Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the December 19,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Tune for the Old Organ

Pity the stereotypical organist, a frequently forgotten

person hidden out of sight in a choir loft, whose imposing musical

contributions mark the prescribed order of a religious service.

Consorting

with a highly demanding instrument, they may not necessarily emerge

until after playing the postlude to the service, when the congregation

has already dispersed. Uncelebrated and unnoticed, they may have to

battle inferior instruments. This old stereotype, however, is rapidly

being eroded.

Organists and their instruments are forming a high-profile presence

in central New Jersey. In February, Princeton Theological Seminary

(PTS) dedicated its new Joe R. Engle Organ. In March, Princeton’s

Trinity Church inaugurated a new instrument. Since September, New

Brunswick’s Christ Church has been using a new organ, which will

receive

its finishing touches in January. In separate triumphs of musical

and architectural craftsmanship, each instrument has been specifically

designed for the space in which it has been installed.

In tandem with the new instruments, a column of organists has moved

across the central Jersey map. Organist George Stauffer arrived in

the summer of 2000 to become dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of

the Arts, and Rutgers’ Kirkpatrick Chapel has a new organist in

Antonius

Bittman. At the Princeton University Chapel David Messineo has taken

over as principal organist, replacing Joan Lippincott, who, after

seven years in the post, turned to full-time performing and recording.

Messineo awaits the moment when the University Chapel’s prized Mander

Organ, safeguarded against the dust of a two-year chapel renovation,

will once again be available. Lippincott, meanwhile, has been active

at PTS, happily familiarizing herself with the Engle organ built by

Paul Fritts, on which she recorded her most recent CD, an exuberant

and lucid account of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, with

instrumentals

by the Princeton University Chapel Camerata. Entitled

"Sinfonia,"

and issued by Gothic Records of Seattle, the CD consists of organ

obbligato movements from Bach cantatas. Following Bach’s practice,

Lippincott has arranged the movements in fast-slow-fast sequences

to create three concerto-like entities.

The Engle organ at PTS, named after its donor, is prominent in a

service

of Lessons and Carols on Wednesday, December 19, a service that is

held twice, at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., at Miller Chapel on the Seminary

campus. The seminary’s Cantate Domino and Jubilate Deo choirs, led

by music director Martin Tel, sing both ancient and contemporary

carols.

Caroling on the Seminary grounds follows. The public is welcome.

Lippincott traverses a wide range of organ topics as

we sit in an empty Miller Chapel with the new instrument rising above

us. The chapel is named for Samuel Miller, the second professor at

the Presbyterian seminary. Recipient of a Historical Society of

Princeton

restoration award in May 2001, the steepleless chapel is of modest

size and relatively low. Except for bare wood floors stained brown,

its walls and pews are ivory. Corinthian columns and a simple molding

at the ceiling emphasize the rectangular shape of the renovated space.

Large paned windows admit a great deal of light. John Knox himself

would have found the building’s simplicity appropriate.

The new organ dominates the front of the room. "Placing the organ

front and center was a decision reached after exploring the

possibility

of the rear balcony," says Paul Fritts in a conversation reported

in "Diapason," one of the two national journals for organists.

"A good deal of remodeling was done to provide more width to the

front of the chapel, so that the organ could stand on the floor at

the front, with its presence clearly `in the room.’"

Evolving from early Calvinist opposition to the use of instruments

in a worship service, up-to-date Presbyterian institutions have

devised

a theological-musical compromise that assigns an important role to

the organ for worship. By this thinking, the organ is essential for

leading congregational singing. A secondary consideration is its use

to support choral singing. The capacity of the instrument to play

the literature for organ is a tertiary matter.

Viewed head on, the most prominent part of the instrument is an array

of shiny silver pipes partially masked by ivory-colored open swirls

of carved wood screening with vaguely botanical references. The

carving

was done by Judy Fritts, sister of the organ builder. "The idea

was to integrate the shape of the organ’s case and pipes so it would

feel at home in this room," Lippincott says. "We wanted the

organ case to be related to the decoration in the room. But the

ornamental

shapes also have to do with function. The wood affects how the sound

resonates. The depth and height of the case influence the quality

of the sound, the blend of the sound, and its projection. Both the

case and the room are important to the sound."

"There’s been a flurry of organ building recently," she notes.

"Some stunning instruments have been built, and there’s a backlog

among the best organ builders. Paul Fritts, who’s now 50, makes some

of the best modern instruments being built. He’s emerged as one of

the finest organ builders of the world."

Lippincott prizes the new instrument for its ability to communicate

the music of the baroque period as well as the music of the 20th

century.

While it is not a copy of a baroque instrument, its design is

historically

influenced. Like other instrumentalists, organists have discovered

that authentic performance calls for informed musical and instrumental

decisions.

Using the Fritts instrument, Lippincott demonstrates the booming

overlapping

sound of the modern organ as well as the clearly-articulated sound

of Bach. All-enveloping, the modern sound leaves no respite for the

ear. In contrast, the baroque sound gives each note its individual

space, sculpting melodic lines out of articulated sounds. Kindly,

she lets me try the instrument. It is responsive and supple, ready

to do whatever the player commands.

