St. Vincent Basilica pipe organ worth $1.5M nears completion
Under the graceful arches of St. Vincent Basilica, a heavy winch on a scaffold stood ready to hoist the first and largest of more than 3,000 organ pipes to the galley.
Four men lifted the 300-pound, 18-foot-long, tin-alloy pipe, which lay on the floor nestled in a wooden box, near the holy water font in the Unity basilica.
The principal organist, Father Cyprian Constantine, said he will relish the first notes from the new $1.5 million organ as they ring out into the cavernous space.
“The basilica is a beautiful space for music acoustically because we have six seconds of reverberation, so sound just carries,” he said.
Six employees from John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in Champaign, Ill., have worked since early July preparing the structure of the organ — the wind chests to provide air and toe-boxes that hold the pipes — before the first of German-made metal tubes were hoisted into the gallery and set into place last week.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime project ... because of the size of the room and the acoustics,” said Brian Davis, tonal director for the organ builders.
The instrument replaces a Moller organ installed in 1955-56. Because it was controlled by electro-pneumatic action using leather, that instrument showed signs of wear as early as 1971, when Constantine first visited St. Vincent, he said.
“Depending on heating and cooling and dirt in the air and that kind of thing, they can be damaged,” the organist said. “If you have a leather cover on a book, eventually, it can wear through. It just wore out and became very difficult to repair.”
Some notes would stop working entirely, or wires crossed and notes played on the wrong key, Constantine said.
The pipes in the new instrument range from the largest — first open diapason low C — to the smallest at less than a half-inch in diameter, Davis said.
All will be housed in the gallery space under the stained glass rose window, which was accommodated by arranging some of the wooden pipes horizontally underneath. Some of those poplar pipes were refurbished from the old organ, Constantine said.
“That's not normally the way to install them, but it won't affect (the sound) because it's all wood,” he said.
Davis works on one organ per year, planning the layout of the instrument in a computer-aided drafting program, drawing from decades of experience to evaluate how the sound rings in the space.
“You take what you know and apply it to the space here and change things accordingly,” he said.
The organ was originally scheduled for installation in time for Easter. But the company was delayed by its work on an organ in Richmond, Va., then by events scheduled at the basilica.
The crew will continue to work through September before two concerts in the fall to celebrate the new organ with the St. Vincent Camerata choir on Nov. 8 and Dec. 6 and 7, as well as one of the St. Vincent College Concert Series programs featuring Alan Morrison in March 2015.
The project began in 1998 when the basilica was renovated and Constantine returned to St. Vincent after receiving his doctoral degree of musical arts in organ from the University of Colorado.
The St. Vincent Archabbey raised funds with contributions from the monastery through a campaign that began when a smaller organ was installed for the front of the church, called the apse. The keyboard console was chosen to eventually accommodate a grand, new gallery organ, Constantine said.
The smaller organ usually is reserved for use during daily monastic services and has been supported by an electronic organ while the larger one was planned, he said.
Once the gallery organ is in place, it should need only maintenance and tuning twice per year and can last for another century, Constantine said.
“This will last long after I'm gone,” he said.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.