A Necessary Organ

April 7, 2014 — Leave a comment

For a small island, only 84 square miles, St Croix offers a surprising array of cultural multiplicity from Quelbe to calypso, from scuba to racing, from fine dining to roadside roti, from comedy to classical.

Every now and then the spirit soars to unexpected heights, and not always in a place of faith. Perhaps the sight of a frigate bird catching a current high over moored yachts; or the pure unfettered joy of a baby’s laugh; or as on Saturday when sound and space created harmony in the soul of those present.

I sat on mahogany pews in St John’s Episcopal Church, designed and built by master craftsman Andrew Ferris after a fire in 1866 destroyed the building, itself a rebuild of the original wooden structure blown down in the hurricane of 1772.  Ferris, in modern day parlance, was the main contractor. The magnificence of the rafters draws the eye ever upwards. Ferris’s elegantly proportioned stairs, balconies, pulpit and altar, also made from island mahogany, underscore the simplicity of the church open to the Caribbean elements, and the occasional pigeon.

It is those elements that have wrought so much damage to the two organs of St John’s. The first, a Hutchings-Plaisted ‘Tracker’ Organ was installed in 1881. Positioned on the north balcony it is made of wood with thistles stencilled on the pipe casings. I learnt a lot as waiting for the music to start, I read about a subject about which I know little. According to www.stams.org “a tracker organ is a mechanical organ, where each key is mechanically connected to a valve for a pipe by a series of wooden ‘stickers’ and ‘trackers’. The effect is like an old fashioned typewriter.” And, for those of us in the audience interested in trivia, we were told is also the origin of the phrase ‘pull out all the stops’!

The second is modern by comparison, a 1960 Austin Organ custom built for the church, with more pipes added over the years. Hurricane Hugo rudely ripped half the roof off St John’s effectively dousing both organs. The pipe organ was disassembled and shipped back to Austin Organs in Upper Montclair, NJ for restoration and under the hands, and feet, of a master, the tonal quality is inspiring.

And so it was on Saturday when Peter Richard Conte, on island regularly for 25 years, played a benefit concert for the restoration, and upkeep, of both organs. Mr Conte is an organist of international repute, and only the fourth Wanamaker Grand Court Organist (situated in Macy’s Center City in Philadelphia), a title originating when the Wanamaker Organ with a mind-blowing 30,000 pipes was first played in 1911. Mr Conte has a string of credits and recordings to his name, has been featured several times on National Public Radio and television, and has performed with numerous orchestras.

Before each piece Conte spoke, his face tanned and animated, his well-modulated voice perhaps a precursor to what awaited the audience gazing up at the west balcony. We were not disappointed as the music sometimes thundered, sometimes whispered, and sometimes lilted, reverberating around the gracious old church.

Watching Mr Conte’s hands, long and strong fingered, coax and cajole the organ into magnificence was a treat not expected. His feet danced in soft-soled shoes across the pedals. He played music I didn’t know, like Alexandre Guilmant’s Grand Chorus in the style of Handel. He played favourites, the Finale from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, then switching moods his fingers skipped lightly through Arthur Sullivan’s Overture to HMS Pinafore. His playing of Bizet’s Carmen Suite had most of us either tapping or humming.

The “Tracker” needs full restoration, and the “Austin” requires annual servicing –both are necessary organs if Peter Richard Conte, who plays at St John’s whenever on island, or any other organist is to make our spirits soar.

And I was again impressed by the faith of ordinary people, not just here but everywhere, whose unshakeable belief that funding would and could be raised to save the crumbling buildings in which they prayed. Perhaps I’m also a little envious!


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