"Organists have learned that there’s more than one kind of

legato,"

Lippincott says. "A generation ago a very smooth legato was

considered

desirable. Now it’s widely understood that baroque legato is not so

connected. Organists are learning how to play with more flexibility

of sound. They’re beginning to realize that there are many degrees

of touch. In a razzle-dazzle 19th-century organ piece you have to

use many varieties of staccato." She compares the legato touch

required for baroque organ to a string of pearls where each unit

touches

the adjacent ones, but is independent.

Lippincott offers praise for the method book "Organ

Technique-Modern

and Early," first published in 1992 by George Ritchie and George

Stauffer, now of Rutgers. The volume is a comprehensive guide to organ

playing and styles, to the construction of the instrument, and to

practical matters such as what sort of shoes to wear, and how to

practice.

The material helps even a beginner understand the workings of the

sophisticated Fritts instrument.

The sound of the PTS organ is set in motion by three keyboards. Two,

called manuals, which look like the white and black keys of a piano

keyboard, are played with the hands. One, consisting of pedals

corresponding

to the white and black keys of a piano keyboard, is played with the

feet.

Lippincott stresses that the organ is a wind instrument in which sound

is produced by forcing air through pipes of various sizes and shapes,

whereas the piano is a percussion instrument in which sound is

produced

by a hammer. "When we depress a key on an organ," she says,

"we’re opening a valve that allows air to go into a pipe. It

requires

less physical force than a piano." Martin Tel of PTS makes another

distinction: "The wonderful thing that organists get to work with

is release," he says. "If you don’t release, the sound doesn’t

stop. Organ is unlike piano, where the sound decays."

The Fritts organ at PTS uses a mechanical action to connect the key

to the pipe; the connector is a wooden strip called a tracker. With

the alternative action, called an electro-pneumatic action, the key

is connected to the pipe by a system of pneumatic pouches and

electrical

contacts. In an organ with a tracker action the keyboards must be

near the pipes; in an organ with electro-pneumatic action keyboards

and pipes may be widely separated.

"Tracker organs are now regaining favor after being eclipsed for

a while by electronically-driven organs," says Mark Trautman,

director of music at New Brunswick’s Christ Church. "The advantage

is that the player has an intimate relation to the way the organ

functions.

Playing a tracker organ is like playing a piano or a flute. With an

electro-pneumatic action you’re manipulating switches; the manuals

can be far away from the pipes. The wide separation is difficult to

coordinate musically, and it’s visually confusing."

Lippincott joins Trautman in advocating tracker action, a position

she has reached after long and extensive experience with the

instrument.

Born in Kearny, New Jersey, on Christmas Day, 1935, the daughter of

an import-export broker father and a homemaker mother, she came into

a family with a strong paternal musical tradition. "My father’s

family was Swedish," she says, "and they all played keyboard

instruments. They could all improvise on the piano."

"I wanted to play organ since an early age," Lippincott says.

"My initial connection had to do with wanting to play the organ

in church. I was brought up in a northern Baptist church, where my

family were members, and in a Presbyterian church, where my organ

teacher was."

Lippincott started with piano and switched to organ at 13. Kearny

High School was unique in possessing a three-manual pipe organ. "I

was the high school organist," she says. "It was a big deal.

I was excused from study hall to practice organ. I went to Westminster

Choir College as an undergraduate because of Westminster’s strength

in organ."

Immediately after graduate work in organ at Philadelphia’s Curtis

Institute, Lippincott was invited to teach at Westminster. She was

principal organist for Princeton University Chapel organist from 1993

to 2000. With performances in the United States, Canada and Europe,

her discography includes music of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Widor,

Alain, and Pinkham. She lives with her husband Curt, a retired

guidance

counselor, in Skillman.

"The two biggest challenges for learning organ," says

Lippincott,

"are learning how to touch the instrument and learning how to

play the pedals. The pedals are really just another keyboard.

Coordinating

the feet with the hands is the greatest difficulty. Organ music has

three lines, and beginners tend to play the pedal part with their

left hand." Ritchie and Stauffer’s method book instructs beginners

on pedal notation, which indicates the foot to be used and whether

to employ heel or toe.

Lippincott emphasizes the precise engagement of fingers on the keys.

"Organists must first be in touch with the key and then depress

it," she says. "The pipes, when they speak, have an initial

consonant, which can be influenced by the finger. After the initial

depression of the key comes the ‘bloom’ of the sound, which can not

be controlled by the player. It depends on the material, diameter,

and voicing of the pipe. ‘Bloom’ suggests beauty and movement in

sound.

I like the term. The bloom is followed by an ending consonant, which

is very much controlled by the player; it depends on how the player

releases key."

"For me," Lippincott says, "the organ is the best

instrument

in the world. I feel privileged and blessed that I’m able to do this.

My passion is Bach. Playing in `Bach in the Big Apple’ [a current

New York concert series], I think I died and went to heaven. But I

love all the repertoire. There are so many giants."

— Elaine Strauss

Princeton Theological Seminary, Miller Chapel,

609-497-7760.

Festival service of Lessons and Carols marking the end of the Advent

season is led by Seminary president Thomas Gillespie, the Cantate

Domino and Jubilate Deo choirs directed by Martin Tel. Caroling on

the Seminary grounds led by seminary choirs follows. Free.

Wednesday,

December 19, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.


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