tore through the school’s North Dallas neighborhood. We will be comprehensively rebuilding the organ, including a new case and console. There are a number of other exciting projects we look forward to sharing with you in due course, including a major concert hall instrument.

In the meantime, we trust you’ll enjoy the following conversation with Fernand Létourneau about his early days and an introduction to company’s revamped management team. We finish with a preview of what’s ahead from Létourneau’s new president, Dudley Oakes.

—Andrew Forrest

A conversation with Fernand Létourneau

Fernand Létourneau began his organbuilding career at Casavant Frères in 1965. He worked briefly in nearly every department, but his excellent ear—honed as a trumpeter in a local band—led him to the voicing department where he apprenticed under Paul Proulx. Proulx was known internally as Larry Phelps’s protégé, showing unusual finesse voicing flue pipes with open toes and unnicked languids. Fernand also learned reed voicing from his uncle, Jean-Paul Létourneau, who was regarded as the company’s finest reed voicer for much of the twentieth century. Having the benefit of two exceptional instructors, Fernand was soon a skilled voicer for both flue and reed pipes. This versatility kept him on the road as a tonal finisher, and by the end of the Phelps era he was the company’s top trouble-shooter.

Gerhard Brunzema came to Québec from Germany as Phelps’s successor in 1972. Fernand credits Brunzema for having taught him a great deal, especially in the area of mechanical key actions. Brunzema soon invited Fernand to serve as assistant tonal director, a role that drew Fernand into the company’s most prestigious projects and allowed him to continue as the company’s top problem solver.

Events over the next few years, however, caused Fernand to realize that further advancement at Casavant was unlikely. He pondered starting his own company, but more immediately, he planned a study trip to Europe with Brunzema’s tacit support. Fernand was successful in obtaining a grant from the Canadian Council of the Arts of $2,700 CAN in 1978 for the study trip, and consequently, Fernand resigned from Casavant. Soon after, he was on his way to Europe to study the voicing techniques in unaltered historic instruments.

While he mentions the Schnitger organ of Alkmaar and the Müller organ of the St-Bavo Church in Haarlem, Fernand singles out the 1790 Clicquot organ at the Cathedral in Poitiers as the one that perhaps impressed him the most. Here, he met Jean-Albert Villard, the titular organist, whom he remembers as being extremely kind. After introducing themselves, Fernand recalled the two men went into the instrument, and after a few minutes of Fernand looking closely at the pipework—but being extremely careful not to touch anything—Villard looked at him and exclaimed impatiently, “Well, come on then, pick up the pipes!” As Fernand recounts the story with a laugh, “Needless to say, he didn’t have to say it twice!” The two men stayed in touch, with Villard writing a letter to Fernand the following year with the question, “Aren’t you a little young to start out as an organbuilder?”

Tender age of 34 notwithstanding, Fernand Létourneau launched Orgues Létourneau in January of 1979 from his home in Ste-Rosalie, Québec. He continued to take on freelance voicing contracts but was soon invited to put forward a bid for a practice organ at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Hull (now Gatineau). It turned out to be the company’s very first instrument, with Fernand recalling the director, Monsieur Aimé Lainesse, asking him, “Have you ever built an organ?”

“No, this will be my first,” replied Fernand with some trepidation.

“Oh yes? Well, if no one gives you a chance to build your first instrument, you will never build your second. Monsieur Létourneau, I will give you that chance, you will build your first instrument.”

The next three Létourneau instruments went “down under,” thanks to Fernand’s work on a Pogson pipe organ at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music prior to the construction of Opus 1. Fernand’s revoicing of this instrument won the acclaim of the late Australian organist David Rumsey, who then enthusiastically supported Fernand’s proposals for St. Alban’s Church in Epping (Opus 2), for the residence of Dr. Neil Cameron of Sydney (Opus 3), and for the Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School in Darlinghurst (Opus 4).

Each of these instruments was built in Fernand’s basement with another former Casavant employee, the cabinetmaker Noël Bilodeau. Also assisting were Yvan Blouin and Sylvain Létourneau, both of whom are still with Létourneau today. Fernand smiles when describing the unremarkable tools they used in those days, though he notes that he allowed himself one new woodworking machine with each new contract.

Fernand also highlights the importance of a publicist and supporter, Maurice Roy, in those early years, who wanted Fernand to advertise his skills. Fernand was reluctant, telling Maurice advertising was expensive and it wasn’t worth it. Maurice ultimately carried the day, arguing, “Come on, Fernand! If you’re excellent but you’re the only one who knows it, that’s not worth five cents!” Indeed, Maurice Roy was unflagging as a publicist for the company and its work, from those early days through the late 1990s when his health began to fail.

