Category Archives: Articles

February Program: The Saint Matthew Passion

On Monday evening, February 21, the Tacoma Chapter sponsored a program on J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, presented by Seattle conductor and composer, William (Will) White. Will currently serves as music director of Harmonia, a Seattle performing ensemble comprised of a chorus and orchestra. For four seasons, he served as Assistant Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and is a frequent pre-concert lecturer for the Seattle Symphony. Will is also a composer, and is one of the commissioned composers for the 2022 AGO National Convention in Seattle. His choral composition will be part of the O Antiphon service at St. Mark’s Cathedral during the convention.

Seattle Composer and Conductor William White discusses the St. Matthew Passion
Seattle Composer and Conductor William White discusses the St. Matthew Passion

While there are many ways to approach a talk on this monumental opus, White focused on the considerations and challenges facing a conductor when performing this work. For instance, the Matthew Passion calls for two choirs, so there’s a question about the best placement for each choir. J.S. Bach performed his Matthew Passion four times, always on Good Friday. Where might the two choirs have been placed in the Thomaskirche?

There is also the question of whether to use early instruments and tuning (415Hz) or modern instruments and tuning (440Hz). Yet another consideration is whether to use a harpsichord or portative organ, or both, for the continuo parts. (In the case of Harmonia’s upcoming performance of the St. Matthew Passion in March, both will be used, in addition to a theorbo.) Finally, there is the question of how to conduct the recitatives in a way that gives the soloist freedom but gives solid cues to the continuo players.

One example of a stylistic question in the Matthew Passion is whether to observe the fermatas in the chorales as holds, or whether to consider them as lifts, giving the choir an opportunity to breathe but move onto the next phrase of the chorale.

If all this sounds like a bit of a snore, it absolutely wasn’t! Will White made the presentation engaging and interesting, using visual examples of the score and sound examples to illustrate points.

The final conversation of the evening focused on Will’s experience as a composer, including how to compose for the organ when the composer isn’t an organist! The conversation broadened to composing in general, which generated lively questions and discussion from the attendees.

For more information about the upcoming performance, visit the AGO calendar entry.

January Meeting at St. Mark’s

We will attend the January organ concert at St. Mark’s Cathedral featuring organists Michael Kleinschmidt and John Stuntebeck as our January meeting. More information about the concert is available in our calendar listing.

We have negotiated a group rate with St. Mark’s Cathedral, and the cost of admission for full voting members of the Tacoma Chapter will be covered as part of your dues.

Free admission applies only to full voting members (regular, special, and dual) in good standing. It does not apply to the chapter friends or young organist categories. It does not cover spouses or partners–only members. Your dues must be current in order to gain free admission.

When you arrive at the concert, identify yourself as a member of the Tacoma AGO chapter and be prepared to show identification in addition to your proof of vaccination.

Christmas Party 2021

Our Christmas party will take place on December 20 in Lagerquist Hall. Members will have an informal opportunity to play the Gottfried and Mary Fuchs Organ at Pacific Lutheran University. Please sign up (see below) to share a musical gift with your friends. Each person who plays will be able to sign up to practice in advance. The available times have not yet been determined.

PLU is not currently allowing food consumption in their buildings. As an alternative, we plan to have an outdoor reception on the portico. Bring a thermos of your favorite hot beverage. The chapter will provide cookies.

IMPORTANT NOTES

  1. You must be fully vaccinated to attend this event, as well as any other Tacoma AGO events until further notice. You must wear a mask over your nose and mouth at all times while in the PLU building.
  2. You must sign up in advance to attend this event, even if you’re not playing. We have to maintain a list of attendees in case we have to send out a notification of COVID-19 exposure. The signup link is below.
  3. For this events (like all events at PLU), you must show proof of vaccination upon entry.

SIGNUP LINK

An Organ Odyssey

There are few organists who have the experience and political skills needed to join a church staff, develop the music program, and convince the church to add a new organ into the mix of a planned capital campaign and building renovation. Yet that is exactly what Dennis Northway did at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Gig Harbor. On Monday, November 15, 2021, Tacoma AGO members gathered entered the sanctuary through the new, brightly lit narthex to hear the story of the new Rieger/Pasi organ.

The building renovation was dramatic. Gone is the wall to wall carpet, with new, glistening hardwood floors in its place. The beautiful stained glass window at the liturgical West end is visible again, as the Moller Artiste that had blocked it is now gone.

Dennis began his campaign for a new organ with an educational event–teaching the capital campaign committee about the role of congregational singing in the life of the church. They hired David Dahl as a consultant, and the project took off. The capital campaign committee agreed that the Moller Artiste had to go.

The church initially planned to buy Fritts opus 16, currently on lease to a church in New York City, but discovered that it was going to cost an additional $450,000 to reinforce the floor over the heating system in order to accommodate the Fritts organ at the liturgical East end. The extra cost was not financially feasible. David Dahl remembered that there was a Rieger organ available, originally purchased for a school in New York. Martin Pasi, formerly a Rieger employee, and now an organ builder in Tacoma, agreed to install the organ on a side wall at the other end of the church. It also required floor reinforcement and seismic protection, but at a much lower cost than the original plan.

