My son Michael works for an architectural fabrication company in Boston that manufactures design elements for buildings, such as corporate logos with programmed LED displays, sophisticated signage, and art installations. They’ve made signs for Logan Airport in Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Public Theater in New York. Recently, Mike built a clock tower that also displays arrival and departure information for installation in the international terminal of Logan Airport. It is in the form of an airplane wing, mounted vertically, and was the gift of Swissair. It is made of aluminum with lots of curved edges and a fancy paint job.
Mike’s work is similar to building organs in that a product is built in a workshop and taken on the road for installation. It also means that father and son get to be tool geeks together.1 As I have done scores of times in my career, Mike goes on the road with a crew, staying in hotels, eating meals on a per diem budget in restaurants, and dealing with the logistics of getting things done while out of town.
Wendy and I live on East 9th Street in New York City, between Broadway and University Place. It’s in the heart of the campus of New York University, a bustling and colorful place. The other day, HVAC equipment was being delivered to a building up the street. There were signs placed at the beginning of the block (it’s a one-way street) a week ahead of time, saying the street would be closed Saturday and Sunday. Early Saturday morning, a crane arrived, the street was closed, and workers spent two days hoisting the machines to the roof of the five-story building. We live on the tenth floor, so I could look down and see the commotion. I was interested that of the twelve workers on the roof, only two were wearing hard hats.
Installing a pipe organ is a logistical tour de force. There’s often a lot of work to do on the building to prepare for the organ, creating a blower room, running wind lines, reinforcing floors, painting walls, and installing lighting. It’s fun to make a festival out of the delivery of the organ. Parishioners come to church on Sunday wearing work clothes, the truck arrives as the service ends, and organbuilders and parishioners work together to carry the organ parts into the church. Follow that with a pizza supper, and you’ve got a party and a fun introduction for a new organ in town.
Some churches have wide driveways and parking lots that allow a big truck to back right up to the door, even sometimes putting the truck’s ramp right into the narthex. But one church where we installed an organ had a steep and winding driveway, and it was impossible to bring the semi-trailer to the door. We had to transfer the organ into a smaller truck and make several trips up the hill. It was a big organ, it was January, it was Wisconsin, and it was snowing.
In smaller churches, we have the run of the place, taking over the kitchen for making lunches and working without interruption or inconvenience, just making sure that the sanctuary is clear for worship on Sunday. Remote locations can be difficult. We installed a residence organ in far northern Idaho, where it was a two-hour round trip to a hardware store, it took UPS extra days to make deliveries, and the Moose Knuckle Lodge was the only restaurant. Their kitchen had no ovens or fryers, just a griddle and a microwave oven, and we exhausted their menu pretty quickly.
A large, complex, and highly anticipated organ installation is under way now at St. Thomas Church in New York City. Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd., worked for years with the late John Scott, organist and director of music at St. Thomas, an active organ committee, and consultant Jonathan Ambrosino planning this immense and sophisticated organ. You can read a description and specifications of the organ at http://dobsonorgan.com/html/instruments/op93_newyork.html.
The organ will have 102 stops and will feature an elaborately carved and decorated case on the south wall of the chancel, opposite the magnificent north case designed by Bertram Goodhue for the church’s 1913 Ernest M. Skinner Company organ.
Preparing a stately stone building for the installation of a 64,000-pound pipe organ is a herculean task. The Great and Positiv divisions will be installed in the new case, cantilevered over the choir stalls. In order to keep all that weight from bearing on the church’s stone walls, a huge steel structure has been installed. There are a few spots in the organ where it’s obvious that the structural engineers and the organbuilders had to work together closely to get all that material to fit.
I visited St. Thomas Church the other day where Lynn Dobson and John Panning gave me a tour of the partially assembled organ. All of the windchests were in place, along with wind regulators, ladders, walkboards, and lots of sturdy racks for supporting large pipes. Another truckload of parts and pipes was scheduled to arrive the next day.
St. Thomas Church is on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 53rd Street, one of the busiest neighborhoods in the city. It is halfway between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trump Tower, next door to the hyper-popular Museum of Modern Art, and right in the heart of the legendary high-end shopping district. The sidewalks are always packed with tourists, shoppers, and street vendors, and the Dobson workers have to unload four, maybe five semi-trailers parked at the sidewalk.
When you’re delivering to a church in a big city, there’s never a loading dock, and you can never put the ramp of a truck on the top step at the church door. You go to City Hall to purchase a parking permit that allows you to put cones on the street, but you still have to watch like a hawk that no one tries to sneak in and park. Five years ago, the Organ Clearing House delivered a three-manual organ to the Church of the Resurrection on East 74th Street and Park Avenue, a much quieter neighborhood than St. Thomas, but we still had to stand with heavy loads on our shoulders while Park Avenue people walked their ten-thousand-dollar dogs along the sidewalks.
And in that church, like most of the places we work, there’s not much going on in the nave during the week, so you can put furniture pads on the pews and stack the whole organ on them early in the week, knowing that most of the big stuff will be up in the chamber before the weekend. St. Thomas Church is open to tourists, and there’s a busy schedule of weekday services. They’ve built a temporary wall closing off a side aisle of the nave to create storage space for organ parts and a workroom for the organbuilders. But there’s not enough space to accommodate all the organ’s components, so the Dobson people have the incredible task of sorting and organizing the myriad parts and pieces so the succession of truck deliveries contain what is needed soonest. Leave one windchest leg at the shop by mistake, and the job could come to a halt.
