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Two years in the making, a new pipe organ makes its debut this weekend in an Arlington church

Ben Keseley, minister of music at St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, with the new hand-built, $1.2 million pipe organ, designed and created by Martin Pasi of Washington state. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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A pipe organ, Ben Keseley explained to me, is basically a box of whistles. But what whistles! And what a box!

Keseley, 44, is the minister of music at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. On Friday, the church will dedicate its brand-new organ. Its 2,200 pipes range in diameter from soda-straw small to air-conditioning-duct big. The visible pipes — there are plenty the congregation can’t see — are arranged behind six towers made of hand-carved white oak that’s been oiled so the grain is visible.

It is a veritable cathedral of sound. And it sure beats what was there before.

“Old Wheezy” was the nickname of the organ Keseley found when he arrived in 2009. It was already 40 years old when it was installed at St. George’s in 1952, a used instrument from a Pennsylvania church.

Its blower — the electric motor that provides the air that voices the pipes — was louder than the room’s HVAC system. The organ’s leather bellows would shrink in the cold and expand in the heat, making it prone to unintended groans.

And it just didn’t sound good. “Old Wheezy” had a harsh, braying quality that murdered the ears of the choir members who had to stand in front of it. Some St. George’s congregants chose to worship during services that were a little less organ-heavy. It was time to go organ shopping.

Quality pipe organs are not off-the-shelf items. They are made by just a handful of companies, designed and built specifically for the spaces they will occupy. Keseley and church members visited organs around the country before selecting Pasi Organ Builders of Roy, Wash., a tiny town an hour south of Seattle. Founder Martin Pasi trained in the art of organ building in his native Austria.

St. George’s organ is Pasi’s Opus 28: the 28th organ he’s built. It’s what’s called a two-manual, 33-stop organ. The manuals are the stacked keyboards. The stops are the knobs on either side — hand-carved from dark pau ferro wood — that allow the organist to replicate different instruments: oboe, flute, trumpet, celesta, etc. “Pull out all the stops” — that expression that means to devote a lot of energy to something — comes from the organ world.

A renovation of St. George’s sanctuary improved the acoustics. Pasi came to scope things out and take a lot of measurements. Then he and four co-workers spent the next two years fashioning the parts of the organ by hand. They rolled and cut the lead that became the forest of pipes. They sawed and planed the wood that produces lower notes. They stretched and sealed the cream-colored leather of the bellows.

Pasi assembled it all in his Washington shop, tested it, then took it apart to truck it to its new home. The new organ cost $1.2 million. (And the old organ? Keseley advertised Old Wheezy — free to a good home! — on an organ-fanciers’ Facebook page. Some people drove up from Texas with a trailer to cart it home, where it will probably be used for parts.)

Opus 28 arrived in Arlington on Oct. 3, 2021. For three weeks, Pasi put together the 500,000 parts that constitute it. He spent the next two months “voicing” the organ: doing the painstaking adjustments necessary to make everything sound just right.

Some of the decorative carving was done on-site by Pasi’s daughter, Maurine Pasi. Hidden in the filigreed scrollwork is a bas-relief of St. George on a horse fighting a dragon.

On the morning I visited St. George’s, Keseley was wearing his special organist shoes. They have suede soles and chunky heels, the better to depress the pedals that create low notes.

He sat on the bench — also handmade — and pulled out a stop marked “oboe.”

“I love this oboe,” he said, pressing a key.

A fine, clear tone rang out, piercing the empty sanctuary.

He pulled out more stops — “It’s like cooking. You pick the ingredients,” he said — and began playing Bach’s Fugue in E flat. I stepped onto the altar and listened, then walked around the sanctuary, taking in the sound from different locations.

As Keseley’s fingers moved across the keyboard, the music rose and fell. It sounded alive, as if created by a mighty dragon that breathed sound, not fire.

The organ will be dedicated Friday at 8 p.m., blessed by Rector Shearon Sykes Williams and played by Kola Owolabi, a University of Notre Dame organ professor, in a program that includes the premiere of Brenda Portman’s “Aspects of Light,” a commissioned piece based on the stained-glass windows in St. George’s. On Saturday there will be a kids concert with dinosaur-themed music. (The concerts are free. For information, visit saintgeorgeschurch.org.)

An organ like St. George’s should last 300 years. I asked Keseley what he wants the organ to accomplish.

“We hope it inspires people,” he said. “We hope it makes you want to be a better person. I know it’s done it for me. It makes me want to be a better organist. If you do something wrong, it talks back to you and says, ‘Don’t do that.’ ”

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