Chilmark church gets an organ transplant

Organist Carol Loud sits at the new keyboard. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

An exuberantly joyful noise will fill the Chilmark Community Church this Sunday afternoon as seven local musicians gather to show off the church’s new pipe organ. The well-known church organists will offer a free concert whose program ranges from Baroque to contemporary, lofty to whimsical.

“I think it’s going to be quite a concert!” said Pam Goff, a member of the organ committee that worked determinedly to make sure the church would have the best possible organ for now and years to come. Even a brief listen makes it clear how well they have succeeded.

Built in 1843 and moved to its present site in 1910, the Chilmark Community Church looks like the quintessential antique New England church. Tiny and spare in design, the sanctuary is painted a pristine white with tall, multi-paned windows and white, straight-backed wooden pews with dark wood trim.

The new organ console holding keyboards and foot pedals sits unobtrusively in the right front corner. Compact and painted white with dark trim, it is hardly noticeable, so well does it blend in. Compact as well is the pipe and blower cabinetry, mounted on the wall behind the altar, displaying at its highest point an attractive but understated façade of silvery pipes. But despite its deceptively unassuming appearance the organ’s sound is robust and magnificent.

Organists Carol Loud and Phil Dietterich demonstrated the new instrument Monday morning. Strikingly unlike that of an electric organ or piano, the pipe organ’s sound flooded forth, both soft and strong, multi-textured, filling the tiny sanctuary, floating into corners, nooks, and crannies. Like warmth from a wood stove, the sound permeated the area, surrounding listeners.

“It felt like it was an entirely different space,” Ms. Goff said about entering the church and hearing the instrument for the first time. She said her husband, Clark, told her, “I feel as if I’m in England, and we’re in a little English church.”

According to Ms. Goff, it all began about four years ago. “Our old Hammond organ was making burbling noises and people were getting nervous,” she recalled.

Some church members were adamant that the failing electric organ would not be replaced by one of the same. For them, only a pipe organ would do. An existing music fund of some $15,000 was available for a start. Several anonymous donors came forward, pledging to contribute whatever more was needed to bring a pipe organ to Chilmark. An organ committee came together: Ms. and Mr. Goff, the latter an architect, and Bob Conway, an engineer and pipe organ enthusiast. Although not a member of the congregation, experienced church organist Phil Dietterich was invited in as a consultant.

Feelings about the two types of organ, pipe or electric, run deep. Each has its dedicated adherents. Pipe organs are rich with centuries of tradition, loved for the depth and texture of their voices, the unique sound their pipes make. Though not as resonant to some ears, electronic organs have vast versatility, can replicate sounds of other instruments, and are considered extremely durable.

“An electric organ produces a sound like something else, but this makes the actual sound — it’s authentic,” said Ms. Goff succinctly.

Because there had never been a pipe organ in the church before, members had concerns about how one would fit. Looking for something they could afford, they sought used instruments but none seemed right. When the committee saw a studio organ — a self-contained unit with pipes and blower built into the console — they thought it could be the answer. Although it was already sold, in October 2009, Mr. Conway, Mr. Dietterich, and Mr. Goff traveled to Newton for a look.

“We liked the sound!” Mr. Dietterich reported.

There they met the instrument’s builder, Stephen Russell, head of Russell Organ Company in Cambridgeport, Vermont. The Chilmarkers discussed their situation, hopes, and needs with him and soon enlisted him to build a new studio organ. But when Mr. Russell visited the church he recommended a more conventional design, mounting the blower and pipe assembly on the wall, front and center.

“The ideal placement for an organ is on the central axis of the building,” he wrote. “It would be my preferred placement from both a visual and tonal standpoint.”

Separating the elements was not a problem, Mr. Dietterich explained, because the organ would have an electric system for opening the pipes, rather than the traditional mechanical operation that makes it necessary to have the console, blower, and pipes in closer proximity. There followed months of communication between committee and builder, and slow but steady progress, documented in fascinating photographs on the church website,

The photos show cabinetry and console under construction, pipes being shaped, and this summer’s intricate installation. The organ features five ranks of pipes, 16 stops, keyboards encompassing five octaves, and 293 pipes with voices ranging from tiny and barely audible to deep and resonant.

In early June parts of the instrument arrived and were laid out around the sanctuary. Mr. Russell with assistant Steve Charbonneau (who coincidentally has Island Luce ancestors) began the installation as committee members watched in fascination. But there was more work to be done.

Mr. Russell and assistant Larry Nevin were back to complete the final installation from July 9 to 12. Sadly, the instrument was first played at the July 14 memorial service for Phyllis Conway, Bob’s wife, who died in May and had also been looking forward to the new organ.

Since then, church organist Carol Loud has happily played it at weekly services. “It’s a fabulous organ,” she said. “I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to play it.”

Sunday afternoon at 4 pm, the Chilmark Community Church will become the center of Island musical activity. Mr. Dietterich will begin with “Pipe Organ Primer for Opus 56,” adapted from a piece by Hal Hopson, a witty composition showing off the organ’s many features. Ms. Loud will play Purcell, David Rhoderick a Bach fantasia; Peter Boak and Wesley Brown will offer solos and team up for a duet. Solos by Nancy Rogers and Garrett Brown round out the program.

“It’s not every day we get a new pipe organ,” said Mr. Dietterich. “I hope a lot of people come to greet it.”

Pipe organ concert, Sunday, Sept. 30, 4 pm, Chilmark Community Church, Menemsha Crossroad. Free. For more information call 508-645-3100.