Stefan Hard / Staff Photo An audience of about 150 on a bus tour of organ concerts in north-central Vermont churches Tuesday enjoys an organ recital by Pamela Sears at United Church of Christ in Cabot.
Vermont has been pulling out all the stops for more than 300 people who have come from as far away as Singapore for a chance to hear music played on 25 historical pipe organs tucked away in churches from Highgate to Randolph.
The weeklong 58th annual national convention of the Organ Historical Society is criss-crossing the state this week in an unprecedented celebration of the region’s rich cache of small, hand-built organs, many dating from the 19th century.
“This is what we come for,” said Joseph Fitzer who is at the convention with his wife, Mary Gifford.
Both are professional organists who teach and play in Chicago. “It’s really wonderful to come to small communities where perhaps the organ isn’t played much any more. And we come and an organ will get a spark that this might be able to continue.”
The convention rolled into Burlington on Monday with the day’s first full series of concerts on Tuesday here in central Vermont. Plainfield, Cabot, Greensboro and Hardwick each hosted two concerts throughout the day.
Visitors at each church learn a little bit about the instrument that is going to be played, and then there is a recital. Each performance closes with the entire audience joining the organist in singing a hymn from whatever hymnal is used in the church.
Pipe organs produce music by pushing pressurized air (wind) through pipes that are chosen via a piano-style keyboard. They often have more than one keyboard, as well as a pedalboard played by using the feet. In fact, organists must wear special shoes while they are performing.
“Organ shoes have very, very thin leather or suede soles,” explained Marilyn Polson, of Chelsea, who organized this week’s concerts, and who plays regularly in Randolph’s Bethany Church. “There is a steel arch in the shoe and it has elevated heels.”
“In hot weather if I’m performing I put talcum powder on the soles so that they’ll slide over the pedals easily,” concurred Fitzer.
Each organ pipe produces a specific pitch and the pipes are in sets called ranks which have a common timbre. Many organs have multiple ranks of pipes of differing pitch, timbre and loudness that can be played alone or in combination through using stops.
Small portable organs may have only one or two dozen pipes and a single manual. The Salt Lake City organ which accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has more than 11,000 pipes.
The organ in Grace United Methodist Church in Plainfield may not be as grand, but it’s an E.&G.G Hook & Hastings organ from 1873 — and when Lynette Combs sits down to play it the sweetness of its sound is apparent despite the fact that it needs an estimated $22,000 in repairs.
The organ was originally the property of the Congregational Church in Cabot, but was sold to to the Plainfield church for a less than a hundredth of the repair cost.
Throughout the schedule of concert performances, whether the organist is playing Bach or something modern there is a long tradition of improvisation. Variations on themes are traditional and a great organist is judged in part by his or her ability to take a piece of music and build something varied out of the flats and sharps.
“I don’t improvise — I just noodle around” said Polson. “Improvising is very, very hard.”
It also arose out of a need to fill in the blanks during Sunday services. “Some denominations have a lot going on and there is time when there needs to be music and the improvisation grew out of that.”
Among the instruments the “organistas” are looking forward to hearing is the one at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Hardwick. The 1899 instrument is the only one surviving that was built by Edward H. Smith, a Vermont organ builder.
Brian Sweetman has travelled from Windsor, Ontario, for the conference. Although the convention has just begun, he says that it’s the opportunity to see the instruments in their original locations that is important.
“I love to see the work of the local organ builders,” he said. “It’s fascinating to see instruments that were built for specific locations.”
Jeff Shaull and Amanda Miller have travelled from Pennsylvania for their 11th convention.
“I think that one of the draws to this convention is that all of the instruments here are considerably older than what we usually see,” said Shaull, who plays for the Downington United Methodist Church in Downington, Pa., adding that he also simply enjoys the opportunity to hear the music.
“There will always be a piece of music from the period around when the organ was constructed,” he said. “I like that I’ll often get to hear something that’s interesting and might be something I might play.”
If the music is at the top of everyone’s list, for Polson the convention is the culmination of years of work that she and a handful of others have put in to making the convention happen. “I told some of the other women that I feel like I’ve been in labor for the past four years,” she said with a smile.
As the concert wound down inside the Plainfield church you could hear the voices raise to the chorus of “Come thou fount of every blessing.”
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