The organ is only partially installed at this time, but Dennis used BWV 549, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, as the first musical example, filling the room with a strong principal sound. Florence Price’s In Quiet Mood, showcased the flutes and principals with its lush harmony. Dennis used a prelude by Jacques Boyvin to demonstrate an 8,4, and 2 combination, and Bach trio sonata BWV 529 (slow movement) to show a balanced flute combination.

A long view of the nave, showing the organ placement against a side wall in the back
Nave of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Gig Harbor, WA

As part of the installation, several stops will be removed, and several others added by organ builder Martin Pasi. Dennis provided a handout entitled “Pipe Organ History” to document the disposition of the former Moller organ and the plans to complete the present organ, including a new Great trumpet and a new Pedal fagott. That document is attached at the end of this article.

Rector Eric Stelle was a designer before he was a priest, and is very pleased with both the architectural changes and the addition of the organ. A member said to him that the church still looks like St. John’s, but it also now looks good. Stelle was also very complimentary of Dennis Northway, calling him a gentle presence who saw this change as a necessary part of a larger mission.

Following the demonstration, members were treated to a reception served by church members.

Table of refreshments and fresh flowers
Refreshments served at a reception following the AGO program
Saint-Johns-Organ-History

Exploring Fritts Opus 46 at Wesley Chapel

Wesley Des Moines is a retirement community situated on 42 acres close to the Des Moines waterfront, about halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. It is an unlikely place to find a tracker organ, yet Fritts Organ Builders Opus 46 sits proudly at the front of the gallery in the Wesley Gardens Chapel.

Fritts Organs opus 46 at Wesley Des Moines
Fritts Organs opus 46 at Wesley Des Moines

On Monday, October 18, the Seattle and Tacoma chapters gathered for our October joint meeting to hear the organ and to hear about the organ. Approximately 45 people were present, evenly representing the Tacoma AGO chapter, the Seattle AGO chapter, and Wesley residents.

Susan Fritts McConnell, Executive Director of the Wesley Community Foundation, welcomed the group and talked about how the organ came to exist. It was clear to Wesley stakeholders, as the Gardens Building plan evolved, that it should contain a spacious chapel and that that chapel should house an organ. The Foundation’s job is to support the Wesley mission, and they did just that–by identifying donors who could make that vision happen. Fortunately for the organ community, Susan McConnell grew up in an “organ family,” her father having been a prominent local organist, and her brother Paul Fritts having made a career in organ building. That didn’t leave much chance of Wesley ending up with anything but a tracker organ!

Paul Fritts (brown jacket) talks to members after his presentation

Paul Fritts knew from an early age that he wanted to build organs. He established the present Fritts Organ Builders shop in 1979 with a goal of reclaiming the best practices of 17th and 18th century European organ building. His shop in Parkland, WA, is a timber-framed building big enough to accommodate very large organs. His staff consists of a group of organ builders that shares Paul’s goal of using historical organ building techniques to produce fine musical instruments. All of the work is done in-house with the exception of certain electrical components, such as blowers. The pipes are cast onto a sand table, as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. The rapid cooling produces pipes with obvious acoustical benefits such as a solid, full sound.

Howard Wolvington (Seattle Chapter) tries the organ with assistance of David Dahl (Tacoma Chapter)

The Wesley organ is one of a series conceived for studios, homes, and practice rooms. The Wesley Chapel is somewhat bigger than most studios, so adjustments were made for this installation. The stop list is similar to the other organs in the series, but changes were made in the sound of the organ to reflect the fact that it is in a large room. The pipes have broader diameters, and higher wind pressure. The pipes are also voiced for this large space.

Using musical examples from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, organists David Dahl and Thomas Clark demonstrated that the organ could successfully play music ranging from French Classical to Brahms and Thalben-Ball. Likewise, using hymns from the 17th through the 20th centuries, Thomas Clark demonstrated that it was possible to accompany them in an interesting way, making maximum use of the limited number of stops.

Following a question and answer session, the group adjourned to a reception provided by the Wesley Community Foundation. At the same time, David Dahl hosted an “open keyboard” in the gallery so that attendees could inspect and play the organ.

Susan McConnell, Paul Fritts, and David Dahl respond to audience questions

In fulfillment of the vision of Wesley Administration, its Board of Directors, and the Wesley Foundation, the organ is used regularly for the benefit of residents. It is used for services and hymn festivals. Residents frequently come by and sit in the chapel when the organ is being played. A recent “Pedals and Pipes” (note the absence of pizza) demonstration attracted 35 residents who brought questions ranging from organ shoes to overtones. The organ can also serve as an example to churches and concert venues that it is better to buy a small, high quality musical instrument than a larger but cheaper alternative that isn’t a musical instrument at all.