St. George’s Episcopal Church is slated to formally present Northern Virginia with an extraordinary and lasting musical gift, a magnificent $1.2 million pipe organ designed by world-renowned organ builder Martin Pasi.
The grand instrument, to be used in public concerts as well as for congregational services, is described by Pasi as “unique in the Northern Virginia area and comparable to the best in Europe.” And potentially, it could be making music for the next three centuries.
The grand organ will be dedicated on Friday, Feb. 11 at an 8 p.m. concert performance by Kola Owolabi, professor of organ at the University of Notre Dame. An in-demand solo recitalist, Owolabi will perform spirituals, classical works and the premiere of Brenda Portman’s “Aspects of Light,” based on St. George’s story-telling stained-glass windows.
On Saturday, Feb. 12 at 10 a.m., St. George’s will introduce the organ to the community’s children with “Dinosauria and Donuts,” a free concert featuring dinosaur-themed music and a demonstration for families, followed by light snacks.
The concerts are free and masks are required at all events. For more information visit www.saintgeorgeschurch.org and click on “music.”
The new pipe organ was inspired by Dr. Benjamin Keseley, the church’s talented and enthusiastic minister of music who, over his tenure, has initiated concert programming as well as music education for children, dreaming of a future singing school located at St. George’s.
His nickname for the previous organ – “Old Wheezy” – reflected its condition: a tendency to whistle due to outside winds, several undependable keys, a faulty location that sent sound into choir members’ ears instead of out to listeners, and generally poor tone and workmanship.
The old organ had been retrofitted for the space, not designed for it, and repair would have been at best an expensive Band-Aid job.
The congregation rose to the challenge and raised the money for the new organ through bequests to the music program from Lew and Valerie Gulick and Norine Florian, augmented by donations from more than 150 music-loving parishioners of the church who recognize the power of music to heal and praise and want to share its joy with worshipers and the entire community.
(The church is still raising money for the structural restoration of the 70-year-old stained-glass Transfiguration window over the church’s entrance.)
The Seattle-based Pasi, a native of Austria, has used centuries-old handcrafting techniques in building St. George’s organ, his 28th musical instrument for a variety of churches, cathedrals and private homes.
For nearly two years, he and a team of four wood and metal workers have been immersed in “Pasi Opus 28,” tonally inspired by Germany’s great 18th-century organs and precisely designed to complement the size and acoustics of St. George’s newly renovated nave.
If protected from environmental hazards, the working life of this type of handcrafted, air-powered instrument runs to 300 years.
Late in December, Pasi substantially finished the project with the painstaking process of mouth-blowing into each of the 2,200 pipes, which range in size from a half-inch (the diameter of a pencil) to 16 feet long. That fixes each pipe’s precise pitch in harmony with its fellows.
Pasi’s skill has led to his reputation as a master of “vocal voicing”; his organs are noted for their unforced, rich lyrical sound that parallels the beauty of the human voice.
Every one of the more than 500,000 wood and metal pieces of St. George’s organ was handcrafted at his studio and then trucked to Arlington, where the process of assembling the organ began in October.
“Pasi Opus 28” harmonizes with the church visually as well as aurally. Carved casework in white oak stands 20 feet high and 25 feet wide surrounding the church’s rose window, displaying the pipes and protecting the workings of the organ. In the tradition of master woodcarvers, a hidden emblem – here, St. George and the Dragon – is carved in the cabinetry for people to seek out.
The 2,200 pipes, grouped in 39 ranks, are controlled in sets by 33 stops that determine the tone of a note, making it, for example, sound like a violin, a trumpet, or an entire chorus. (“Pulling out all the stops” is organ-talk for making the organ as loud as possible.)
“Pasi Opus 28” is played by two manuals (or keyboards) and a pedal board played by the feet.
With its new arrival, St. George’s Church will expand its music and arts programming to the public, with audiences able to take advantage of its location a block from the Virginia Square Metro station. In addition to sponsoring five rehearsed ensembles of choral singing and bells, the church already hosts regular performances by Capitol Early Music and the church’s artists-in-residence, the Ninth Street String Quartet.
St. George’s adult choir is well-regarded for its liturgical music in the English choir tradition and its youth choir is very strong, performing three years ago in England at the Lincoln and Sheffield cathedrals.
Choir programs are open to all families; they do not require membership in the congregation.
Other upcoming performances include a recital on May 20 by Kimberly Marshall, professor of organ at Arizona State University, based on themes of renewal and ostinato forms, co-sponsored by the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
The following morning, Marshall will present a lecture on the healing power of sound, followed by a participatory Sound Bath meditation and yoga on the church’s floor labyrinth.
On Sept. 17 Helloise Dregrugillier (recorder) and Balint Karosi (organ) will perform in a benefit concert co-sponsored by Capitol Early Music.
This spring, the Ninth Street String Quartet will perform with the organ; details are to be announced.