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Kirkpatrick Chapel's historic pipe organ goes silent... electronic replacement?

Started by KB7DQH, May 19, 2013, 12:05:27 PM

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NEW BRUNSWICK — Visitors to Rutgers University's Kirkpatrick Chapel this year still will hear breathtaking musical tones echo off the building's soaring ceilings during weddings, baptisms and memorial services.

But no doubt unbeknownst to some, those tones won't be coming from the hundreds of pipes that together make up the chapel's historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ — described as one of the finest classical examples of the instrument anywhere in the state.

In about as obvious a signal of changing times as they come, a state-of-the-art electronic organ hooked up to an array of discreetly placed speakers was installed less than two weeks ago — a replacement, officials say, that only will remain in place until enough funding can be freed up either to renovate the existing pipe organ or replace it entirely.

"It couldn't be used anymore," Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts Dean George B. Stauffer said of the original instrument, parts of which date back to 1917. "But this (the electronic organ) is an interim instrument. This is not a replacement by any means."

Issues with the original have persisted for years, according to Rutgers organist Antonius Bittmann, who has played and taught the organ at the university since 1999, having also at various times served as chairman of the Music Department. Factors as simple as temperature and humidity variations have been enough to cause problems, but the matter came to a head during a winter concert held several months ago.

In the middle of a performance, one of the pipes got stuck, leaving it continuously producing the same loud tone. And it wasn't the first time that happened.

"When pipes sound (and get stuck), you can't turn them off without climbing up into the chamber and physically removing the pipe," Stauffer explained. "Obviously you don't want that situation to go on."

There is no concrete timeline regarding when a renovation or replacement of the existing pipe organ might occur; much of that depends on how the university's continuing campaign to raise capital funds unfolds. A renovation would cost at least $1 million and possibly considerably more, according to Stauffer, who said a replacement instrument could run about $2 million.

But the existing instrument is so integrated into the structure of the historic chapel, which dates back to 1873, that any such work would have to be part of a broader set of necessary renovations that should cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million to $5 million, the Clinton Township resident added.

"We wouldn't do either one (a renovation or replacement) without renovating the interior of the chapel as well. It just wouldn't make sense," he said. "And we really wouldn't want to (make a decision) before we have a consultant come in and really look over the instrument and appraise how much it would cost to renovate it versus replace it."

Either way, though, Stauffer conceded, "it's a lot of money."

"This is one situation where we need to bide our time a little bit," he said.
Impressive sound

In the meantime, as Bittmann pointed out during a demonstration last week, the stopgap replacement is an impressive piece of technology that generates a similarly impressive sound.

For one thing, music from an existing pipe organ anywhere in the world can be recorded, sampled and digitally emailed to Rutgers, where the recording can be downloaded onto a flash drive that can be plugged directly into the electronic organ's console via a USB port — allowing it to replicate any existing pipe organ's unique sound. The electronic instrument also has nearly 50 unique tones of its own, and should Bittmann find some combination that sounds particularly pleasing to the ear, he can "save" it and come back to it later. And if one of Rutgers' two students studying the organ nail a recital or performance piece — one is a doctoral student, the other an undergraduate — he or she can play the entire rendition back from square one at any time.

"When you turn on this organ, you're actually booting up a computer," Bittmann said, shortly before playing a short classical piece by Bach. "We're still working out all the technical details ... but I'm really amazed by how far the technology has come."

Bittmann, 50, is a native of Germany who started playing the organ at the age of 10. He grew up playing the pipe organ and was classically trained on it, earning five degrees in Germany and the U.S. He has been playing Kirkpatrick's instrument for more than a decade, but after just a few days using the electronic version, which only took a day and a half to install — it previously was a demonstration piece at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa. — he already sees the appeal (Stauffer declined to comment about the cost, but he labeled it a "very fair price," calling that a product of an "institutional discount").

