Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the May 15, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Organ Sound to Celebrate
Standard equipment for church organists is a rear-view
mirror that enables them to see people proceeding up the aisle, or
to judge whether the congregation has dispersed. At New Brunswick’s
Christ Church it might be to the point to equip worshipers, as well
as organist, with a rear view mirror. Facing the altar, the
cannot see their shapely new tracker organ nestled in the choir loft
above them. Its curves reflect the architecture of the building. Its
blue and golden accents against silver pipes unite delicacy and power.
This organ brings pleasure to both ears and eyes.
In a concert officially dedicating the instrument on Sunday, May 19,
at 7:30 p.m., the church, which has had an organ since 1788,
its new instrument and also shows the versatility of its musical
George Frederic Handel’s Organ Concerto Op. 4, No. 5 opens the
The Christ Church Choir, with orchestral accompaniment, sings his
"O Praise the Lord With One Consent," and "Let Thy Hand
Be Strengthened." Antonius Bittmann, Rutgers University Organist
and professor of music solos in the Handel concerto and also plays
Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Piece d’Orgue." Mark Trautman, music
director at Christ Church, conducts the choir and orchestra.
The Christ Church organ is cousin to the new organ, designed by Paul
Fritts and Company, installed at Princeton Theological Seminary last
winter (U.S. 1, December 19, 2001). The Christ Church instrument is
the work of Richards, Fowkes & Co. As Fritts-Richards Organ Builders,
Ralph Richards of Richards, Fowkes and Paul Fritts produced five
together between 1979 and 1986. Like all quality organs, the
at the New Brunswick church and the Princeton seminary were designed
and meticulously crafted for their particular architectural spaces
"The Seminary organ and the Christ Church organ are very similar
in many respects," says Christ Church’s Mark Trautman. "But
the Fritts organ is very plain — it was designed for a
chapel, which is geared more to preaching — and ours was built
for a very liturgically-oriented Episcopal church, which has a more
elaborate service. One of the advantages for us of having the organ
in back is that it can be what it wants to be. If it was right in
front it might overpower the worship service." The Seminary organ
is located front and center in its space not far from the pulpit.
Both organs produce a clear, uncluttered sound.
During my visit to an empty Christ Church, Trautman shows me the 1773
organ loft and plays for me. A crisp, clean sound with muscle fills
the space as I hear Bach’s relatively weighty "Heut triumphieret
Gottes Sohn." When he plays Bach’s organ transcription of his
"Wachet auf," the instrument behaves like a chamber ensemble,
mimicking the sounds of solo flute, bass and horn.
Trautman pauses briefly as he considers how the new organ handles.
"There are so many superlatives. Let me pick one," he says.
"When one plays this organ, there is an immediate connection with
the lifeblood of the instrument. You feel at one with it, as you do
with a really fine piano. It’s very much like when a violinist plays
a fine Stradivarius. There’s a direct relationship with the
It feels intimate."
Indeed, there is an integral connection between player and sound
the Christ Church instrument uses a tracker, or mechanical action,
as opposed to an electro-pneumatic action. Depressing a key on a
organ directly releases a valve that permits the instrument to sound.
Depressing a key on an electro-pneumatic organ sets in motion
connections that open the sounding pipes, which may be at a
distance from the player; when keyboard and pipes are close the
speaks immediately; when they are at a distance there is a delay.
The organ world divides sharply between tracker advocates and
enthusiasts. Trautman, like Joan Lippincott, his teacher and devotee
of the new organ at Princeton Theological Seminary, is firmly in the
tracker contingent. David Messineo, Princeton University organist
(U.S. 1, February 20, 2002), is an advocate of electro-pneumatic
Electro-pneumatic organs came into vogue in 19th-century France as
romantic composers wrote resounding pieces for large spaces such as
Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Clothilde Church in Paris. Their
for playing orchestral transcriptions contributed to their appeal
into the 1920s.
Organ pieces smaller than those of the French romantics fare better
in small architectural spaces where tracker mechanisms can deliver
a cleaner sound.
Saddled with a declining electro-pneumatic organ, the Christ Church
organ committee weighed both sorts of action as it tussled with the
instrument’s problems in the middle 1990s. "When I came arrived
in 1994," Trautman says, "the organ was on its last legs.
It was poorly rebuilt and poorly taken care of. There had been four
major rebuilds between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s. Anything
with extensive electronic technology is bound to go bad quickly —
think of a computer. Fixing that organ was like attacking a dandelion.
