Eastman-led effort burnishes Rochester's reputation as organ capital

05:00 AM, Mar 31, 2013

The Craighead-Saunders organ in Christ Church on East Avenue in Rochester features 2,200 lead and tin pipes. (CARLOS ORTIZ/staff photographer)/

Written By Jeff Spevak Staff music critic

Now 237 years old, the voice of God sits in spectacular silence in a Lithuanian church, like a stalagmite-encrusted cavern wall, muted with the passage of time. Yet its influence remains, spreading the centuries-old word from behind the Gothic stone walls of Rochester’s Christ Church.

The Casparini Vilnius pipe organ begat the Craighead-Saunders pipe organ, whose genetic authenticity will ring true at today’s Easter services, right down to the metal composition of its 2,200 lead and tin pipes. It’s a display of precise scientific re-creation of old-world craftsmanship that very likely had the Easter Bunny glancing nervously over his shoulder this weekend, the viscosity of its rabbit glue, home brewed by six German restoration experts.

The Craighead-Saunders’ rabbit glue is the kind of completism, and attention to detail, that makes Rochester — home to almost 20 organs that are either historic or conceptually significant — what David Higgs calls “the pipe-organ capital of the world.”

Higgs does not know if those unfortunate rabbits were native to Rochester, or imported from Europe for absolute authenticity. He and his fellow pipe dreamers are not the charmingly rough-hewn junk dealers of Discovery Channel reality shows, kicking open the doors of abandoned barns in search of forgotten keyboards. This is an academic movement. Higgs is a professor of organ at the Eastman School of Music and chairman of the Organ and Historical Keyboards Department, which includes the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative.

The mission of EROI is to find prototypical instruments of all the major styles,” Higgs says, “so that Rochester is a city that has all of the organs in one place.

This is not a cute collection. Organs are so wildly different, for an organist to play so many styles of musical instruments, you want to have an experience with all of these organs,” he says. “It would be like asking a pianist to go from a piano to a harpsichord. They’re all different sizes and shapes. Some have slanted pedals, some keys play different notes, or they don’t play the notes you would expect them to play.”

Academic appeal, public reward

The Eastman has a working relationship with many of the homes to these organs. The Episcopal Christ Church allows the students 68 hours a week of class time inside its vast, hushed, East Avenue walls.

The Schola Cantorium — in which Eastman students in search of course credits and tranquility join their teachers, church parishioners and local musicians — is certainly the most visible to the public in general. Each Sunday at 9 p.m., from October through April, about two dozen of these robed figures silently file into the candle-lit church, form a semicircle in the sanctuary and for a half hour sing the Office of Compline, a collection of Renaissance psalms, hymns and prayers. Perhaps 80 people are in the pews, listening in monk-like stillness to this serene sound, which had been preceded by 10 or 15 minutes of Eastman organ instructor Stephen Kennedy playing the Craighead-Saunders, 24 feet tall, 25 feet wide, with a voice ranging from astonishingly clean, flutey trills to the chest-rumbling depths of an ocean-liner whistle blast.

The organ — its placement on the church’s back wall established by the sacred geometry of the Christian fish symbol — looms over the congregation in the dim light like a pale ghost, its gesso surface polished by smooth rocks to a bone-white, shadowy wall of heaven trimmed in blue and gold. Its centerpiece is a statue of King David holding a harp, and that’s not even all of the ornamental tchotchkes to be found on the Vilnius original. The $3 million re-creation was expensive enough; EROI elected to spend the bulk of the funds on the sound. However, three of the missing five life-size angels will soon be on their way to Rochester, “if you can figure out how big a life-size angel actually is,” Higgs says.

Ancient Egypt apparently used organs as instruments of war to scare people,” he says. “But churches at one point decided the organ was its instrument. What instrument could make as much sound, and be operated by one player? And the organ is a big-enough sound that it can lead a large group of people singing.

It’s the sheer power of it, but it also has an intimacy when it’s played well. It can really express so many deep feelings. The sound is made from air moving in pipes, and that sound can continue without having to stop and take a breath. And can sort of imply the idea of eternity.

It took the role,” Higgs says, “of the voice of God.”

Various voices of God

Those are some big shoes to fill. And there are many ways to do it, as the Eastman pursues its goal of acquiring representations of all the world’s pipe organs. They vary not only in physical makeup, but cultural influence. “The Craighead-Saunders is central German, late Baroque,” Higgs says. “We would also need to have northern German early Baroque, southern German early Romantic …”

Or perhaps the predecessor of today’s modern church organ, the ancient Greek Hydraulis, which used water to move air through its pipes.

