There’s nothing like the swell of a powerful pipe organ in the right room. You can feel the lowest pedal notes in your stomach, or the lambent whisper of the tiniest pipes, with their delicate, shimmering sound.
Free the pipe organ from its conventional hymnal strictures and open it to the full spectrum of classical music, and you’ll experience a delirious choice of sounds. It’s an old instrument, and virtually unchanged through the years — the mechanical version that Dietrich Buxtehude used in the 17th century and J.S. Bach played a bit later is still in use today.
The organ was intended to be a miniature version of the orchestra, and each of the several dozen stops — the origin of the expression “to pull out all the stops” — produces a different sound on each rank, the term used for a set of pipes with the same sound or timbre.
The beauty of the organ — or the curse, depending on your point of view — is that no two are alike; each is built and voiced to fit the acoustics of a particular room. A pipe organ does not travel.
There is no standard number of pipes and no standard number of keyboards, known as manuals; some have as many as five manuals, others only two. There are basic groupings of sound, such as flutes, the human voice, trumpets and the diapason, which is the organ’s own sound. But organs make dozens of other sounds, too. And because the pipes can be located several hundred feet from the manual, they often “speak” at slightly different intervals from the moment a key is pressed.
How the organist mixes those sounds, something called “registration,” is one of the keys to great organ playing. That, and the ability to make a beautiful, elegant sound with structural integrity, is the hallmark of a great organ recitalist.
The pipe organ also requires a certain physical dexterity, not just to pull out different stops at different times, but also to play a contrapuntal melody with your feet while simultaneously playing with your hands. It’s a feeling, says organist Joy-Leilani Garbutt, at first akin to driving a stick shift instead of an automatic. “If you do it enough, it doesn’t feel like you’re juggling two things,” she says.
It’s the room itself, however, that can be the biggest determinant of the quality of an organ’s sound. The shape of that space, whether it’s a church, crypt or recital hall, and the material with which it is built can make the organ sound like the most heavenly of objects or the most banal.
Washington and its suburbs are home to a handful of exceptional organs and dozens of great organists, many of whom have regular gigs at local churches.
Here we focus on recitalists, that breed of pipe organists who give regular, formal organ concerts.
One of the city’s best known, J. Reilly Lewis, a genuine native son, died June 9 at age 71 in the same Arlington house he’d moved to when he was 11 years old. Reilly founded the Washington Bach Consort, directed the Cathedral Choral Society and had been slated to give a recital on the Virginia Theological Seminary’s new organ later that month.
Reilly was a Bach fanatic, and when asked as part of this piece — just the day before he died — what music he liked to play best, said this: “Of course I love to play Bach. Bach is the organ, the organ is Bach. It’s perfect. Technically, musically, emotionally and spiritually. Bach ist Anfang und Ende aller Musik,” he explained, using the German expression that Bach is the beginning and end of all music.
Then Reilly added, a bit mysteriously: “This isn’t something I should be proud of.” He paused to let the possibilities of what he was about to say sink in. “I’ve never had a pair of organ shoes,” the narrow, leather-soled and leather-heeled shoes favored by almost every professional organist. “I think I can do fine with the good ol’ Florsheims.”
Here’s an alphabetical listing of eight local pipe organists — now minus Reilly Lewis — who make it their business to concertize; it is a mini-guide to hearing this magical and at times monstrous instrument played in its full range of color and repertoire.
Regular gig: Director of music, Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, 1 Chevy Chase Cir. Will be on sabbatical in fall 2016.
Chevy Chase Presbyterian has a relatively unusual Austrian-made Rieger tracker organ, built in 1975 and refurbished in 2000, when three low 32-foot digital pedal stops were added. It has three manuals, 40 stops and some 2,500 pipes.
When she plays: 10 a.m. Sundays in the summer; 9:15 and 11:15 a.m. the rest of the year.
Background: Father was in the military, grew up locally, graduated from Thomas Edison High School in Alexandria, master of music from Catholic University.
How she discovered the or gan: Evans’s mother was an organist, her mother’s mother was an organist, and by the time she was 15, she was the regular organist at Groveton Baptist Church.
Quote: On why she likes playing Bach’s organ trio sonatas: “Because they are challenging technically, a beautiful example of the intricacies of Baroque chamber music. There’s so much going on. They’re difficult because they are so transparent. If you make a mistake, people can really hear it. Each line is its own soloist.”
Regular gigs: Organist, the Falls Church (Anglican), 6565 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church.
Associate music director and chorus master, Cathedral Choral Society. Assistant conductor and keyboard artist, Washington Bach Consort. Assistant director and keyboard artist, Choralis.
When he plays: Check his website, toddfickley.com.
Background: Grew up in Arlington County, home-schooled from third grade through high school. Began piano lessons at 9. Did a five-year apprenticeship at the Washington National Cathedral. Has a master of arts in organ performance from the University of Wales.
How he discovered the organ: At his mother’s request, Fickley answered an ad by the Potomac Organ Institute for high school piano students to learn the organ for free.
Quote: “The way you really tell a great organist is how he conveys rhythm. An organ is on and off, so there is a certain impersonality to it. Rhythm, though, is more a matter of articulation, of agogic rhythm, where you put space before certain notes to accent them so all the notes are not the same. Doing that in a way that is consistent and conveys rhythm to the listener is one of most elusive things about organ playing.”
Regular gig: Director of music, Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G St. NW.
Artist-in-residence at the Washington National Cathedral.
