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Fritts Organs Opus 42

Fritts Organs Opus 42 is an imposing instrument by any standard. It fills the Fritts workshop visually, reaching almost to the ceiling. It impresses the observer with its classical design, the beauty of its detail, its inlaid music desk and embossed front pipes.

Full View of Fritts Organs Opus 42 from the balcony

The organ is not yet finished. Only seven of the 37 stops are playing. The pedal doesn’t work yet. It has no working reeds. Yet a magical transformation took place in the room when AGO member David Dahl sat down to play A Mighty Fortress on the principal 8 foot stop, gradually adding 4 foot, 2 2/3, and 2 foot stops.

The Fritts team worked diligently to get the organ playable for the January meeting of the Tacoma Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. On January 12, 2019, along with several very proud Fritts employees and colleagues from the Seattle AGO chapter, Tacoma AGO members listened as Paul Fritts talked about the history and design of the organ.

Paul Fritts introducing Opus 42

The story is bittersweet. Opus 42 is bound for First Lutheran Church in Loraine, OH, where it will replace Brombaugh Organs Opus 4, destroyed along with the church that housed it by an arsonist. The Brombaugh organ was groundbreaking in many respects, and its loss will leave a void in the organ world. Rather than rebuild the same building, the congregation bought new property and a new building; likewise, they would need a new organ.

The prospect of designing a new organ for a new building presented Paul Fritts with an opportunity to help meld a perfect match. He traveled to Loraine and met with the building committee, the architect, the acoustician, and others interested in the project. Paul successfully made his case that the building should be rectangular instead of square, and that it should be tall.

The church had already made the decision not to recreate the building, and not to attempt to recreate the Brombaugh organ. The Fritts organ was to be a creation in its own right. Yet Paul, who was familiar with Brombaugh Opus 4, wanted to pay homage to it in the new organ, and so designed it to be visually similar–pointed towers, a similar number of sections, and embossed pipes.

There are differences, though. The new organ has a swell division. Its case is made of fir, its keydesk of maple, part of which is heat treated in a vacuum in order to make it more stable. And, perhaps contributing to its startling clear and direct tone, all of the metal pipes are sand cast, including the reed resonators.

Fritts Organs Opus 42 key desk

The Fritts shop is the only organ building shop in the country sand casting pipes. It was a gradual process. Paul Fritts and colleague Bruce Shull worked closely with the Flentrop Company on a reconstruction that featured sand cast pipes. The Fritts staff became believers, and now produce all of their pipes through this time-honored process.

Casting the pipes on a sand table causes the molten metal to cool faster, making it slightly more brittle, but producing a livelier sound. Bruce Shull, who voiced all of the pipes, describes a trade-off in which sand casting is a lot more trouble up front, but greatly reduces the amount of work that goes into voicing after the pipes are shaped.

Sand casting is not the only way in which the Fritts Shop has returned to early organ building traditions. They have analyzed metal from organ pipes that have survived the centuries, and used the same alloy combinations, which are still mostly tin, 5% lead, and trace amounts of elements such as copper, bismuth, and even arsenic. Interestingly, this historic pipe composition was not deliberate. In earlier centuries, it was not possible to purify metal such as it can be done today. Now, however, the metals are too pure and have to be “contaminated” with trace elements to match the composition of pipes that have stood for centuries. Lutheran Bishop Rick Jaech, in attendance, observed that there might be a life lesson in the fact that pipes collapse when they get too pure!

The organ is close to completion. The last major component to be added will be the pipe shades, being hand carved in Dresden, Germany. When the pipe shades arrive, the organ will be disassembled and shipped to Ohio, where the Fritts staff will reassemble it in its new home. It will take 5 or 6 weeks to complete the voicing and tuning. The relationship to the room has been planned very carefully. For example, the organ case is expanded in the back, and the walls of the church will meet the case. The extra room on each side houses pedal pipes.

Wide posterior part of case

The new First Lutheran Church features a very live room, so the organ has been built on very low wind pressure–about 2 inches. The pipes are wide open, “singing as strongly as they can,” taking full advantage of the low pressure.

