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Burlington's U.U. Pulls Out All the Stops with a New Organ

State of the Arts


Published January 24, 2007 at 4:50 p.m.

MUSIC (01.24.07)

Talk about organ donation. When the instrument that made Sunday mornings musical at Burlington's Universalist Unitarian Society for 50-plus years was approaching its last stop, church officials passed the plate. At a single Sunday morning service in November 2005, they raised more than $400,000 - enough to install what U.U. organist Jack Austin calls "the best developed American Classic design organ in Vermont, surely, and possibly in New England."

Austin unveiled the state-of-the-art R.A. Colby hybrid at a weekly service last November. In December, the instrument provided accompaniment for Robert De Cormier's vocal ensemble Counterpoint at a public concert. A recital this weekend by Annette Richards of Cornell University will showcase the organ's full concertizing capacity.

The instrument's potential "to enable the player to play music of any period at all," as Austin puts it, drove Richards' play list. The concert draws on three centuries of organ tradition, from J.S. Bach's rarely heard "Pi∂ce d'Orgue" through works of Felix Mendelssohn, Edward Elgar and two other Romantics, to 20th-century compositions by Herbert Howells and Charles Ives.

If Sunday's program promotes historical continuity, so does the instrument Ñ and the venue. The house of worship that gives Church Street its name was dedicated in 1817. Its first organ was dragged over the snow from Boston, according to committee chair Woody Fulton. That one was replaced in 1853 with a Johnson organ. In 1954, an Austin organ was installed using the old Johnson pipes. Those same parts were refurbished and retained for the new instrument.

Church members identified the need for this rebuilding project in the early 1990s, when it became clear the 1954 organ was on borrowed time. Rather than simply repairing the existing instrument, they decided to take advantage of new technology and create a concert-quality organ Ñ "something the society could be proud of, and that would be a genuine asset to the community," says Austin.

A Google search for "organ consultant Vermont" turned up Charles Callahan of Orwell. He connected the committee with R.A. Colby, third-generation organ builders in Tennessee. The resulting instrument is a thing of beauty. Gracefully sculpted silver pipes rise above the triple keyboard. The finely turned cabinetry matches the sanctuary's elegant 19th-century details.

But the audible aesthetics are the ones that count. The 29 pipes visible from the outside are part of the "great division," which produces the paradigmatic organ tone. Shutters behind the great division "swell" the volume by controlling how much sound comes from the hundreds of pipes inside the "swell chamber." The organ has a total of 1200 pipes of various shapes, sizes and materials Ñ some capped, some open, some fitted with reeds. Each produces a unique pitch and timbre. Played in combination, they can create a nearly limitless palette of aural colors.

Augmenting the mechanical stops is a digital library - sounds sampled from actual pipe organs and manipulated through a console designed by Walker Technology. A Midi pushes the possibilities into the realm of electronics. Purists may object, but "what emerges," Austin insists, "is an astonishingly realistic organ sound."

Organ enthusiasts can decide for themselves. After Richards' recital this week, three more public performances are planned: Charles Callahan on February 24, UVM's David Neiweem on March 31, and Austin on the last Sunday of either April or May.

Annette Richards, Unitarian Universalist Society, Burlington, Sunday, January 28, 3 p.m. Donations. Info, 862-5630.