While he had initially planned to build a workshop on the land behind his home, Fernand decided in 1983 to buy a building at a bargain price from the City of Saint-Hyacinthe. The building, the company’s headquarters to this day on rue Savoie, was a redundant water treatment facility. With its multiple levels and 18-inch-thick concrete walls, Fernand notes its transformation into a workshop for organbuilding cost over four times its purchase price.

As the conversation nears its close, Fernand looks back and acknowledges he had something to prove in starting his own company, that he wanted to create something remarkable. He remains surprised nonetheless at the extent of his success, “If someone had told me forty years ago that the company would be what it is today, I wouldn’t have believed them.” He also notes how far the team of organbuilders currently at Létourneau has come: “I am proud that many at Létourneau today are really specialists in their fields. Some of our people today are among the best I have ever worked with.”

Asked what advice he might offer his successor Dudley Oakes, his closing thoughts are in a similar vein: “I have great faith in Dudley and in the company going into the future. Dudley takes care of his customers, and I am delighted he wanted to step up and guide the company through its next chapter. I would tell Dudley to trust his team; you can’t do it all, and they want to keep you happy, they won’t let you down.”

The preceding text is an edited transcription of a conversation that took place in French between Fernand Létourneau and Andrew Forrest at the Létourneau home on July 20, 2020. 

A look ahead from the president

I have always been fascinated with the pipe organ. At the age of six, I begged my parents to allow me to play the organ but had to follow the usual course of studying piano all through elementary and secondary school. Eventually, the time came when I had sufficient piano background to have a seat at the organ console of Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia. I will never forget the sheer excitement; it was an electronic organ, but little did this kid care!

I later had the opportunity to visit Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond, where a high school friend was a member. There I experienced a three-manual pipe organ that produced some of the most amazing sounds I had ever heard. I graduated from high school in 1973 able to play all of the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues by Bach (or whomever wrote them). Ignoring the objections of my business-oriented father, I proceeded to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Richmond and followed this immediately by immersing myself in the organ program of the University of Michigan.

At Michigan, it was magical. I was flooded with all the goodness imaginable by four competent, compelling, and selfless teachers for whom a student’s progress was their raison d’être. I learned about the organ, about music, and about life. I was primed for a lifetime ahead as a musician by the likes of Robert Clark, Marilyn Mason, James Kibbie, and Robert Glasgow. I also had the opportunity to compete for le Grand Prix de Chartres twice, and while I didn’t win, the value of those experiences far outweighs any disappointment.

My love for the organ has always gone beyond playing it; I am fascinated by the variety of sounds available and the manner in which sound is made. I have an innate love for objects of beauty and integrity that extends well beyond pipe organs. Such objects typically include gorgeous woods, beautiful metals, exquisite craftsmanship, a keen eye for detail, or are simply of the highest order because of their perfect execution. The pipe organ just happens to combine all these things to create a world that I adore.

I joined with Létourneau in 1987 when I had finished my Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Michigan. Fernand Létourneau was looking for an organist to represent him in the United States; his staff at Létourneau at that time was technically superb but only a few were musicians. In my student days, I was one of sixty organ students divided between three studios, and while U of M was one of the bigger schools, there were others as well. Organists like me were being trained and educated across North America, so it seemed clear there would be a need for better instruments in time.

In those early days, I was doing church music ministry, teaching music at a college, and representing Fernand’s company. I was also the only native English speaker at Létourneau, so I inevitably worked on the company’s documents for English-speaking clients, whether it was my project or not! In this way, I found myself in the middle of projects with
H. M. The Tower of London, St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral (Sydney, Australia), and Pembroke College (The University of Oxford) among others. This was a great vantage point from which to learn about the instrument and the company’s approach to organbuilding.

The company’s profile in the United States grew quickly in the early 1990s, and I enjoyed my work; I loved telling people that I was the luckiest person alive. I was able to play the organ, to teach students, and to work in organbuilding almost every day. Really, who could ask for more? Over the past three decades with Létourneau, I have seen joy countless times on the faces of congregants when they hear their new instrument for the first time. I have heard stunning recitals on our pipe organs by renowned artists. I have heard the extraordinary choir in the chapel of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge accompanied by our Opus 95. In many cases, I have performed concerts on these same instruments. The one constant through all these experiences has been that our lives are all immeasurably richer because of the beauty that these pipe organs provide.

One of the great successes I have observed within the Létourneau company over three decades is the talented and experienced group of artisans that work for the company today. This team is a tremendous source of encouragement to me. Fernand understood that a strong team would lead to repeated successes, so he set out to surround himself with talented and hard-working individuals. With the team I have inherited and some strategic additions coming in the future, we are poised to realize some thrilling organ projects in a climate that demands our best mechanically and musically. It is reassuring to receive inquiries from around the world and to know that Létourneau is truly equipped, as one of the finest shops in North America, to respond to a variety of challenges.