By the time the organ is assembled, most of the voicing will have already taken place previously, in the shop. There is still room for minor adjustments, even adjustments of the wind pressure. If necessary after hearing the organ in its permanent home, the wind pressure can be adjusted up or down by as much as 10 mm without adversely affecting the voicing.

Bruce Shull, the chief voicer, pointed out that the practice of voicing in the shop is also historical. In the sixteenth century, before extension cords and light bulbs, voicing in the case would have been done by candlelight. That would be difficult in many respects, not to mention what might happen if the candle fell over.

Having built the principal chorus using A Mighty Fortress, David Dahl demonstrated the flute pipes and various combinations using several other hymn tunes. His harmonizations were adventurous, but still tasteful by most standards.

David Dahl demonstrating Fritts Organs Opus 42

Following Paul Fritts’ presentation and a lively question and answer period, members enjoyed refreshments and the chance to play an organ that will soon claim its place in history–not as a replacement for Opus 4, but as a new work of art that will bring its own beauty into the world.

Shari Shull demonstrating Fritts Organs Opus 42

The organ specification is reproduced below.


Next meeting: Fritts Organ Company on January 12

Mark your calendars, and tell Alexa to remind you: Our next meeting is January 12, 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. at the Paul Fritts Organ Builders Shop in Parkland. Don’t miss this opportunity to see two organs under construction. Our Seattle colleagues are also invited to this event.

Bruce Shull, of Fritts Organs, sends this summary of what to expect:

The workshop of Paul Fritts & Co. Organ Builders is completing their Opus 42, a 2-manual 37-stop organ for First Lutheran Church in Lorain, Ohio. It is their second-largest two manual organ and will contain 2582 pipes.

The organ replaces John Brombaugh’s Opus 4 completed in 1970, which was destroyed along with the former church building in an arson fire in August of 2014. The congregation has built a new building on a nearby site and first worshipped in their new sanctuary in November of 2017. Installation of the new organ will take place during the spring of 2019.

The case of the organ stands just over 28 feet tall and is made of old-growth Douglas fir with an oil finish. The Great and Pedal divisions are housed in the upper portion of the case with the Swell division inside the lower case above the organist’s head.

Also in the workshop are portions of the next organ, Opus 44 being built for a new chapel under construction on the campus of Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Organists could learn a thing or two from Dmitry Sinkovsky

When Nancy suggested going to hear the Seattle Symphony perform Messiah on our birthday, I was not excited. I have heard Messiah many times–possibly enough for a lifetime, and didn’t particularly relish the thought of adding a symphonic rendition to the many dull performances already in my memory.

Conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky

However, when conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky appeared on stage and began the overture faster than I’ve ever heard it, it made me sit up and take notice. The performance was clean, crisp, and exciting, with a strong pulse of one beat per measure. The string players followed his lead well, with perfect intonation and phrasing.

Having established his reputation as a conductor, in my mind at least, Sinkovsky then proceeded to sing the counter tenor role beautifully, and played solo violin as well, and exquisitely. In his various performance roles, he still led the orchestra, not with his hands, but with his music.

And he shall purify the sons of Levi

When the choir began “And He shall Purify,” I was a little apprehensive, but the choir stayed with him–with perfect elocution, pitch, and phrasing, the difficult fast moving polyphonic runs leading up to the burst of homophonic “That they may offer unto the lord…” . Transcending the printed notes, the musicians were able to invoke images of fiery currents blowing up into a wall of flame. The audience clearly felt it. Even I felt it, and I have essentially no spiritual inclination.

In his interpretation of Messiah, Dmitry Sinkovsky was in charge. He was not worried about whether the singers would keep up with him–he knew that they would. He was not worried about producing exactly the same effect as the rehearsal, and I doubt if he cared much about what other conductors would do. He had mastered the music, and was able to make it come alive, to speak to the audience through the performers in a way that captivated even yours truly, who normally can’t sit in one place more than an hour.

Organists and organs are facing some difficult times. Classical performers, in general, are having a hard time attracting audiences. Even fewer people are motivated to attend organ recitals. Church attendance is declining nationwide, and praise bands are replacing organists in many of those churches that are still hanging on. And, I would have to agree, why bother to go to a concert if it doesn’t offer anything more than a recording would, if even that much?

