The Biltmore experience

Of course, I could not come all the way to North Carolina without stopping to see Linden Doescher, who moved to Asheville with her late husband, Eric Doescher, in 2009. The Doeschers were our program folding experts in those days before the Lutheran Church of Honolulu got a color copier, and before it had the capability of making booklets. Eric not only took the camera-ready copy to Aiea Copy where the booklets were produced, he and Linden collated and folded by hand all the liturgical booklets, as well as the concert and special service programs.

Besides, I had heard so much about the Biltmore Estate in Asheville that I was looking forward to driving the 238 miles from Raleigh, where I landed from Amsterdam.

After eating breakfast, Linden and I went to the Biltmore ticket office where I parked my car. The two of us continued in her car to the 250-room house, with its 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms (none of which can be used by visitors! The house was built between 1889-1895 for George Washington Vanderbilt and is the largest private home in the United States, with 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area). A million trees were planted in the surrounding 8,000 acres designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

There was a current exhibition of costumes from the movie, Titanic, as would have been worn by George and Edith Vanderbilt and other wealthy passengers on the ill-fated ship.

Linden pointed out the pipe organ in the dining room, so I asked one of the docents for more information. Although Mr. Vanderbilt had planned to put an organ in, the present instrument came later. It is a two manual, 16 rank 30 stop E.M. Skinner with façade pipes by Hutchings from 1899.

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After we toured the house and shops, I decided we should go to the creamery for ice cream even though it was pouring rain. We started to return to Linden’s car when I tried to feel for my car keys where I had put them in my pocket. As we neared her car I saw a bunch of keys underneath the right rear wheel—they were my rental car keys which I apparently had dropped several hours before! A huge crisis had been averted! If someone had picked up those keys I would have hoped they would have turned them in to the estate personnel. Boy, I REALLY would have been in trouble if I had lost those car keys! Then I REALLY would have been Catastrophic Kathy!

What I enjoyed the most, though, was my hotel, the Residences at Biltmore, by far the most spacious hotel room I have EVER stayed in all over the world—and was more like a private apartment at the price of a regular hotel room. It had a complete kitchen including a range, microwave oven, full size refrigerator, and even a washer dryer. You could have fit 4 people in the walk-in shower easily, and there was even a fireplace!

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It took me almost five hours to drive through the fog and driving rain back to Raleigh, but I just took my time in order to be safe. Home tomorrow!

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Catastrophic Kathy

Imagine setting your alarm for 3:40 am, only to have an ear worm stuck in your head and stay up all night anyway. You hear the church bells in the distance faintly ring 11 times, and after awhile, 12, then 1, then 2, then finally 3 times indicating it’s now 3:00 am.

Imagine arranging for a taxi for 4:00 am with the hotel the night before only to be reminded not to forget anything because there will be no one at the reception desk at that hour.

Imagine arriving at the train station to buy a ticket to the airport only to look in your bag desperately to learn you have no wallet, no credit cards and no phone. Aaaaurgh! They must be back at the hotel! You do have your passport and a few euros, but it is not enough to get very far. Besides your itinerary is in your phone, so you don’t even know what flights you are on. There’s no point in trying to call the hotel, because even if you could somehow look up the number, there’s no one at the hotel to answer the phone.

This was the situation I found myself in, and I imagined being stuck in Europe with no phone and no money. I could just hear Carl Crosier tsk-tsking and saying, “You really did it to yourself this time! Now get yourself out of it!”

Yes, I realized too late that I had left my phone (with all my credit cards) plus my Bluetooth headphones, charging up at the hotel.

I returned to the taxi stand and told a couple of drivers my predicament. I asked if someone could look up the hotel’s phone number and was told ‘no.’ That was crazy because I knew no one was there, anyway.

One of the drivers asked me, you have your phone and credit cards at the hotel? I said, “yes,” and he told me he would drive me back to the hotel. Maybe there would be a doorbell to ring that might summon someone inside.

We got to the hotel and we were unable to find a doorbell, so I started knocking on the window to no avail. Luckily there was a sign outside with a number to call in case of an emergency, so the driver used his phone and thankfully someone answered.

The driver explained (in Dutch) my situation then handed me his phone to speak to the very same manager who had arranged my taxi and reminded me not to forget anything. I apologized profusely for calling at such an ungodly hour. He said he would have to put on some pants, but then could be there in ten minutes.

When he arrived he handed me his master card key and I went up and retrieved with great relief my phone wallet and headphones.

I returned with my belongings along with all the euros I had left, €25, and insisted he take the money for his trouble. The taxi driver then drove me directly to Schiphol Airport and I made my 7:00 am flight with no problem.

Instead of paying €5 for an one way train ticket, I figure it cost me €20 for a taxi to the station, €25 to the manager and €57 to the taxi ride to the airport, in all a total of over €100, which is about $125. This was an expensive lesson!

You may remember my telling you the story of when I left Paris at age 17 after studying the summer with Marcel Dupré, and oversleeping on the day of my departure,only to miss my flight to New York. No one was there to meet me since I came in on a different flight and I had exactly 40¢ in my pocket! Then a cab driver felt sorry for me and gave me $3.60, enough in those days to buy something to eat and make a phone call.

