Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Downstairs, Upstairs

On Sunday, December 11 at 3pm, Isabelle Demers will play a recital on the Casavant Organ (#665, 1916) recently enhanced and relocated by the Organ Clearing House.  Originally built for the "downstairs" sanctuary of the Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Lewiston, ME, it has been installed at the Church of the Resurrection, 119 East 74th Street, New York, NY.
Isabelle is a knockout musician.  I first heard her play in the summer of 2010 when she performed for the joint convention of the American Institute of Organbuilders and the International Society of Organbuilders in Montreal.  I was thrilled with her program, and I had never seen such collective enthusiasm among the (often super-critical) membership of those two organizations.  It was a rollicking bus ride back to the convention hotel.
Isabelle will play her transcription of Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - a delightful vehicle for the organ's "new" vintage Skinner French Horn along with the rest of the colorful voices imagined and created by the magical voicers of Casavant.

I posted notice of this program on the Organ Clearing House Facebook page and as I see comments in response, I thought I'd publish here the essay I wrote about the organ project for June 2011 issue of THE DIAPASON:

“Downstairs, Upstairs”

During 1916, Casavant Frères completed sixty-one new organs including Opus 665, built for the “Lower Sanctuary” of the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine, incorporating many ranks of pipes from the church’s previous organ built by Hook & Hastings.  At that time Lewiston was a bustling center of textile and sawmills powered by the current of the Androscoggin River.  Like many towns and villages in Northern New England the population was dominated by people of French-Canadian descent, so with a population of some fifteen-thousand people there were seventeen Roman-Catholic parishes – a natural American market for a Canadian organbuilder.

The Church of SS. Peter and Paul was the largest of Lewiston’s Catholic churches, and while it received heavy use in a busy schedule of masses, this work-a-day organ was not intended as a concert instrument – that role was relegated to the larger Casavant organ in the much larger “upstairs” sanctuary.

Our project for the Church of the Resurrection has been to promote that relatively simple organ from semi-rural northern New England to busy and upscale New York, and more significantly, from a downstairs to an upstairs organ.


My first contact with the Church of the Resurrection was organist David Enlow’s 2002 inquiry regarding the possible sale of the church’s McManis organ which had been mortally damaged by well-meaning but un-enlightened carpenters who boldly divided the never-to-be-right-again organ in order to reveal the south-facing “west” window.  An electronic instrument was in use and the sale of the pipe organ was the first germ of inspiration toward the church’s acquisition of a functional pipe organ.  Growing up in Toronto, Mr. Enlow had been reared on early twentieth-century Casavant organs and it was his ambition that the Church of the Resurrection should have such an instrument.  When the availability of Casavant’s #665 appeared on my desk we felt we had the right instrument for Church of the Resurrection.

Mr. Enlow and Fr. Barry Swain, rector of the Church of the Resurrection, traveled to Maine where we met to inspect the organ.  Though it had been unplayable and neglected for many years it was clearly consistent with Enlow’s vision and ideal for use as the core of a more sophisticated organ.  The sale was negotiated, the organ was dismantled and stored, and we began the process of imagination and debate over the scope and character of the new organ, choosing which voices might be retained from the McManis organ and determining which new voices should be introduced to affect the transformation.

The addition of a third expressive chamber, colorful and powerful symphonic voices such as French Horn and Tuba, several added sixteen-foot ranks, and a complex antiphonal layout have allowed this transformation.  While the original instrument was simple and straight-forward, the present instrument is complex and varied.

The Récit, Grande Orgue, and “major” pedal divisions are located in the rear gallery.  The Positif is located in a chamber above and behind the organ console in the Chancel.  Enclosed with the Positif is an independent pedal Bourdon 16’ retained from the Church of the Resurrection’s two previous organs (E. M. Skinner and Charles McManis) and a Gemshorn 16’ from the McManis organ, included as an extension of the original Casavant Dulciane 8’.  The Solo Division is located in a tightly enclosed chamber above the Positif which speaks through a grill in the arched ceiling of the Chancel.  The floor-plan of the Solo Chamber is trapezoidal to avoid internal acoustic “slapping” and the extra hard and dense walls provide both for maximum expression and projection of tone.