"There are a lot more possibilities with it," Bittmann said. "It can do pretty much everything this instrument (the pipe organ) did, and much more."

Still, he admitted, it's a little different, even if the consoles of the two organs are close to identical.

"What I like best about this (new) instrument is that it works," Bittmann said. "I would come to the chapel on a Saturday afternoon for a wedding praying it (the pipe organ) would be OK. I no longer have that anxiety walking in here."

And as for the sound?

"I expect not to be asked," he said regarding whether he anticipates having listeners mention anything about the new instrument (Kirkpatrick Chapel, which is available for private rental, hosts an average of about 90 weddings annually, plus memorial services, lectures, choir concerts, lectures, and more).
Other views

Yet not everyone is thrilled with the new instrument.

"Yes it is," David Drinkwater said when asked whether an inquiry into which he would prefer — the electronic organ or the pipe organ — might constitute a dumb question. "I can't describe it to you. But there's just an electronic sound to it I don't care for."

It's doubtful that anyone ever got to know Kirkpatrick's pipe organ better than Drinkwater, 84, of New Brunswick. He was the Rutgers organist succeeded by Bittmann, having played and taught for the university for more than four decades when he retired in the late 1990s.

"It's my baby," Drinkwater said of the Opus 255-C, the name given to the pipe organ following a series of thorough renovations to it he personally oversaw in 1961. "I loved it very much."

Drinkwater said he recently received a phone call from Stauffer informing him of the change, and he stopped by the chapel last Wednesday to speak briefly with Bittmann.

The conversations left him with an explanation, but not much solace.

"I am disappointed," Drinkwater admitted. "That sound cannot really be duplicated. And they've tried everything."

The former organist said he doesn't play anymore; weakness in his legs has made it impossible to work the organ pedals to his satisfaction. But he still loves music.

"I think both should be looked into," Drinkwater said when asked whether he hopes to see Kirkpatrick's pipe organ renovated or replaced in the future.

Drinkwater isn't the only person with something of a sentimental attachment to the pipe organ, either. Don Lewis of Highland Park, a longtime member of the Rutgers choir back when Drinkwater also served as its director, fondly recalled a tradition in which Kirkpatrick Chapel would host screenings of the 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" around Halloween each year.

Drinkwater would play the classical score of the famed play as the silent film played on a large screen, at first via a projector reel and later with a digital projector.

"It got pretty wild sometimes," Lewis recalled. "It almost got to be like the 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' where they (the audience) would shout out the lines and throw stuff."

Lewis, a librarian at Newark Public Library, said some world-class organists have performed recitals on Kirkpatrick's pipe organ, but it also got a workout during frequent performances by students over the years. Drinkwater himself performed more than 200 recitals on the instrument, Lewis added.

"An awful lot of people say they've been to weddings there (at Kirkpatrick) and heard the organ," he said. "I know David is always running into people saying they remember it."

Lewis added that he too is saddened by the notion that the old pipe organ is no longer being played, even if it is just a temporary situation.

"I think very few people know," he said.

Nor do many likely know the full story behind the history of the instrument itself. The installation of the original, a three-manual, 32-rank organ, received the personal attention of Ernest M. Skinner himself, who at the time was the foremost figure in American organ building, according to the university's website. There's no denying that it's still a selling point for rentals of the chapel; New Jersey Bride indicates in its promotional materials for the venue that the instrument's "brilliant sound is guaranteed to make your wedding ceremony unforgettable."

Yet Stauffer, an accomplished organist in his own right, said he is sensitive to the concerns of Drinkwater and others. The dean of Mason Gross served as the university organist for Columbia University in New York City for 22 years, having currently been playing for more than five decades.

"No. Absolutely not," Stauffer said when asked if there is any chance the electronic organ eventually could come to be considered a permanent replacement. "But I'd like to think I've got pretty good taste in organs ... and this is the perfect interim solution."

One hopes this doesn't go the way of Trinity Wall Street....

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