Organ Transplant


Photo by Tim Regan

A Baltimore company pays court to the king of instruments

By Chris Landers

IT WAS A TOUGH CROWD, as pipe organ audiences go, packing the pews at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in early July. The evening show, happening later that day, was open to the public. For the morning performance, however, mostly family and attendees of the regional convention held by the Baltimore chapter of the American Guild of Organists filled the hall as Eric Plutz took the stage.

Plutz, the organist at Princeton University’s chapel, sat down at the console, which had been moved from the wings to center stage for the occasion. Playing the organ is a physical endeavor–Plutz’s legs danced and shot across the pedals as he leaned for the rows of knobs on either side of the keyboards. Midway through the hourlong program, he acknowledged Daniel Gawthrop, whose composition Four Noble Gases was commissioned for the convention and who was sitting in the fifth row.

The organ itself was listed in the convention guide as a Casavant/Storey. It was built in 1955 by Casavant Frères, a Quebec-based organ company named for two brothers, Samuel and Claver, who built their first organ in 1880. The organ’s other builder, David M. Storey, was occupying the last row of the church. It was his company that rebuilt the organ last year in a small workshop in Hampden, moving it to Baltimore from its original home in Quebec. As the last notes faded out and the audience began to applaud, those who rushed over to shake Storey’s hand noticed that there were tears in his eyes.

“It’s kind of nerve-racking,” he says after the performance. “You get to the point during some recitals where you’re listening to the machine rather than the music, because you’re so concerned about what’s going to happen to the machine. The marvelous thing about organs is the machinery and the music that the machinery produces. It’s machine and art. A really successful organ has a bit more art than machine in it, but its artistry also includes the simplicity of the machine.”

In this case, it was the artistry that won out. It turns out that while Storey and his five employees spent between 6,000 and 8,000 hours working on the console and tuning more than 3,000 pipes hidden away in the small, irregular rooms above and to the sides of the altar at St. Bartholomew’s, he used sections of Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alai by Maurice Duruflé to test different sections of the organ. Hearing it played in total by Plutz at the recital was an emotional moment.

“There is a spiritual dimension,” Storey says. “There really is something about the organ that can take you somewhere, and there’s no other way to get there than through the sound of a good pipe organ.”

Storey, 51, began his fascination with organs as a musician, beginning young in upstate New York with the clarinet and then the piano, until he finally reached the organ, the pre-electronic-age instrument capable of producing the most different sounds. He gradually fell into tuning and repairing them–once people find out you can tune an organ, he says, the requests never stop coming in. In his early 20s, he apprenticed with an organ builder named Lynn Dobson, who runs his own firm in Iowa and who caught the afternoon performance at St. Bartholomew’s. Moving to Baltimore 25 years ago for a desk job doing public relations for a ballet company, Storey thought he was out of the organ business, until the ballet shut down, leaving him to eventually fall back on his pipe-organ training in order to open his own company.

A few days after the recital, Storey gives a tour of his workshop in Hampden, a small cinder-block building on a road that the city has for some reason declined to pave. In addition to building, repairing, and tuning organs in Baltimore, he works in Washington, Richmond, Va., and elsewhere. Storey knows the locations and conditions of nearly every pipe organ in the area. The pre-Christmas season keeps him running, as he tunes church organs for the holidays, but right now the Storey Organ Co. has as much work as it can handle, with maybe 100 regular customers–as well as any new business Storey finds.

In a church, the organ’s workings are largely hidden behind elaborate facades. Here in the workshop, with several projects going at once and a strange jumble of leftover or replacement parts strewn about, the intricate inside of the instrument is on display. Looking at a disassembled pipe organ, it is difficult to imagine a more complicated machine. If modern airplanes seem a likely contender, it is only because pipe organ malfunctions seldom make the news.

“The devil really is in the details,” Storey says. “They’re cumulative–no one little thing makes the difference, but all of them combined make a difference, and that’s the wonderful thing about how a pipe organ works. It’s an ensemble–all of the pipes working together. They each sound beautiful by themselves, but how they blend together and simulate a choir, that is what makes the organ so beautiful.”

In the case of the St. Bartholomew’s organ–which is “good-sized, not large,” according to Storey–the 3,000-odd metal and wooden pipes range from the size of a pencil to large enough to stand in. They are tuned and “voiced” by mechanical means–bending a small reed in some, raising a plunger in others, altering the size of the opening at the top. It requires only a small amount of wind to make a pipe sound, but the air has to travel through a complicated wooden “wind chest” to get to the right pipes, and only the right pipes, at the right time. Older organs have mechanical pallets to control wind flow, others use electromagnetic relays to shut and open tiny valves. The St. Bartholomew’s organ uses a new computerized brain to calculate which valves to open for which tones.