In many ways, organists are facing a tougher battle than other musicians when it comes to attracting and pleasing audiences. The organ is relatively more obscure than the piano or the orchestra. Its long association with the church has been protective in the past, but may be a liability in the future. Organists are often unseen while playing, making it harder to establish a rapport with the audience.

Yet there are lessons we can take from Maestro Sinkovsky. I would summarize them as:

  • Play with confidence. One of my favorite memories as a resident in pathology was a sign on an office door that read, “Not always right, but always sure.” Make your musical decisions and stick to them.
  • Play with passion. Even though you may not be visible, your excitement about the music and desire to share it should shine through the rukwerk or whatever else might be between you and the audience. If the organist is bored or nervous, the audience is going to be bored or nervous. If the organist is passionate, the audience will follow.
  • Do not worry about whether your teacher would approve of your playing. The purpose of your musical education was to teach you how to think, and that is what you should now be doing. The only way you can accomplish goals 1 and 2 is by being musically true to yourself. You cannot play well if you are primarily concerned about what other organists will think.
  • Do not worry so much about what deceased organists would think either. In the case of The Messiah, the historically accurate performance practice was one of the major factors in its success, and that may often be the case. It would be a mistake, however, to put a pedantic desire for historical accuracy above musicality. Organists in the sixteenth century probably placed musicality above all else, and we should also, and for the same reasons. The audience is paying the bill.

So here’s a New Year’s resolution for organists worldwide: Let’s use some of that practice time to look at the big picture–to develop an understanding of the music and a strategy for conveying that understanding to the audience. Move past the notes. Master the music, and let the audience know that you’re in charge. Play with passion. Speak to the audience through your playing. Give them something they can’t get from a recording, or from watching TV. Let’s make the organ sing in 2019!

2018 Edition of Organ at the Mall a Success

Event Poster, designed by Cooper Sherry

Bringing organ music on real organs to the public is a specific and important outreach goal of the Tacoma Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and by any standards that endeavor was successful on December 14, 2018, when members gathered for the second Organ at the Tacoma Mall event.

The event was co-sponsored by the Lincoln High School Key Club and Chamber Orchestra. When Seattle members Carl Dodrill and David Lepse showed up with a pipe organ in a trailer behind a van, members of the Lincoln High School Key Club were on site to move it into the mall and lift it into place.

Once assembled, Tacoma and Seattle AGO members put on a show for the public, featuring organ alone, and accompanying flute players and string players.

Kahty Eggleston, Tacoma AGO member and former dean in Colorado, and Satya Jaech, member of the Tacoma AGO board, opened the program with joyful Christmas music, while other members greeted the public and explained the organ.

Paul Tegels, Professor of Music at Pacific Lutheran University, brought two flute players, also from PLU, and accompanied them on seasonal music.

David Dahl, retired professor from PLU, probably never thought he would spend an evening playing a pipe organ in a shopping mall, but that is exactly what he did, improvising on familiar carols for half an hour.

David Dahl improvises on familiar carols

The Lincoln High School Chamber Orchestra played two sets of seasonal music, including both Jewish and Christian traditions, accompanied by member Thomas Clark.

Lincoln High School chamber group plays with Thomas Clark

Member Karen Bredberg, skilled in both organ and cello, also played two sets, improvising with organist Thomas Clark.

Member Karen Bredberg plays cello

The organ has a couple of pipes that can be removed for demonstration purposes; and, throughout the event, members of the AGO greeted the public, answering questions, demonstrating how a pipe works, all in furtherance of the continuing history of the organ.

Additional photos appear in the gallery below.

Christmas Party Photos 2018

The 2018 Christmas party, held at the home of Tacoma AGO member Paul Fritts, featured a large assortment of delicious refreshments and music. Members played selected pieces on organ, harpsichord, and piano. Following the informal recital, the group sang together from Carols for Choirs, accompanied by Sheila Bristow.

The Group of Performers
Sheila Bristow, Chapter subdean, accompanies party goers singing Christmas anthems

Additional photos are provided in the gallery below.

The Chapter is indebted to Paul Fritts for hosting the party in his beautiful home, and to Satya Jaech and Cooper Sherry for organizing it.