The new Solo Division was inspired by the fact that the original Grand Orgue had a separate high-pressure windchest that originally supported a Montre 8’ and a Trumpet 8’ that was missing by the time we found the organ.  That Montre is now the Solo Principal, joined by three more exciting voices on high pressure.  The evolved stoplist includes several unusual features that allow for especially colorful and expressive playing.

Although the Tuba is a trumpet-style voice, its powerful tone separates it from the organ’s other reeds.  As such, there is only one Trumpet on the manuals, the dark-sounding Récit Cor 8’.  Otherwise the organ’s reeds comprise a buffet of tone color, one from each family of reed stops: Oboe, Clarinet, Vox Humana, and French Horn. 

Each manual includes sixteen-foot tone and an eight-foot Principal.  There are eight independent sixteen-foot voices – a strong ratio for a forty-rank organ.  The Positif Viol d’Orchestre and Celeste provide zing in striking contrast to the singing strings of the Récit, and the especially colorful Salicional of the Grand Orgue – the combined antiphonal chorus of strings creates a rich orchestral color.

The Solo Flute Harmonique fills two roles – as an antiphonal soloist with the luscious Grand Orgue Flute Double, and as an expressive accompaniment to its downstairs neighbor the Positiv.

The organ’s console is a blend of old and new.  The console cabinet, keyboards, and pedalboard are original.  New stop jambs and coupler rail were built to accommodate the new voices and controls, supported by a state-of-the-art solid-state control system.


The completion of any significant pipe organ project requires the participation of many people combining skills and experience to create an artistic whole.  The Organ Clearing House’s crew dismantled, packed, and stored the organ for the period between acquisition and renovation.  John Bishop and David Enlow developed the concept of the organ.  Jay Zoller of Newcastle, Maine (formerly of the Andover Organ Company) provided mechanical drawings.  Organ Clearing House president Amory Atkins adapted and expanded the rear gallery for the new organ, constructed the Chancel organ chambers, and directed the installation of the organ.  OCH vice-president Joshua Wood supervised the extensive transportation program necessary to bring the organ from the workshop in Deerfield, New Hampshire to Manhattan, assisted by OCH logistics expert Dean Conry.  John Bishop rebuilt the console and wired the organ.  And while all members of the OCH team participated in the general installation of the instrument, Terence Atkin was on hand for nearly every day of installation while others came and went.

The revised tonal content was designed and executed by Scot Huntington of S. L. Huntington & Company of Stonington, Connecticut.  Christopher and David Broome of Broome & Company in East Granby, Connecticut restored the original Casavant reed pipes and provided the pipes and voicing for the two new reed voices.  Eastern Organ Pipes of Hagerstown, Maryland provided the new flue pipes.  Richard Nickerson of Nickerson Pipe Organ Service in Melrose, Massachusetts releathered wind regulators and tremolos.  New windchests were provided by Organ Supply Industries in Erie, Pennsylvania; console controls, organ relays, and expression motors by Peterson Electro-Musical Products of Alsip, Illinois; and manual keyboards were recovered with cow bone by Nelson Woodworking of Little Compton, Rhode Island.

In 1916, the workshops of the great organ companies employed hundreds of workers, among whom could be found every skill and ability necessary to design and build instruments of the highest quality.  Today it is unusual for a pipe organ company to employ more than ten workers, and most have fewer than five.  Combining the highest kills from specialized companies ensures that each facet of a complicated project can be completed expertly and we are grateful to all those who added their skills to this project.

The dedication recital was played by Peter Conte on February 22, 2011.  Subsequent recitals have been played by Andrew Henderson and James Kennerly.  On April 15, David Enlow played a program of organ concertos with an orchestra directed by Stephen Simon.
Recently, David Enlow received a message from Paul Doyon of North Carolina who had seen recital publicity and recognized the organ his mother had played for many years in Lewiston.  Mr. Doyon wrote,
“My mother, Emilia Bilodeau-Doyon played on that organ from 1920 until 1964…  … She died in 1992 and in 2003 I returned to Lewiston to the now Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and played a short program after the Mass celebrating her 100th anniversary.”
Mr. Doyon’s recollections emphasize the special meanings hidden in the relocation of vintage pipe organs.  Any organ is part of that fabric and life of the parish that owns it.  When a church closes or a room is “re-purposed,” its heritage is honored and continued when the organ finds new life in a new home.  I imagine this organ was mighty surprised to wake up finding itself in the big city – as millions of stiff-necked tourists quip, “look at all them tall buildings!”

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