The truck arrives the night before the scheduled delivery to take advantage of lighter traffic in the wee hours, and an army of workers spends the day carrying components and packages across the sidewalk and up the stairs into the church. The first time I was on such a crew for the installation of the Flentrop organ at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1977, an overseas shipping container was delivered to the sidewalk on Euclid Avenue, and the team spent the entire day carrying the organ up the 20 stone steps to the nave. The organ had come from Rotterdam, across the Atlantic Ocean and up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Port of Cleveland on a ship named Calliope.
There follows a ballet of hoisting and rigging. Floor frames, which position the legs of the organ’s structure and ground-level components, are assembled and leveled. The structure is installed and prepared to bear the weight of the windchests, which are then hoisted into place. Workers on the chancel floor are busy teeing up the next few pieces while those in the chambers are turning screws, fastening pieces into their permanent homes. It’s a little like a game of Tetris, with oddly shaped pieces drifting along a pipeline.
At St. Thomas Church, massive towers of scaffolding have been installed on both sides of the chancel. They are partially obscured by safety netting so it is difficult to see the chamber interiors from the floor. But once upstairs, it’s quite a spectacle. As many times as I’ve stood or worked in a partially assembled organ, especially a huge one like this, I still marvel at the process. Where else but in a large organ chamber do you see such a display of human handiwork? The 600-year heritage of organbuilding culminates anew with each installation. All the different functions of a large organ are intermingled into one fantastic whole.
St. Thomas Church is a landmark for the world of church music. Since 1913 when the present building was opened, along with its new Skinner organ (Opus 205), the organists have been T. Tertius Noble (of free-accompaniment fame), T. Frederick H. Candlyn, William Self, Gerre Hancock, and John Scott. Daniel Hyde is the newly appointed successor to John Scott, whose tenure was sadly cut short by his sudden death.2
According to its website, the St. Thomas Choir School is “the only church-related boarding choir school in the United States, and one of only three of its kind remaining in the world.” The choir has an intense schedule. A recent article about the choir in the New York Times stated that the boys are singing more than 20 hours each week. A look at the church’s calendar makes it clear that the organbuilders have a lot to work around.
The new Dobson organ will be a workhorse, played dozens of hours each week, and heard by tens, even hundreds of thousands of people each year. It will be played by some of the finest organists in the world. It was a thrill to stand inside the partially assembled organ, thinking of all the wonderful music yet to come. I’m grateful to Lynn and John for welcoming me, and I sure look forward to hearing the organ. You can see many photos of the construction and installation of this organ on Lynn Dobson’s and Dobson Pipe Organ Builders’ Facebook pages. It’s worth a ramble!
In recent memory, there has been a string of exciting organ installations in New York, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. James’s Episcopal Church, Christ and St. Stephen’s, Fordham University, Grace Church, Church of the Ascension, Church of the Resurrection, and Marble Collegiate Church. The organ at St. Thomas Church will surely be a thrilling addition to the fleet.
Social media is a techno-sociological phenomenon that has taken the world by storm. I have an active community on Facebook, which is mostly limited to professionals in the pipe organ world. While sometimes it seems the whole thing is actually a revolution by cats trying to take over the world, for the most part, I find it stimulating and edifying, and a wonderful way to keep in touch with my profession. It is mid-June as I write this column, and in recent weeks I have seen countless posts of church musicians and school music teachers wrapping up their program years.
Students are saying goodbye to their important mentors, young organists are leaving academia to go out into the world, and choir directors are celebrating the bittersweet emotion of saying goodbye and looking forward to a few months with a lighter schedule. Lots of you out there are posting photos taken during year-end choir parties—festive gatherings of close-knit communities celebrating the time they’ve spent together. In many churches, the choir is the busiest volunteer group. While most committees meet monthly, the choir is together in the building twice a week, at least.
A few years ago, the music publisher J. W.
Pepper released a video interview with John Rutter, one of their most celebrated composers. I wrote extensively about that video in the July 2015 issue of The Diapason, and you can see the video online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pm-Pm1FYZ-U. I’m reminded of this as I view the year-end posts. John Rutter says:
Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls. You express, when you sing, your soul in song. And when you get together with a group of other singers, it becomes more than the sum of the parts. All of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony, which is kind of an emblem for what we need in the world, when so much of the world is at odds with itself. That’s just to express in symbolic terms what it’s like when human beings are in harmony. That’s a lesson for our times, and for all time. . . .
Musical excellence is, of course, at the heart of it, but even if a choir is not the greatest in the world, it has a social value, a communal value. . . . A church or a school without a choir is like a body without a soul.
While I’m not an active sports fan, I have been one for much of my life: my father and I had an unbroken streak of 25 consecutive opening-day games at Fenway Park in Boston, and I understand the value of teamwork in athletics. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why a public school system would cut a music budget in favor of sports. And this has nothing to do with the increasing awareness of the dangerous long-term effects of the more violent sports.
At its root, choral singing is a basic human activity. We must breathe to live, and when we exhale across our vocal chords, we gain the power of speech. If we sustain our speech, sustain our vowel sounds, we’re singing. Voilà! When we’re singing together, we’re exchanging our very breath.
Many of you are a month away from bringing the choir back together for a new year. It’s not one of life’s frills, and it should never be a chore. “It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.”
1. Recently, we were gathering at hotel in western Massachusetts for a family wedding. Mike arrived at the same time as Wendy and me, and walked over to my car to greet us. My car is a Chevrolet Suburban, which has a long, deep interior, so I’ve made a tool with a hook that helps me pull stuff toward the back where I can reach it. As I fished for a suitcase, Mike laughed and said, “That’s what separates us from the animals.” I think he was comparing me to a chimpanzee using a stick to get ants out of the ground!
2. I wrote about John Scott following his death in the October 2015 issue of The Diapason.