During two years of restoration, the Princeton University Chapel was swathed in scaffolding, inside and out. In recent weeks the scaffolding has been removed, but signs of the major reconstruction were still apparent outside the building in early February. Chain link fence blocked access to the campus landmark, and the main entrance was still not in use. Inside, however, the building had been renewed. At noon on a bright day, sun poured through the refurbished stained glass and deposited glowing patches of lavender, pink, aqua, and sea green on the tall, slender refurbished columns.
During the renovation the chapel’s treasured Mander/Skinner organ was kept in protective inactivity. A digital electronic organ replaced the precious instrument during the renovation so that the chapel could be used. Now, the pipe organ has again been unveiled.
Princeton University organist David Messineo celebrates the reopening of the Mander/Skinner organ Friday, February 22 at 8 p.m. in a varied program at the Princeton Chapel. Messineo intends to include Wagner’s Overture to "die Meistersinger," and pieces by Kang-Elert, Durufle, and Reger. He plans programs in advance only reluctantly.
He attributes that reluctance to his experience as a theater organist. Princeton audiences have heard him in that role half a dozen times improvising dramatically for Halloween screenings of the silent film "The Phantom of the Opera." "When you play theater organ concerts, there’s no program," he says wistfully. "That’s traditional. If you think the audience needs to be stimulated, you play something energetic. If they need to be stroked, you play soothing music." Rather than planning beforehand, he prefers to rely on what he calls a "bank account that I can draw on when I perform."
Messineo’s full concert on February 22 follows his relatively brief performances on the pipe organ at a the chapel’s weekly After Noon concert series on Wednesday, February 6, and his participation in the chapel rededication on Sunday, February 10. The reopening of the Mander/Skinner organ will also be celebrated on Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16, with lectures and performances of the symphonies of the distinguished 19th-century French organist, Charles-Marie Widor, whose musical lineage Messineo claims.
Seated in the chapel nave during Messineo’s noontime organ concert, one feels one’s smallness. Princeton’s Gothic chapel is the size of a small English cathedral — Wells or Ely. In a conversation after the concert, Messineo observes, "This building is a chapel because of its function, not because of its size."
The powerful organ with its 8,000 pipes suits the space. Under Messineo’s command it engulfs listeners in a wash of sound. Echoes and reverberation underscore the grandeur of the setting. The sound is visceral; vibrations are felt as well as heard. The listener can keep the resonance of the overwhelming instrument at bay no more than King Canute could order the waves to stop pounding on the shore. In this big space the big sound magnifies one’s own insignificance.
And yet, the versatile Messineo delicately conveys the supple vocal line of the "Meditation" from Massenet’s "Thais." His tasteful rubatos make it obvious that the model for this piece is the human voice. Having accompanied Eleanor Steber at Juilliard for four years, he is on familiar ground with opera.
I ask Messineo if he had re-entry problems using the Mander organ again after playing the electronic organ for two years. "It’s different playing a pipe organ from playing an electronic organ," he says, "and the difference is mostly relief."
The relief of returning to the pipe organ was hard-won. Despite the effort to safeguard it during the renovation, it needed shoring up before its re-use. "The organ was covered with heavy plastic outside and inside the case," Messineo says, "and the pipes were covered with light plastic out of concern for their fragility. All that kept the organ quite clean. But, like in a house having plaster work done or work with sheet rock, dust finds its way into everything. The majority of pipes had to be removed, cleaned, and put back. Every pipe had to be re-tuned. The nave organ had some pipes completely full of dirt, full of stone dust."
The 8,000 pipes of the organ range in size from tubes 32-feet high and about 2-feet wide, to tubes the size of a pencil. They are made of either metal or wood. "You can wash metal pipes," Messineo says. "We used a very mild solution of Spic’n Span. The wooden pipes can’t tolerate water. For them we used Murphy’s Oil Soap."
"You have to handle the pipes very carefully," Messineo says. "The chambers where they are kept are very crowded, and it’s hard to maneuver."
After inspecting my shoes for sturdiness, he decides that they are suitable for climbing into one of the chambers. He precedes me up a fixed metal ladder 10 or 12-feet high, pushes open a trap door, and swivels himself into an attic-like space above the choir.
As I reach the top of the ladder he says, "This is a little tricky. You have to put one foot here and twist around as you clear the top of the ladder." The situation reminds me of one of those places in the Alps where you watch your position very carefully in order to avoid falling into the chasm below. Furthermore, I estimate that at 139 pounds I weigh more than Messineo, and that he won’t be able to pull me up, if I need help. I settle for what I can see from the top of the ladder and register a forest of square wooden pipes and round metal ones. Messineo frees a two-foot long round lead pipe and reaches it toward me. It comes loose easily. "This is heavy," he says.
"We used a kind of bucket-brigade system for cleaning the pipes," he says. "I got students to help. Bruce Courter, who owns the C and S Organ Maintenance Company in Morristown, tunes and maintains this organ. He and his wife Beth helped. For about four weeks we worked from 7:30 in the morning till we dropped dead about 10 p.m."
The 1928 chapel organ was designed by Ernest Skinner. "He was a genius as an organ builder, but financially he was a disaster," Messineo says. "The company went under many times. They joined with Aeolian to form the Skinner-Aeolian company in an attempt to keep the business afloat. But by 1971 Skinner-Aeolian was out of business."