When he plays: Sunday mornings at 11. Check the calendar section of his website, jeremyfilsell.com.
Background: Equal parts pianist and organist, Filsell grew up in England and was an organ scholar at Oxford University’s Keble College. He dropped the organ for three years to study piano at the Royal College of Music — “a good idea, because I came back to the organ fresh” — and eventually landed a job as a lay clerk in the choir of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, where he and his family (and Queen Elizabeth II) lived for 10 years. His 12-CD recording of all the organ music of Marcel Dupré was called “one of the greatest achievements in organ recording” by Gramophone magazine.
How he discovered the organ: Filsell became familiar with the organ as a choir boy at Coventry Cathedral. He had to wait until his feet were long enough to touch the pedals, which was when he was 11.
Quote: “The only difference between the organ and other instruments is that the sound is created for you, so what counts is the way you mix your sounds.”
Regular gig: Minister of music, Christ Lutheran Church, 5101 16th St. NW.
Garbutt plays a 1969 Beckerath mechanical tracker organ from Hamburg whose installation was overseen by Rudolf von Beckerath himself.
When she plays: Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at Christ Lutheran and alternate Saturdays at Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church and Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church. Go to the events section of joyleilani.org.
Background: Garbutt is studying for her PhD in musicology at Catholic University. She is writing her dissertation on early-20th-century female Parisian organ composers.
How she discovered the organ: Garbutt started on the piano at 3. Her earliest memories were her father playing an electronic organ at a small church.
Quote: “Part of the fundamental excitement of the organ is that you’re having to constantly adapt to it. If you’re a violinist, you take your great violin with you everywhere. But every organ you play is a new instrument, even if, like me, you’re playing the same instrument every week. That’s because there are so many different colors I can mix and recombine.”
Regular gig: Organist, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 10401 Armory Ave., Kensington.
Keyboard artist and choral conductor for the past 15 years at the annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.
When he plays: Every Sunday at 9 and 10:30 a.m. Other recitals can be found at marvinmills.net.
Background: Grew up in north Philadelphia and has a graduate performance diploma from Peabody Conservatory. Mills also is a pianist, choral conductor and composer.
How he discovered the organ: “I started piano in seventh grade and two years later started playing the organ. It was my mother’s idea; I wasn’t interested at all, I’d only seen the organ from Lon Chaney horror movies. I’d never experienced a pipe organ live until I had my first lesson. But when I sat down at the organ, you have this big machine in front of you, and what kid is not interested in that?”
Quote: “Organists have tended to be multitaskers professionally because of the nature of what we do in church. Your attention has to be in many places simultaneously. I have also found that more times than not, organists have a very strong mathematical and scientific background.”
Regular gig: Organist, National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave. NW. Organist and harpsichordist, National Symphony Orchestra. Organist and harpsichordist, National Philharmonic at Strathmore.
When he plays: Sunday services at National Presbyterian Church at 9:15 and 11 a.m.
Background: Raised in the small central Pennsylvania town of Tyrone. Neil’s mother was a piano teacher and his first instructor. He received his master of music from Syracuse University. He has recorded widely.
How he discovered the organ: “When I was in 10th grade, there was an organ recital at our church by a student at nearby Juniata College. He was a very, very fine player, and I was totally swept away by the music and the great playing,” Neil recalled.
Quote: “Pianos are standardized; organs are not. No two organs are the same in the whole world. There are basic principles that are followed, and those principles are standardized. But the result of building an instrument for a particular space and for a particular role is very different from a piano. Pianos are manufactured, organs are custom-built.”
Regular gig: Airline captain for Air Wisconsin.
When he plays: Suter doesn’t have a church job, but he’s in the midst of long tour playing all of Maurice Duruflé’s organ music. He’ll perform it at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 18 at 5:15 p.m. Details at erikwmsuter.com.
Background: Grew up in Chicago, has a master’s of music from Yale University, was head organist at Washington National Cathedral from 2002 to 2007. As a pilot, he gets 14 days off a month, so he has more time to practice, he noted, than when he worked as an organist at the cathedral.
How he discovered the organ: Suter’s father was a pastor at a Lutheran church, so he had weekly exposure to the organ. He started piano lessons around age 6, and began formal organ lessons as a sophomore in high school.
Quote: “There are obvious comparisons between playing the organ and flying an airplane: Both have pedals and hand controls, require a sense of direction, balance and physical dexterity. In both fields, you need a keen sense of the big picture, but there’s also an intricacy inside a broader architecture that’s key to a successful performance — or flight. Flying is what I do. Being a musician is what I am.”
Regular gig: Director of music, St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church, 9601 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda.
At St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Weismann plays on a 2013 Lively-Fulcher pipe organ with three manuals and 40 ranks.
When he plays: Sundays at the 8 and 10 a.m. and noon services. Weismann’s recital calendar is on his website, russellweismann.org.
Background: Grew up in Shaler Township in the North Hills suburb of Pittsburgh. Master of music from Yale University, currently working on his doctorate at George Mason University.
How he discovered the organ: Weismann got his first taste of the power of the organ when he started singing in the choir of his local Catholic church. He decided the organ would be “a lot more fun than the piano.”
Quote: “If you’re an organist and want to be a musician, you more or less have to work for the church if you want to make a living. I can probably count on one hand the number of organists who just rely on concertizing. It’s more difficult because we aren’t hired by symphony orchestras the way a violinist is.”