If you pick off some of the petals, it doesn’t solve the problem and
you have to try something else. It was clear that we would have to
do something radical. On the advice of a number of experts the
decided that rebuilding the organ would be a poor use of funds."
Yet paying for a new instrument likely to cost $400,000
was problematical. Christ Church Rector Joan Fleming took the first
major step in funding in 1995 by calling on an old friend of her
Peter T. Joseph, patron of the arts and head of Rosecliff Inc., a
merchant banking company. Joseph promised a gift of $100,000, most
of it on a matching-fund basis.
After being damaged by lightning, the old organ sounded its last notes
in November, 1996, and the church decided to rely on a piano as its
keyboard instrument until a new organ was installed.
Still squeezed for funding in 1997, the church commissioned Richards,
Fowkes & Co. to build less than its dream instrument. The new organ
would have only 14 stops. However, more stops could be added if funds
In 1998 Helen Torrey, widow of Henry Torrey, Rutgers Emeritus
of Physics, whose research was central to the development of magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI), decided to honor her late husband with a
gift of $100,000. Her gift made possible the enlargement to 24 stops.
Transported in a 53-foot truck, the new organ, the 12th to be built
by Richards, Fowkes and Company, arrived in New Brunswick from
on August 19, 2001. The following morning the organ builders and a
crew of two dozen parishioners and friends unloaded it. An audience
heard it for the first time during services on September 2. By
16 almost all of its stops were working and it accompanied the choir
in the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols.
From September, 2001, to January, 2002, Bruce Fowkes lived in
Highland Park home and directed the installation of the organ.
Ralph Richards stayed primarily in Tennessee managing the company.
The final adaptation of the organ to its space required meticulous
work and refined decisions. Pipes had to be voiced, that is, made
to speak evenly and to blend. The correct color of blue as an accent
color had to be devised so that it would harmonize with the paler
blue of the barrel-vaulted ceiling. In addition, a precise shade of
off-white for the organ would have to be arrived at. If the organ
was painted the same color as the walls it would disappear visually.
It needed an off-white that would set it apart from its background,
yet give the illusion that instrument and walls were the same color.
"Bruce worked six days a week. He came home, ate supper, and went
to bed," Trautman says. He went home 7 to 10 days a month. It
was hard on his family. That’s the life of an organ builder.
"He went to services at Christ Church and the parish got to know
him. It was like birthing a baby. He was there, nursing the organ
along, making it speak. He encouraged feedback. The parish felt that
he was a part of them," Trautman says.
Trautman says that the church’s five organless years were not wasted
musically. "The choir became a good a cappella choir," he
notes. "And not having an organ made me look at church music
Now 42, Trautman was born in Maryland, about an hour
south of Washington, D.C. With a mother who sang in a choir and a
father who played in his high school band, his immediate family was
not notably musical. However, his great grandmother and her sister
graduated from the New England Conservatory of music at a time when
education was a rarity for women. His 19-year-old son David, a
now studies music at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.
Having heard organ in church when he was young, Trautman was
by its energy and power. Since there were few organs in rural
he taught himself to play organ when he was in high school. "I
had a good background in piano," he says, "so it was just
a matter of learning the pedals." At the same time he held church
jobs. "I’ve always had a church job since I was 16," he says.
"I directed choirs for little tiny churches."
Trautman started at St. Mary’s College in Maryland as a piano major.
In his early 20s, he worked with handicapped children ages 3 to 21.
"I was married at 19 and I needed a job," he says. He is now
divorced. His partner is Ben Sifuentes, a member of the Rutgers
In his late 20s, Trautman returned to school and earned a bachelor’s
degree in organ performance from Towson University in 1993. Two years
later he earned a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College of
Rider University in Princeton.
From 1996 to 2001 he served as organist at Temple Anshe Emeth in New
Brunswick. "I loved playing for the temple," he says. "I
formed a relationship with Cantor Anna Ott. She’s a wonderful singer
and musician. Our choirs have sung together. But with the new organ
coming, Christ Church was becoming more of a full-time job."
That new organ is likely to last far longer than anyone now at the
church. Built to the exacting standards that have given European
their longevity, the Richards Fowkes organ at Christ Church, properly
maintained, should still be going strong in the 23rd century.
— Elaine Strauss
Street, New Brunswick, 732-545-6262. Handel’s Organ Concerto Op.4,
No. 5, Antonius Bittmann, organist, and the choir and orchestra
by Mark Trautman. $10 & $15. Sunday, May 19, 7:30 p.m.
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