"John taught me that... a pipe organ, breathing the living force of air, has a soul.” - Reverend Andrew C. Mead, former Rector, St. Thomas Church
Look around, and you might notice that New York City is living in a golden age of pipe organs. In the past decade, several significant instruments have been either installed or restored around the city, notably at Ascension Church, Alice Tully Hall, St. Paul's Chapel, and soon to come, Trinity Church on Wall Street. Add to that list the new Irene D. and William R. Miller Chancel Organ at St. Thomas Church, which was dedicated this weekend with a recital on Friday evening and a liturgical service on Sunday morning. The massive instrument, built by Iowa's Dobson Organ Company and originally conceived by St. Thomas' Organist and Director of Music John Scott, has been more than a decade in the making and is already regarded as one of the finest instruments in the country.
When Scott arrived at St. Thomas in 2004 after more than 26 years as organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, he quickly realized that the existing chancel organ - a heavily modified 1913 Aeolian-Skinner - was in severe disrepair and needed to be replaced. In so doing, Scott wanted an instrument that could perform the full breadth of the organ repertoire: everything from Baroque (Buxtehude, Bach), to Romantic (Franck, Vierne) to Modern (Messiaen, Ligeti, etc.)
More importantly, Scott wanted the organ's sound to penetrate the full length of the nave, in order better accompany parishioners in their singing of hymns. For this, a new case, filled with ornate carvings by woodcarvers Dennis D. Collier and Family, has been added to the north wall of the chancel, facing the original 1913 case on the south wall. In all, the new organ has 7,000 pipes over six divisions and 102 stops, reduced from the previous instrument's 8,905 pipes and 112 stops.
Sadly, Scott could not be present for the unveiling of this remarkable instrument: he passed away suddenly in 2015. In his memory, and in recognition of his many contributions to the organ's ultimate shape and design, it has been officially named the "Irene D. and William R. Miller Organ in Memory of John Scott" (or, more simply, the Miller-Scott Organ.)
In Scott's place, Friday night's recital was performed by his successor Daniel Hyde, who himself will be leaving next fall to become the Director of Music for the Choir at King's College Cambridge. Hyde chose a wide-ranging program to highlight the full breadth and versatility of the instrument, beginning dramatically with Edwin Lamare's arrangement of the Overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger, an overwhelming torrent of color and texture. He followed that with Bach's four different settings of the hymn "Allein Gott in der Höh Sei Ehr" (Alone to God in the Highest be glory), a textbook example of Bach's contrapuntal genius.
In a more theatrical vein, Hyde remarked that Sigfrid Karg-Elert's "Valse Mignonne" would perhaps be better suited to Philadelphia's Wanamaker Organ. For Dudley Buck's "Star Spangled Banner Concert Variations," the entire audience stood en masse for the main theme, then sat for the multiple inventive variations, climaxing in an ecstatic crescendo. Driving home the nature of our "special relationship" with the UK, Hyde wore mismatched socks displaying the Union Jack (R.) and Stars and Stripes (L.), easily visible on a large projection screen whenever the camera panned to his fast-pedaling feet.
The grand French organ tradition was represented by Cesar Franck's soaring Choral in E Major and the Finale from Louis Vierne's Organ Symphony No. 1: both powerful and majestic. Hyde performed Jan Sweelinck's "Mein Junges Leben Hat Ein End" ("My Young Life Has Ended") to take advantage of the new Positive division - a particular request of Scott's for use in Renaissance and Baroque music, much lighter and more delicate in tone. Hyde even threw in an improvisation (trans. Peter Stoltzfus) by former Organist and Director of Music Gerre Hancock, full of ear candy cut with the occasional dissonance.
Compared to the previous Aeolian-Skinner organ, the Miller-Scott organ certainly sounds brighter and more present, if perhaps lacking a bit of the deep rumble that used to reverberate throughout the nave. Still, it is a remarkable instrument by any measure, and no doubt will inspire devotion and awe among all those who visit St. Thomas for years to come.
The dedication recital for the Miller-Scott organ can be heard here. Associate Organist Benjamin Sheen performs the first weekly Sunday recital at 5:15 tonight. Upcoming events include a concert with organ and the Orchestra of St. Luke's (Oct. 18), and the much-anticipated return of the annual holiday performance of Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur (Dec. 22). More pics here.