CAPE ELIZABETH — Parishioners at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church found about five years ago that the pipe organ in their house of worship could no longer function, no matter who was playing it.
Needing an honest assessment of whether to repair or replace the 50-year-old instrument, they hired a local organ mechanic, David Wallace, whose resume includes maintaining the massive Kotzschmar organ at the Merrill Auditorium.
“He pretty much said to us, ‘Are you sure you want to put a new transmission and a new engine in this 1985 Ford pickup?’ ‘ recalled Robert Stoddard, who was a relatively new member of the Church but one with a deep background in music. “It created a real discussion in our community about the role of music. Do we need an organ here? And the strong sense was, yes, the pipe organ means something in the episcopal tradition.”
So the church decided it would replace the organ, but that’s hardly like going into a music store and pulling one off the shelf. Only a few dozen companies in the country build pipe organs.
After raising enough money through a capital campaign and issuing a tender, St. Albans selected a contractor near where it lived: Jonathan Ortloff of Needham, Massachusetts.
“Our stated goal was to have a pipe organ that would support worship, not a showpiece,” Stoddard said.
Ortloff said he knew within minutes of speaking to the folks in St Albans that he was the man.
“They didn’t want anything overly fancy, just a very good product, and I said, ‘These are my people,'” he said.
Ortloff, 36, grew up with music. He started playing the piano at a young age and surprised his parents by fixing a broken vacuum cleaner around the same time.
“I’ve always been equally left- and right-brained,” he said.
In high school, a teacher assigned students to interview someone and write a story. Ortloff selected a local organ builder, which resulted in him taking a job in the man’s workshop. He fell in love with it immediately and eventually opened his own business in 2014.
The process of building a pipe organ is lengthy as each one is custom made. First, Ortloff had to design an instrument according to the church’s specifications. Then he had to build it in his Massachusetts workshop with the help of six of his employees, just to take it apart, box each whistle individually, ship them to Cape Elizabeth, and install them in the room.
The construction work alone amounted to 1,000 hours. Construction took about 18 months.
“A pipe organ is unlike any other musical instrument,” said Ortloff. “This organ contains 1,491 pipes, each an individual instrument. And they are all hand made. No machine can automate that.”
The organ’s case and console were built of white oak; the tubes of various alloys of lead and tin, zinc, aluminum and wood. The largest tube is more than 16 feet long; the smallest, less than a quarter-inch.
After the organ was installed there was a further step called sonic finishing which spanned a number of days this month. It was all about playing each note individually and having someone listen so adjustments can be made. The organ can produce the sounds of an entire orchestra – flutes, strings, trumpets, trombones, oboes, even bells.
St. Alban’s Church raised about $1.4 million during its 2019 fundraising campaign, half of which was paid for the new organ and half to improve the social program.
Rev. Joshua Hill, the rector of the church, said there was tremendous excitement among parishioners.
“I’ve been to churches my whole life, but never one with a brand new organ,” he said.
Hill said music has always been an important part of the episcopal tradition.
“This has manifested itself in choral music supported by an organ,” he said. “And more than a piano or other instruments, organ music supports singing very well. It accompanies the community, not only in terms of sound, but also in terms of volume.”
The new organ is intended to support parishioners and the music they sing each week, but the hope is that it will also belong to the wider community.
“When people think of pipe organs, they think of things that live in churches,” Stoddard said. “And that’s true, of course, but it’s also a fabulous instrument. We would love for it to be more than just something our congregation hears on Sundays.”
With this in mind, St Alban’s is hosting two public dedication concerts next weekend and has invited world-class musicians to show what the whistles can produce.
The first concert will be on Friday at 7:30pm, conducted by Duke University’s Christopher Jacobson. Jacobson has played organ recitals in the United States and Europe and served as assistant organist at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC
The second concert on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. will feature Maine’s own Katelyn Emerson. The 2010 graduate of York High School won first prize in the American Guild of Organists’ National Young Artists’ Competition in 2016, shortly after graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Since then she has performed in venues around the world and has been a guest singer on the Kotzschmar Organ in Portland. She lives in Illinois where her husband works as (what else?) organ builder.
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