It was originally built by Casavant for a church near the company’s shop outside Montreal, but in recent decades it had begun to fall into disrepair. “An organ is basically a luxury,” Storey says. “The most technologically advanced musical instrument ever devised. They’re very expensive new, they’re not inexpensive to buy used and rebuild, like this one.”

The church that housed the organ in Canada decided, reluctantly, to part with it, and St. Bartholomew’s decided to take it. There are several Casavant organs in Baltimore, but this one was unique in Storey’s experience. “This organ, when I first heard it . . . it was a whole different animal,” he says. “It’s hard to believe that same company built it . . . it was so lively, so full of vitality and color.”

Storey and his crew, with the support of the original builders, who maintain plans for all their organs, began the laborious job of removing, moving, and reassembling the pipe organ, making significant alterations in the process. He says the effort was worth it.

“You know, you get halfway through your life and all of the sudden you get a project . . . ,” he begins. “I never expected it to come out this good–not that we do crappy work or anything–it’s just so exceeded everyone’s expectations, and suddenly it hits you that, `Well, crap, maybe this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole life so far.’ I’ve never had a job where just everybody involved with the job was so happy, and that really attests to the quality of the core of the original organ and the original guys that built it.”

At a workbench on one side of the shop, Steve Bartley, who has been working for the Storey Organ Co. since 2001, is gluing small rectangular pieces of wood to slightly larger rectangular pieces. The larger pieces turn out to be keys from an organ keyboard. It is repetitive work, he says, but each one has to be done right. A former high-school shop teacher, Bartley radiates calm as he picks up an unfinished key, glues it, and places it in the finished pile in front of him.

“It’s an interesting, quirky kind of work,” he says, and one that generates a lot of interest from strangers. “People do it because they love to do it, but it’s also sort of an addiction.”

Modern organ builders are a small enough community that when a job is competitively bid, it doesn’t stay secret for long. For one thing, the materials all come from the same places. A company in Hagerstown makes the zinc pipes, carefully soldering the cylinders together in various sizes. Making the small diaphragms and valves that control the flow of air requires specially tanned leather; one tanner has agreed to supply all of the organ builders. It’s the only way to get enough business to make using the special process worthwhile, and Storey keeps drawers of the stuff, arranged by thickness down to a paper-thin sheepskin, against one wall of his shop.

Bartley knows a lot of local history, particularly where it intersects with organs and churches. There are a lot of organs around Baltimore, he says, that haven’t been played in decades. It takes a lot of money to refurbish an organ–the St. Bartholomew’s project ran more than $400,000–and the organ tradition hasn’t spread to newer churches in the suburbs.

“It’s just not part of their thinking,” he says. “They think of music as something kind of like the furnace or air conditioner–it’s something you go out and you buy, like a new stereo system. We think of it as more like owning a pet. It needs feeding. It’s part of your family. Just to think that you’re going to put this huge amount of money in it, but then the people who come after you are going to have to maintain it. . . . It’s not part of our thinking today. With the computer people–that’s the exact opposite of what we’re involved in–you talk to the computer people and it’s five months old and it’s obsolete.”

The pipe organ, on the other hand, is steeped in tradition. “There’s a big thing among organists to trace their lineage back to J.S. Bach,” Storey says. When the St. Bartholomew’s organ was first dedicated, the player was the Canadian organist Raymond Daveluy, a driving force behind modern organ music; the St. Bartholomew’s organ was the first of his collaborations with the Casavant builders. In September, when it is rededicated, it will be with a piece of music based on a theme chosen by Daveluy and composed by his former assistant, Rachel Laurin.

“It’s a tremendous tradition,” Storey says. “It’s like with any great art field–writing or painting–but especially with music. There’s an accumulation of generations of knowledge and experience.

“Here’s an organ with a style reminiscent of something maybe 75 or 100 years ago, and yet modern music still sounds fresh and vital on it,” he continues. “I’ve had [potential church customers] talk to me about, `Oh, we’re not stuck in those old traditions where we use the pipe organ. We do modern music with drums.’ And I thought, I don’t think there’s anything more traditional than banging two rocks together. Even an old-sounding organ, it’s up to the player to make it sound fresh.”
7/18/07