Today was Johann Sebastian Bach’s 325 birthday, or would have been if he’d lasted to 325 years old. The Sandusky Ohio chapter of the American Guild of Organists held a little show in honor of the event. Several local organists provided some music in a series of churches across the town. Being a fan of Bach, pipe organs, and Bach played on pipe organs, I decided to take a listen.
Although Sandusky did boast one stop on a recent northern Ohio tour of the international Organ Historical Society (of whom I was a member, for a day), the 3 churches that me and about 100 fellow tour-mates enjoyed were not on that particular list. These were not world-class instruments, nor the organists national stars. However, they put on a good show, for the most part.
Honestly, being very picky about Bach performances (especially on the organ), I almost didn’t make it to the second venue. At one point, I remember gazing at the well-suited old man sitting patiently a row in front of me, his wispy white hair no longer able to hide the hearing aid firmly embedded in his skull. I remember envying him in the knowledge that his ears had an off-switch.
Don’t get goofy on me. After taking several years of organ lessons as a little kid (with little improvement), I understand how difficult the king of instruments can be. I didn’t expect these mini-performances to have the fit, flow, and polish of a Carnegie-hall event. I also understand that I shouldnt expect the local corner church organist to play like a Julliard graduate, especially when you don’t have a gaggle of music-school undergrads to turn the music pages for you. Still, it’s Bach.. and I know when you screw it up.
All in all, I enjoyed the performances, and the performers pushed their respective instruments as far as they could. Ending on a high note, I’m glad I went.
And, I only had to wake-up the wife once.
I want to make one other point. As the music from he organ at Emmanuel United wafted to the plaster board ceiling and dropped to my feet like a stunned carp, I realized the fundamental importance of sound design & planning when installing these massive instruments. I’ve seen a noticeable pattern where these instruments are hampered by their own installation in a particular space. Yes, a church must work with the space it has, but you can make a space work for the organ, as well.
Some places will intentionally dampen their instruments to maintain the look of a church. Temple Tifereth Beth Israel of Cleveland encased the entire organ and pipes in a wood and brick wall to blend in to the byzantine interior. Beautiful organ, incredible sound, and no one will ever hear it. But, many churches will make the instrument their centerpiece, and still manage to screw-up the sound. So many times, I can see where a church gets just enough funds to install the grandest organ they can afford, but take no extra planning steps to ensure all that money goes towards the sound for that church. Most times, it ends-up reverberating in the rafters. Set it up, plug it in, don’t go over budget. That’s the push.
Basic sound planning or relatively minor changes (compared to the installation of an entire pipe organ) can make the difference between a grand, inspiring machine to an entire waste of money. As I’ve seen, small, inexpensive changes to a churches interior would allow it to purchase smaller units and get even greater sound in return, or allow existing systems to shine.
A poor organist can be enhanced beyond his means by a good space. Sandusky’s St. Peter and Paul’s high stone & marble interior could make a monkey with a squeezebox sound angelic (not to say St. Peter And Paul’s organ is a squeezebox or it’s organist a monkey. No, both are beyond excellent). However, a good organist can be made virtually mute by poor installation. Simple reflecting scallops over Emmanuel United’s pipes would give this unit an unbelievable rebirth. Now, I can’t tell it from the portable Lowery from my mom’s basement. If Sandusky’s First Congregational church had lowered the entire package 2 feet, or moved it out 2 feet so the tallest pipes would clear ceiling supports of the vestibule in which it sits, we would be able to enjoy the incredible low-notes this organ is capable of. This organ could have been a music-lover’s destination for the county, instead of just a ‘nice’ organ where the sound blasts holes in the vestibule’s partially-enclosed ceiling. At least the organist can enjoy it.
I would hate to think it was installers doing this, but I know they’re part of the process. Guys.. step-up your game. Seeing such a waste in time, materials, money, and potential on something so easy, ruins what should be a good time.
‘A good time in church’… now that’s a weird one from me.