The organ was rebuilt from 1954 to 1956 in the time of the baroque revival, when it was believed desirable to limit the volume of an organ. In the 1980s the organ fell into disrepair, and became almost unplayable, Messineo says. "An organ this large requires an enormous amount of maintenance," he notes. N.P. Mander, Ltd. of London, rebuilt the organ in 1991. "They decided that the work of Skinner was wonderful, so they kept that and did their own work aimed at playing Bach and the baroque more authentically." Of the 137 sets of pipes in the present organ, 76 are Skinner’s.
The Mander/Skinner organ has an electro-pneumatic action. In other words, depressing a key closes an electric circuit, setting in motion the wind pressure that allows the pipes to sound. Since the impulse is electrical, the pipes need not be near the keyboard. The alternative is a "tracker" action where a wooden lever connects keys to pipes. With a tracker organ, such as the new Fritts organ at Princeton Theological Seminary, or the new Richards-Fowkes organ at New Brunswick’s Christ Church, the keyboard must be close to the pipes.
I invite Messineo to stake out his position on tracker, as opposed to electro-pneumatic actions, an incendiary issue among organists. He tiptoes around the question, knowing that his predecessor at Princeton University, Joan Lippincott, advocates tracker actions (U.S. 1, December 19, 2001). Penna Rose, director of chapel music at Princeton, who happens to drop by, confirms with her eyes the touchiness of the tracker versus electro-pneumatic question. "We’re all really good friends with Joan," Messineo says, "and we want to stay that way. It’s a matter of taste. It’s also a matter of what you play best. A large versatile instrument fits me very well. I enjoy playing a baroque tracker organ very much, but it’s not my forte."
"The choice of tracker or electro-pneumatic organ is also a practical matter," Messineo says. "When it’s a small space, you can use either one. It’s purely a matter of taste. In a big space, where you need a big organ, it’s impossible to have a direct linkage. You’re opening a valve against a large wind pressure. It’s like trying to push down a key when someone is pushing up against you. It would require 20 pounds of pressure to depress a key if this organ had a tracker action. With the electro-pneumatic assist, the key action is light."
Messineo lets me play the organ. I am somewhat intimidated by the four manuals for the hands and the assortment of knobs, pedals, and levers for the feet. The only other organ I have ever played is the intimate and responsive instrument at Princeton Theological Seminary. The difference is something like sitting at the controls of a Boeing 747 as opposed to a 10-speed bicycle. I begin the same Bach "Two-Part Invention" that I tried at the Seminary, hands only.
The time lag between depressing the key and hearing the instrument speak unsettles me. The sound is at a distance. I feel no direct connection to it and no sense of control. Instead of the clear definition of notes within a phrase that I was able to achieve at the Seminary, this organ slithers from the beginning of a phrase to its end.
Messineo agrees that the lag between depressing a key and hearing the sound is unforgiving "But it gets incorporated into your brain," he says. "After a while, you develop a sense for the delay in the organ and your consciousness of it disappears."
Born in 1960, Messineo grew up in Rutherford. He describes his family as consisting of engineers and musicians on his paternal side, and as musicians, but not engineers, on his maternal side. His father, a mechanical engineer, plays string bass and had a jazz band for several years. When Messineo was five or six, his aunt and baby sitter, an organ major at Montclair State University, used to take him with her while she practiced.
ntique cars. I love the mechanical aspect of the organ. In the 18th century, the pipe organ was the most complex machine known to man."
"The hardest thing about playing organ," says Messineo, "is not letting the mechanical part of the instrument take you over. I tell students that they should sound like the organ is playing them. It’s easy to become so overwhelmed by the complexity of the machine that you lose the music. The trick is to keep the music at the forefront while keeping the mechanics in the background."
From the age of nine, Messineo has held posts at Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations. At present he is organist and choir director at Oh Shalom Congregation in South Orange. Messineo earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from New York’s Juilliard School. As an undergraduate he was the last student of Vernon de Tar, a student of Marcela Dupe, who was a student of Charles-Marie Widor, the seminal French organist and composer born in 1844. It pleases Messineo to claim so distinguished a heritage.
While he was an undergraduate at Juilliard, Messineo began a stint as organist at Radio City Music Hall that lasted for a decade and permitted him to perform with Frank Sinatra and Liberace.
Messineo’s doctoral thesis treats the development of the American pipe organ in the early 20th century into an instrument suitable for playing orchestral transcriptions, or as Messineo puts it, "pieces not intended for it."
"Organs became more complex because of the advent of electricity," he adds, "and in the early 20th century organs were built in the United States specifically to play orchestral transcriptions. Such organs were the hi-fi of the early 20th century." Electro-pneumatic organs with the heft of Princeton’s Mander/Skinner instrument are ideal for presenting orchestral transcriptions.
Comparing the Princeton Chapel organ with others he has known, Messineo says, "This is one of the best organs I’ve ever played." The catalog of organs he has played includes hundreds in Europe and the United States, large and small, secular and religious. "This organ is extremely versatile," he says. "It suits me because I like to play a large variety of music."
David Messineo, Princeton University Chapel, Washington Road, 609-258-3654. David Messineo, principal university organist, plays in celebration of the restoration of the Mander/Skinner organ after a two-year silence. $10. Friday, February 22, 8 p.m.
Widor: Beyond the Toccata, Princeton University Chapel , Washington Road, 609-258-3654. Three symphonies of Charles Marie Widor performed by organists David Messineo, Daniel Roth, Gordon Turk, and Johannes Unger, with lectures by John Near. $10. Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16.