Gordon Turk can’t wait to be “heckeled.”
The former Lambertville resident, now in his 45th season as resident organist at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, awaits the most recent addition to his instrument.
“It’s a stop that’s called the heckelphone,” he says. “They’re pipes that recreate the sound of the heckelphone. The heckelphone is practically an unknown instrument today. It was invented by a German man whose name was Heckel. It’s an orchestral instrument that is a larger, lower pitched version of the English horn. It has an interesting, very mellow, and warm sound. It’s colorful, and it’s definitely in the woodwind family. There are only two of them that I know of in this country. There’s one in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, in the big organ there, and another one in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan.”
The stop is being made brand new for Ocean Grove, though modeled on the specifications of early 20th century builder Ernest M. Skinner. Skinner is a legend among organ makers for, among other things, his innovations in incorporating orchestral sounds into the organ.
The heckelphone is only the latest enhancement to the Ocean Grove instrument, which in recent years has grown by leaps and bounds. After all, a grand hall requires a grand instrument.
Built in 1894 — remarkably, by shipbuilders in only 90 days — the Great Auditorium is the largest enclosed auditorium in New Jersey. The barrel-vaulted wooden structure houses 6,500 seats. Its massive, curved ceiling is an acoustic marvel, a throwback to the days before amplification. In its original layout, the hall held close to 10,000 seats, in accordance with its mission as a facility for camp meetings. The auditorium continues to host religious services and visiting evangelists.
The venue’s outsized capacity and superior acoustical properties made it a popular destination for musicians from the golden age, from Enrico Caruso to John Philip Sousa. Nowadays, it draws the Beach Boys and an annual doo-wop extravaganza. Leonard Bernstein affectionately referred to it as the “Great Barn,” comparing its acoustics favorably to those of Carnegie Hall.
Originally installed in 1908 by Robert Hope-Jones, the auditorium’s organ is one of the largest in the world. It has been restored and greatly expanded by Turk and curator John Shaw. The organ has five manuals, 194 ranks, and 12,000 pipes. Unsurprisingly, these days the hall attracts as many devout music-lovers as it does the simply devout.
Now in its 149th season, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association will host “Summer Stars,” a classical music series initiated by Turk three decades ago. This year’s Thursday evening concerts will include appearances by Imperial Brass (July 5), the Solisti Ensemble (July 12), flutist Anthony Trionfo and pianist Albert Cano Smit (July 19), the classical guitar duo Alex and Wesley Park (July 26), and a season finale with organ and orchestra, featuring Turk and Metropolitan Opera tenor Ronald Naldi (August 2). All begin at 7:30 p.m.
Turk will join Imperial Brass and former principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic Philip Smith for the July 5 concert. He will perform the “Grand Choer Dialogue” by Eugene Gigout and a work by Jean Rivier. The August 2 finale will include a couple of romantic rarities, as is the organist’s wont: a grand Concerto in A minor, by Marco Enrico Bossi, and the Symphony No. 1 for organ and orchestra, by Alexandre Guilmant.
Jason Tramm will conduct. He and Turk will also participate in the annual choir festival, on Sunday, July 8, which will include hundreds of singers, six guest conductors, and a brass ensemble.
Tramm is in his 10th year as resident conductor at Ocean Grove. He was music director of the New Jersey State Opera from 2008 to 2013. He is now artistic director of the MidAtlantic Opera and music director of Teatro Lirico d’Europa. He is also director of choral activities at Seton Hall University in South Orange and, for the past two years, music director of Morris Choral Society in Morristown.
In addition, Turk will present a series of free organ recitals. The recitals will be offered on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. on July 11 and August 8 and 29, and Sundays at noon on July 7, 14, 21, and 28 and August 4, 11, 18, and 25. Guest organists will include Greg Zelek, organist-curator of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Madison, Wisconsin (July 18); Carol Williams, artistic director of the Virginia International Organ Festival and San Diego’s civic organist emerita (July 25); and Adam Pajan of the faculty of University of Oklahoma (August 15).
Turk will also appear in a special “Pipes and Stripes” holiday concert on Wednesday, July 4, at 7:30 p.m. He will wrap up the summer season with the annual “Holiday Encores” concert, on which he will be joined by pianist Hugh Sung and bass-baritone Kevin Short, on Monday, September 3, at 7 p.m. When he isn’t organizing concerts and playing recitals, Turk is preparing rehearsals for Ocean Grove’s 10:30 a.m. Sunday services.
You might say Turk is consumed by the organ, an instrument he has loved since he was a boy. “I wanted to start organ lessons when I was five, but I couldn’t reach the pedals,” he says. “So I started on piano, and by the time I was 10 I was able to begin. I knew from the outset. The sound of the organ spoke to me, and I wanted to be able to play it.”
He was first exposed to the instrument in church, hardly surprising given his father’s occupation. “My father was a pastor at a Methodist church, so it was natural. I was around it, and I just resonated to the sound.”
His father’s assignments took him to any number of small, South Jersey towns. The most notable was Hancock Bridge, the site of a Revolutionary War massacre.
The family settled in Lambertville when Turk was 10. He remembers fondly his boyhood there, when it was quite different from the tourist attraction of today. “It was a very sleepy town,” he says. “This was before it became such a center of restaurants and art galleries. We would all get on our bicycles and ride all day in the summers. It’s what I remember the most, in terms of childhood. It was a delightful place.”
Neither of his parents was a musician, but Turk describes his mother as musical. Both of his sisters have chosen music for their careers, one as a teacher and the other as a music therapist.
It was during his years in Lambertville that Turk first began to study the organ with Phyllis Herring, who lived across the Delaware in Solebury Township but was the organist at Lambertville’s First Presbyterian Church.
“She was a superb teacher and musician,” Turk recalls. “So I was very fortunate in that I had a wonderful beginning. When I went on to study in Philadelphia with Alexander McCurdy, who was a legendary organist who taught at the Curtis Institute, he said, ‘Boy, that woman certainly knew her business! She knew what she was doing.’” At Curtis, he also continued his piano studies with Vladimir Sokoloff.
These days, when he is not at Ocean Grove, Turk is organist and choir master at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Since 2013, he has been professor of organ instruction at Rowan University in Glassboro. He tours and concertizes throughout the year. He has performed throughout the United States, Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and Japan. This fall he plans to record his next album, of solo romantic organ works from the French and English traditions, at Ocean Grove.
Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 by Methodist ministers William B. Osborn and Ellwood H. Stokes. Sometimes called the “Queen of Religious Resorts” and “God’s Square Acre,” the site remains the longest-active camp meeting destination in the United States. Canvas tents, which today number more than 100 (down from more than 600), have been rented out to pilgrims since the 19th century. It is only one of many respects in which the town remains something of a Victorian time capsule, quiet, polite, and determinedly anti-commercial. Beer, wine, and liquor are not sold. Until the late 1970s, there was no bathing permitted on Sundays or cars driven on the Sabbath. All cars were to be left outside the town gates on Saturday before midnight.
Turk’s preference for 19th-century repertoire fits hand-in-glove with the environs. “I always try to make it a program that’s varied, and that has a summer listening audience in mind, and yet let listeners know this is a great instrument, something we can all revel in,” he says. “The auditorium is such a good room acoustically. It just has such a warm, rich clarity. People know they can sit anywhere, particularly far out, and hear it as beautifully as if they were sitting 10 feet from the performers.”
Ocean Grove Great Auditorium, 21 Pilgrim Pathway, Ocean Grove. www.oceangrove.org/shows