Rochester’s organ donors have been generous, building a collection that includes Sacred Heart Cathedral’s relatively new instrument, inspired by a larger 1617 version in Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, “a pan-Germanic style,” Higgs says. “If you were to ask the difference between German and French languages, you could come up with the sounds they make. It’s the same for pipe organs. The French sound is fiery and reedy, the Germans sound a bit more, oh, smooth. They all reflect changes within the culture.”

The Memorial Art Gallery’s Italian Baroque organ, built in Florence, was rescued by the Eastman in the nick of time from the unkind fate of being converted into furniture. The restored St. Paul Episcopal Church organ “was built to play the kind of music that orchestras played in the 1920s,” Higgs says. It features the rare Musette, a stop that imitates a shepherd’s pipe.

Across the street,” Higgs says, “the George Eastman House is finishing renovation on the world’s largest residence organ, meant to play orchestral transcriptions.”

The Rochester Theater Organ Society has restored two Wurlitzer theater organs, one in the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s Eisenhart Auditorium. A second was plucked from the downtown Palace Theater before its demolition in the 1960s, and now resides beneath the stage of the Auditorium Theatre, where it can be cranked up into view when needed. Some of these historic organs need restoration. One is the 1921 Kilbourn Hall organ, whose console emerges from the floor, with the pipes tucked away in the gold proscenium embracing the stage. Another dates from the 1930s, a prototype of the American Classic style, waiting quietly in the University of Rochester Riverside Campus’ Strong Auditorium.

The Eastman’s most recent acquisition is an 1893 instrument from a church in Maine that was closing, now installed in the sanctuary at the front of Christ Church. The Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative discovered it through the Monty Pythonesque-named Organ Clearinghouse, “a not-for-profit that finds homes for wayward organs,” Higgs says.

Church influences

The Eastman School of Music has 35 organ majors — from the U.S., Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Hong Kong, England, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Canada — chasing their bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Many chose to study the pipe organ for its church applications.

Higgs’ own fascination with the sound has religious roots. A Bronx native, “my mother took me to church, and they had an electric organ there that wasn’t very good,” he says. “But from the age of 3, she told me, we would come home and I would kneel down in front of the sofa and make all kinds of organ noises.”

Higgs eventually began playing organ for ’70s black gospel and R&B bands with names like Sweet Spirit, and hanging with the Andraé Crouch crowd, although he never played with the gospel star.

I was leaving New York to move to San Francisco,” Higgs says, “when they called me and said, ‘We’re ready to record, we have the financial backing, Dionne Warwick has a cousin who’s going to be our singer.’ They sent me a tape and I said, ‘Wow, she’s great.’ That was Whitney Houston, of course. Then she signed with a label and that ended the whole deal.”

Higgs joined the Eastman faculty in 1992 and in 2000 was joined by a friend, Hans Davidsson, the founder of yet another wing of organ academia, Sweden’s Goteborg Organ Art Center.

Saving the sound

It was clear that there weren’t enough pipes in this city to go around. Throughout the ’80s, Eastman organ teachers such as David Craighead and the late Russell Saunders had been percolating the idea of the school placing a historic organ in Christ Church, whose existing organ had suffered the same fate as many pipe organs that had been modernized to keep up with the times.

They took a can-opener to them and turned them into a Frankenstein,” Higgs says. “This one had so many so-called improvements, it was pretty much unsalvageable. It was improved beyond recognition.”

The true sound of the instruments was disappearing with the introduction of new technologies. Saunders’ family contributed $500,000 to get the Christ Church’s scientific renovation up and running, and in 2000 Higgs and Davidsson went to work. When they came up empty on their worldwide search for an organ that Johann Sebastian Bach himself might have played, one that would also fit in Christ Church, they turned their attention to the baroque pipe organ of the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania, an organ built just 26 years after Bach’s death. Close enough. The instrument’s builder had even worked on an organ tested by Bach, and perhaps had known the man, so there was a tenuous circumstantial connection.

The Vilnius organ also benefited from benign neglect. Few repairs, even fewer restorations. And in the midst of the turmoil of World War II, with Lithuania occupied by the Soviet Union, then Germany, then the Soviet Union again, the church’s custodians quietly shut down the instrument to prevent it from being destroyed by Stalin’s army.

So ironically, communism helped save this religious artifact. Awakened from its state of suspended animation, the Vilnius organ’s sound — now only partially restored — is likely echoed quite authentically in full by the Craighead-Saunders, a precise, piece-by-piece reconstruction of the original, from bellows to baffles. And, perhaps, the bat circling the heads of the Schola singers at last week’s Compline, chased from the Gothic rafters by the cacophony of ancient sounds reborn.