Zach Hemenway plays the historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, which is undergoing a $2 million restoration project that will take at least two years to complete. (Photo by Cherri Gregg)

by Michael Caruso

Although most classical music performances, instruction and projects have been put on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, some have successfully made the transition from in-person to online. For instance, I’ve been able to continue teaching most of my Settlement Music School piano students via Skype.

With the partial reopening of the economy, some particularly physical projects have been able to start up. A local example is currently taking place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. The long-planned, fully funded and eagerly awaited undertaking to totally restore the church’s acclaimed Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ began in earnest in June under the auspices of Russell & Company Organ Builders of Cambridgeport, Vermont. One of its technicians worked for Aeolian-Skinner in the 1950s and ’60s.

Due to the instrument’s size and historic prominence, the project is of national importance. The current organ replaced an earlier, smaller instrument that was built by the E.M. Skinner Company of Boston. At 43 ranks and three manuals (keyboards), its romantic character served its purpose well from the 1930s into the 1950s. The post-World War II revival of interest in Baroque music in general and the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach in particular inspired consideration of replacing the original instrument with a larger organ that could accommodate a broader range of musical styles.

In 1953, the parish signed a contract with the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston to rebuild the organ as part of the parish’s centennial celebration. Music director Thomas Dunn worked closely with G. Donald Harrison, the firm’s president & tonal director, to design a cutting edge instrument in the eclectic “American Classic” style.

At the same time he was working in Chestnut Hill, Harrison was also working on producing a new instrument for St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City, one of the most influential parishes in the Episcopal Church (USA), the American province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Dedicated in 1956, the pipe organ at St. Paul’s Church, Chestnut Hill, turned out to be Harrison’s final opus. He died in June of that year, never completing the project at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. Some of the pipes meant for the New York church ended up in Chestnut Hill.

E.M. Skinner pipe work was added in 1971, Aeolian-Skinner and Austin pipe work was added in 1983 and again in1989 through 1992. During those same years, more Skinner pipes were added, as were Walker Digital Voices. The cumulative result is an instrument boasting 114 ranks and 6,357 pipes.

St. Paul’s current music director, Andrew Kotylo, described the church’s organ as encompassing a broad spectrum of colors and textures, enabling it to be used in repertoire spanning the 17th/18th century Baroque and Classical, the 19th century Romantic, the 20th century modern and even 21st century contemporary. Perhaps even more important from a parochial standpoint, the instrument can also meet the requirements of accompanying the expanded liturgical needs of a parish fully engaged in the musical life of Anglican worship.

Kotylo explained that the restoration work includes removing and cleaning the chancel pipes and chests, keeping as many of the originals as possible. The instrument’s internal layout will be restructured to make it more accessible for repair and maintenance.

The entire project is expected to take as long as 30 months, “But we’re hoping that it will be completed within 24,” Kotylo said. The cost is a cool $2 million, covered by a generous gift.

“The goal is not to change the instrument’s sound,” Kotylo assured, “but to refine it by filling in some of the tonal gaps. For instance, when Harrison designed it, he chose not to include any wooden pipes, feeling that they were more ‘romantic’ in tone than what he was looking for at the time. Some wooden pipes will be included this time around, and a new console will be designed.

To celebrate the conclusion of this gargantuan enterprise, the parish plans to present a series of organ recitals starting in the fall of 2022.

Hearing the organ at St. Paul’s Church played on a regular basis was part of what made writing for the Chestnut Hill Local such a rewarding experience. Beginning in 1986, I had the chance to hear the peerless artistry of then-music director Richard Alexander, both as an organ virtuoso and masterful choral conductor. Alexander oversaw the acquisition of ranks of Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner pipe work that substantially expanded the tonal characteristics of the St. Paul’s organ.

Although the 2020-21 season of the parish’s “Five Fridays” series of fundraising chamber music recitals has been cancelled, St. Paul’s will resume in-person services Sunday, July 12. Call 215-242-2055 or visit stpaulschestnuthill.org for more information.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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