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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

One on One with Mason Gross’ New Organ

I have met the new Taylor and Boody portative organ of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts and she (he?) has won my heart. It is easy to anthropomorphize the instrument. It has both brains and beauty. The case, made of white oak, and delicately carved with pointed Gothic arches as a theme, asks to be touched. Even under the lid it has the silky feel of fine furniture. This is a tracker organ so that it responds instantly to a performer.

George Stauffer, Dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, introduces me to the portable instrument in Rutgers’ Kirkpatrick Chapel. With music rack up, its height exceeds its width. Its slender boxwood and ebony keyboard stands above waist level even for Stauffer, who measures six feet, one inch. A trained organist, Stauffer has brought the music for one of the pieces soon to be performed. Stauffer plays standing up; an optional bench comes with the instrument.The instrument speaks elegantly and with subtlety.

He lets me try it. For a pianist the keyboard is familiar, although its small compass is slightly disorienting. My playing fills the chapel. From the keyboard the sound seems clear. Stauffer moves down the center aisle away from the instrument in order to listen. He notes later that the acoustics are least pleasing for the player.

I play a theme by George Frederick Handel, at first with smooth articulation. I realize the instrument is responsive and might be my ally in producing separated sounds. Gradually, I insert sounds whose duration varies. The instrument follows my wishes. It’s something like driving a finely-tuned powerful car with manual transmission.

I have experienced what Stauffer already knows about the instrument. "It seduces you as you play," he says. "It teaches you what to do. It’s so articulate."

Stauffer, who knows about driving trucks, volunteers his own automotive analogy to emphasize the difference between an insensitive electronic organ and the Taylor and Boody instrument. "It’s like the difference between driving a sluggish rental truck, and driving a proper truck. You have more control."

The Taylor and Boody instrument makes its debut with two performances by Musica Raritana, the Mason Gross baroque performance group that gave its first concert in April. The program on Saturday, October 16 at 8 p.m. in Kirkpatrick Chapel consists of organ solos and pieces for small ensembles. Rutgers University organist Antonius Bittmann and Mason Gross organ students use the new instrument for the first time in public.

Sunday, October 17, at 2 p.m. in Nicholas Music Center the organ stars in a program that includes choral works, an organ concerto, and other instrumental pieces; six of the seven compositions are by Handel. Patrick Gardner conducts. University organist Bittmann and Mason Gross student Justin Bischof perform on the new organ.

Portative or continuo organs have been in use since before the time of Bach in the 17th century. Because of their relatively light weight, they are easily transported. Rutgers’ Taylor and Boody instrument weighs less than 300 pounds and dismantles into two parts. Lifting the lid, Stauffer reveals its 300 efficiently-mounted pipes; some round and some rectangular; some wood and some metal. Each pipe can be tuned separately. The eight-foot pipe winds around in order to fit into the wooden chest, which measures 41 inches high, 25 inches deep, and 44 inches wide. The organ has five stops. Inside the case a plaque lists the 11 craftsmen who worked on the instrument.

Taylor and Boody’s historically conscious firm of 17 craftsmen designs and builds tracker action organs in the classical North German and Dutch styles. All the parts are handmade. Stauffer explains that small variations in the pipes enhance the sound. He considers Taylor and Boody, which turns out about two large organs a year, to be one of the three major organ-makers in the United States. The firm, Stauffer explains, makes four portative organs simultaneously in the down-time between producing large organs. "It’s a clever use of workers," he says.

Taylor and Boody produced its first organ, its Opus 1, in 1969. The Rutgers organ is its Opus 49. Opus 48, which is very similar to the New Brunswick instrument is at Yale. Taylor and Boody were able to deliver the Rutgers organ in less than the expected waiting time of two years. It cost $64,500.

The Rutgers instrument has a compass of four octaves and one note. It can be tuned either to present-day pitch, or to the lower pitch used in baroque times. The Rutgers instrument is tuned to equal temperament, taking advantage of Bach’s discovery more than two centuries ago that averaging the distance between pitches would make possible the playing of music written in all keys. Other tunings are possible on the instrument.

Stauffer calls the new organ "extremely refined." I ask whether the presence of the instrument will attract new students to Rutgers. "Nobody will come to Mason Gross just because of this," he says. "But it’s important for our baroque music programs."

– Elaine Strauss

Rutgers Alumni Wind Symphony, Nicholas Music Center, Douglass College, New Brunswick, 732-297-8923. $20. Sunday, October 17, 2 p.m.


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