Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The pipes keep calling them

Century-old organ about to undergo $225,000 facelift

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When she pulls out all the stops, organist Linda Fearn can shake the floors of her River Heights church.

"The sound can be a thundering, vibrate-the-building thing to the most gentle sound," explains the music director at St. Peter's Anglican Church.

"There's nothing else that can produce that sound. It's quite thrilling to hear."

Once a musical fixture in most Christian churches, the pipe organ is an instrument in decline, as more and more churches turn to praise bands as their main accompaniment, explains Fearn, president of the local chapter of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.

"We have an aging stock of organs and an aging stock of organists," says Fearn, 60.

"That's a brutal fact."

One city congregation bucking that trend is Westminster United Church, home to a century-old pipe organ about to undergo a $225,000 facelift.

Longtime church organist Don Menzies performs on the four-manual Casavant organ, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, in the final concert of the Westminster Concert Organ Series.

After the concert, the console with its keyboards, foot pedals and 61 stops, will be dismantled and shipped back to the factory in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que. The refurbishments include adding another octave of pipes to the lower range and computerizing the mechanical aspects of the console, explains Menzies.

"The entire console is being computerized so we have multiple levels of memory. Right now, we have one level of memory," he says.

Playing hymns, preludes and postludes on the organ's 3,167 pipes, some as small as a pencil, has been instrumental to Westminster's worship since the construction of the building at the corner of Westminster Avenue and Maryland Street in 1912.

"The time has just whizzed by and it's a marvellous instrument and I enjoy playing it," says the retired credit manager at Manitoba Hydro, now 72, organist for the past 45 years.

While the organ is being refurbished over the summer, Menzies will perform on a smaller electronic organ during morning worship, weddings and funerals.

Even the least discerning ears in the congregation will hear the difference in the instruments, predicts Rev. Robert Campbell.

"It will be good, but people will clearly appreciate why we need a pipe organ for that space," he says.

Several other large churches in Winnipeg are facing similar costly repairs and updates to their aging pipe organs.

The four-manual pipe organ at Holy Trinity Anglican Church is due for a refurbishment of its console, estimated at $75,000. The downtown congregation purchased the pipe organ from St. Matthew's Anglican Church for its parts, and plans to install pipes at the back of its sanctuary to produce an antiphonal sound, explains music director Bev De'Athe.

"It's quite an outstanding sound (already), but it's not a sound people are used to hearing on the radio," she says of the current century-old organ.

"By giving us this surround sound, we hope (the organ sound) appeals to future generations."

St. Matthew's sold their organ and other fixtures in their 1,200-seat sanctuary as part of the conversion of the building into 24 low-income apartments. The West End congregation held a special service last Sunday with the organ before dismantling it, says Rev. Cathy Campbell.

"Lots of people came to say goodbye (to the building) and everyone knows that we're reaching for the future."

The parishioners of All Saints' Anglican, located at Broadway and Osborne, are considering upgrades and repairs to their instrument, estimated to cost $300,000, says organist Dietrich Bartel.

"I've played some really old instruments in Europe and it's a wonderful gift from one generation to the next," says Bartel, whose day job is dean of the school of music at Canadian Mennonite University.

But he has no illusions that every church with an aging organ will decide to spend the money to update and refurbish their instrument. Some congregations will decide they can't afford to keep their organs, while others might seek a compromise, he says.

"I am hopeful there will be a number of churches who want to keep old traditions while fostering contemporary music," says Bartel, adding that church music is fluid and adapts to the culture.

At All Saints', adapting to the culture includes incorporating six steel drums into the liturgy alongside traditional hymns and anthems accompanied by the pipe organ.

Fearn agrees church musicians need be creative to incorporate organ music into worship so worshippers of the future can sing to the swell of the organ and maybe even feel a few vibrations underneath them.

"It seems to me that there should be a middle ground and the organ could be used in conjunction with other instruments," she says.

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 A31

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