I can predict the next three years or so as much of that time is already committed to some exciting projects. We know we will be going “all out” to satisfy clients in Texas, Utah, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Ontario, Tennessee, and Alabama. I am confident that other contracts will come forward as well, but I expect the needs of our clients will influence where we go and what we do over the medium term and beyond.

Why did I buy the Létourneau company? That’s easy; it was because I love what we do. Fernand built the company for forty years, but we’re also friends, I knew he wanted to retire. I have never known a harder working man, and he has earned the right to step back and enjoy his golden years. With my experience and knowledge of the company, it is an honor to step in and take the company in some exciting new directions. In fact, Fernand set a standard decades ago when he remarked that each Létourneau organ should somehow be better than the last one. It is a noble idea and one we will continue to follow as long as I own the company.

In terms of changes since I took over, we’re working hard to perfect what we already do, to keep making our instruments and our team better and better. Our relationships, from initial meetings through installation and tonal finishing through the organ’s dedication, are crucial to our success. Our instruments need to reflect our best work, whether that work comes from our hands, our minds, or our hearts. We love what we do and we want those who experience our instruments to feel that too.

More broadly, the pipe organ industry will endure ups and downs, but I am certain organbuilding will always have a place in the world. So long as there are people who play the organ musically, there will always be the need for our instruments.

In the end, superb pipe organs are our goal. One question I always ask when talking about our pipe organs has nothing to do with the number of pipes or ranks. Rather, what I want to know is, “Is it musical?” This renewed pursuit of musicality is, I feel, the best way to honor Fernand Létourneau’s legacy going forward.

—Dudley Oakes

Builder’s website: http://letourneauorgans.com/

Dudley Oakes has served as a liaison for over thirty years between the company and hundreds of clients throughout the United States. Having purchased the company in November 2019, Dr. Oakes is currently dividing his time between the company’s workshop in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, and his home in Winchester, Virginia. He received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1987 and has subsequently held positions at several prestigious churches across the United States. A distinguished concert organist and teacher, Dr. Oakes has lectured and played recitals across North America as well as in Italy, France, Germany, England, and Russia.

Andrew Forrest began his organbuilding career with Létourneau in February 1999, was named Artistic Director in 2008, and was appointed Vice President of the company in 2019. He oversees the company with a focus on individual projects, including meeting with clients, preparing proposals, setting artistic benchmarks, and directing tonal finishing. An organist himself, Mr. Forrest’s interests include the art of pipe scaling, mixture compositions, reed shallots, and other details that go into tone production. He was elected President of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA) in May 2020. Mr. Forrest holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University.

Georges Trépanier holds diplomas in administration and international commerce from Montréal’s prestigious HEC business school. After overseeing the company’s accounting for over a decade, he was named General Manager in March 2015. In this role, Mr. Trépanier ably manages the company’s financial affairs as well as relations with the various levels of government. As a boy, he studied piano for seven years, which translated into his interest in organbuilding. Over the years, Mr. Trépanier has participated in several pipe organ installations across the United States and Australia.

Dany Nault began his organbuilding career at Létourneau casting pipe metal at the age of 18. He rose quickly to the position of chief pipe maker and oversaw the production of hundreds of ranks of pipes over a twelve-year period. Mr. Nault decided in 2013 to study industrial engineering on a full-time basis, and upon completing the program, he worked as a technician and later manager in the manufacturing sector. In February 2020, Mr. Nault returned to Létourneau as Director of Production. His responsibilities in this role include overseeing production schedules, enhancing productivity, developing departmental quality improvement plans, and raising safety standards.

Létourneau’s goal with visual proposals is to offer a realistic sense of how an instrument will look once installed. As Artistic Designer, Claude Demers is the creative mind behind each instrument’s visual concept, designing each organ case in AutoCAD and overseeing its transformation into a three-dimensional illustration. He holds a diploma in architecture as well as a certificate in electronics. Mr. Demers is an accomplished wood carver, having sculpted the wood carvings on many of the company’s instruments over the years. He has been with the company since 1988.

François Carrier began at Létourneau in 1989 after training as a cabinetmaker. Over the years, he gained experience throughout the company working as a cabinetmaker, wood finisher, voicing assistant, installer, and windchest builder, serving as head of this last department for a decade. His interest in design led him to complete several intensive courses in architectural drafting and AutoCAD; he was promoted to the position of Technical Designer in 2008. Working closely with Mr. Demers and Mr. Forrest, Mr. Carrier translates the initial designs for each instrument into completed production drawings to enable construction in our workshops.

Photo: Fernand Létourneau and Dudley Oakes sign paperwork marking the sale of Orgues Létourneau in the company’s 40th year (photo credit: Orgues Létourneau)

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