“There’s nothing like the majestic sound of an organ,” said Kerry Raadt, Director of Events, on Sunday, September 29 as Carleton College welcomed renowned organist Matthew O’Sullivan for a concert celebrating the 2018 renovation of the Skinner Memorial Chapel organ.
The performance was preceded by speakers such as Professor of Music Nikki Melville, Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum ’82, and organ lecturer Janean Hall, all who commended the work that has been done on the organ and how much of a difference the renovations have made to the instrument’s sound.
The concert featured the works of French and American composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns and Daniel E. Gawthrope, respectively. Some of the selections performed by O’Sullivan were also played at the organ’s original dedication in October 1916 such as the First and Fourth Movements of Symphony No. 5 in F minor by Charles-Marie Widor, a piece from the late nineteenth century.
But the concert didn’t just feature classical music; O’Sullivan selected pieces that would show off the improved organ’s range, by adding more contemporary, jazz-infused pieces like Gawthorpe’s Passacaglia from his Sketchbook One mixed with the French Romantic masterpieces of organ repertoire.
Daniel Quintero ’20, a student who has been involved with the organ since his freshman fall term, said this of the performance Sunday: “When most people think of pipe organ music, they usually think of old, standard church music. Matthew’s performance, though, exemplified the versatility of the instrument and its many uses, incorporating not only classical compositions but also contemporary ones, many of which contained whimsical and humorous passages, challenging standard conceptions and providing a more accurate representation of the instrument.”
O’Sullivan, an organist currently based in Bozeman, Montana but originally from the United Kingdom, received his music degree from Cambridge University and was the featured artist on Montana PBS’s show 11th & Grant with Eric Funk, an Emmy award winning progra spotlighting the state’s most accomplished musicians.
He also received the Air France Prize in the first international composition competition for cathedral choirs in Amiens, France.
The rededication was also a chance to look back at the previous century: the Chapel organ has a rich history stretching back to 1916, when it was built for the construction of the Skinner Memorial Chapel. The original cost to build it then was $22,000.
The Chapel organ was significant for its time because it was one of the few in the Midwest that ran on electricity, thanks to Carleton at the time having a new state-of-the-art electricity generation plant, and was therefore seen as a piece of technological innovation.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the Chapel underwent many changes, including a major renovation in the 1950s. But this past year’s renovation has completely changed the instrument.
The renovation that this concert celebrated was a tremendous project that involved a physical rebuild of the organ, two additional tone opening constructions allowing for a fuller sound and a wider range that reached the audience more.
Talks regarding renovation began about in 2013, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 when the Skinner Memorial Chapel itself underwent its own renovations that the thought of renovating the organ could truly materialize.
As Fure-Slocum explains, “All of this was possible because two or three years ago, the College put in air conditioning and temperature and humidity control into the building; that’s probably the worst thing on an organ, when it goes back and forth on temperature and humidity, but now it’s controlled which means that it was worthwhile to begin a renovation process.”
Another reason why the decision to renovate was come to was because the question of what would happen to the Concert Hall organ once the building would be demolished, especially since there was no organ built in Kracum Hall.
The Music Department found itself in need of a good organ for students to practice one, so it became even more urgent to renovate the soon to be only remaining organ on campus.
Currently, the organ in the Concert Hall doesn’t belong to the college anymore; it was given to the company that did the renovations for the Skinner Chapel organ, Rutz Organ Company Inc based out of Morristown, Minnesota, and they are currently looking for buyers for the Concert Hall organ.
According to Janean Hall, the organ was truly in need of a renovation: “There were parts of the organ that were unusable in the past.”
Some of its upgrades include the installment of a new electronic bell carillon system, the chimes that play a different tune everyday at 11:57 a.m., and certain pipes were moved around so they could be speaking more directly to the audience.
For example, the Choir Division, a particular set of pipes, used to be buried in a room at the bottom of the Chapel, but now they have been moved to above balcony seating, creating a more audible sound.
Two additional tone openings were implemented as well, one of them being next to the Swell Chamber on the right and the other next to the Solo Chamber on the left, both behind the façade pipes. These ones now speak directly to the audience.
Quintero says more about the improvements and its impact on the sound:
“Also, the ceiling was previously lined with fibers that insulated the roof but these fibers absorbed the sound. Removing the old fibers permit for the sound waves to bounce and reflect more, making the Chapel more live and vibrant when the organ is in use. In general, our current organ now has a greater depth and richness in sound than the old organ had.”
Fure-Slocum added, “Organs speak different languages. Ours has been described as Late Romantic American-kind of heavier, and has a bit of a muffled, grand sound. It’s not very flexible but very mysterious.” In contrast, she describes the Concert Hall organ as sounding mid-century Modern American.
The Skinner Memorial Chapel organ is a multifaceted instrument, serving many different purposes on campus.
Fure-Slocum, whose office is not the owner of the organ but does handle it’s administrative side (mainly scheduling so as to not conflict with services) said about the organ, “There’s three purposes to this organ: one is the music department, students that take lessons all the time, so that’s one major use of teaching organ. The second is for the chapel, we use it for some services throughout the year, especially for the big Alumni Reunion chapel service that takes place every year in June, as well as memorial services. And then the third would really be for the college itself, big opening events like Opening Convocation.”
The concert on Sunday was a grand event that showcased the full powers of the renovated organ and was a dramatic reminder of the essential place the instrument has on campus.
Hall, speaking about the importance of the renovated Chapel organ said, “I am grateful to the college for restoring this magnificent instrument for the enrichment of campus life. What a true pleasure it is to introduce Carleton students to this organ. What a thrill to see them grow in their musical talents as they gain the confidence to play this exciting organ. Carleton has always had organ students. Now we have a teachable tool for them to learn on.”
The Office of the Chaplain would like to thank Rutz Inc. for making O’Sullivan’s performance possible by providing the funds for his coming to Carleton and for his honorarium.