I also got myself in a pickle when I was in Paris and stayed out too late one night (past midnight) with my friends. When I got back to my hostel, the door was locked! I had to wander the streets to hail a taxi to look for a hotel—the first couple we tried were also closed. Of course in those days I had no credit card, but I still remember how weird it was to check into a hotel with no luggage, no pajamas, no toothbrush!

No wonder John McCreary used to call me Catastrophic Kathy! But as I used to tell my husband, if everything went according to the way it was supposed to, life would be too boring, right?! Getting lost is part of going on vacation!

I finish this post with a few of the pictures I took of food in Amsterdam. The Fatboyburger that I ate outside of the Rijksmuseum was possibly the best I’ve ever had, because of the crusty French bread it was served on.

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Springtime in Amsterdam

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Okay. The real reason I came to Amsterdam? That was to see the tulips! Oh, I’ve been to Amsterdam three times before, but every single time, it was been in the winter— raining, cold and miserable. In fact, what I remembered about Amsterdam was that there were two things on the street: dog poop and dead umbrellas! You see, an umbrella is absolutely useless in the winter because the wind will just blow it inside out.

I booked a ticket for the Keukenhof Gardens, located about an hour outside of Amsterdam, and is definitely THE place to see tulips, with about 7 million of them arranged artfully there. The gardens are only open eight weeks of the year, and are an exhibition of 100 flower growers to show their best. The only trouble is, it is a very popular place to visit, and one million tourists will visit the gardens in the eight weeks. What blew my mind, though, was that after the eight weeks are over, the flowers are all dug out and the bulbs stored until next season. It means that every year, the gardens look different.

My attempt at a selfie!

I had already gone to the Van Gogh museum on Wednesday, but after I got a survey email asking me for my comments, the museum revealed that the entire collection of over 900+ paintings are online! Wow! I could have saved myself 18 euros in admission! Here is the link to the complete online Van Gogh museum collection.

No, of course, in real life the paintings are much, much larger and the colors more vivid, but I felt I wanted to look again at Van Gogh’s “Almond Blossoms,” since I had bought a potholder, an oven mitt, two packages of paper napkins, two pillow cases, a passport cover, a shopping bag, etc. with the Almond Blossom design! (yes, I went crazy over all the Van Gogh merchandise!)

I bought all kinds of souvenirs with the Almond Blossom design!

Today I visited the Rijksmuseum— along with crowds and crowds of people, especially around the popular paintings in the museum. I took a lot of pictures, but the ones I think are the most interesting are those of the people taking photos of paintings.

I took a lot of pictures in the Rijksmuseum, but realistically, my photos of people taking photos are more interesting!

It took a lot of patience to try to get close for an unobstructed view.

Yikes! That’s a lot of people!

My visits to the museums also included two different canal cruises, in which I enjoyed the gorgeous scenery, but sitting in the sun was HOT! and with the high humidity, made it pretty uncomfortable. One cruise I took yesterday, and the other today after the Rijksmuseum visit.

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But I saved the best for last . . . see my next post on my visit to St. Nicholas Basilica.

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St. Nicolas Basilica, Amsterdam

St. Nicholas, Amsterdam

Well, I saved the best for last—my visit to St. Nicholas Basilica all came about because of Joe Pettit, former Honolulu resident, organist and choirmaster. When he found out that I was going to Amsterdam, he fixed me up with Michael Hedley, who with his wife, Colleen, moved to Amsterdam in the 80s. Joe called it “hands down the best Catholic liturgy in Amsterdam,” (By the way, Michael said that Joe was the best tenor he had every known! I told him that when we performed Bach St. John Passion, Joe was not only the Evangelist, he was also the rehearsal accompanist and German language coach!)

My feet are so tired they feel like they’re ready to fall off!

The only trouble is, I got horribly lost after the canal cruise and essentially walked all over Amsterdam trying to find first my hotel, and then the church, making me more than an hour late for my appointment!

But all the walking, and the getting lost, was more than made up when I walked into the church and saw the 1889 Sauer organ. Although it has a Romantic specification, Michael showed me that the instrument can play Bach… so I played “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele,” plus “Komm, heiliger Geist,” both of which sounded marvelous on this organ.

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This organ is turned on by remote control, the only organ I can think of, which operates in this way. Do not lose the remote!

I’ve had a fantastic time here in Amsterdam! I must try to stay longer next time!




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A night at the Concertgebouw

The Concertgebouw at night.

,,, and probably just another concert for members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but for me, a magical night of music!

What made it so extraordinary was hearing a world-class orchestra in these extraordinary acoustics—it made all the difference.

I didn’t realize I had booked a ticket SO CLOSE—even though my ticket was listed at Row 4, sear 23, I was actually in the front row and could only see the outside seats of the violinists, who by the way, were split into first and seconds on opposite sides. That meant that the seconds were sitting where the cellos normally would sit. The violas were next to the firsts, and the cellos were then next to the seconds. The Hawaii Symphony tried this arrangement in Honolulu once and I really liked it.

I was right underneath the piano!

Being so close made me really aware of the echo in the room, because I could hear it bounce back after the cutoffs.

Here was the description of the orchestra on its website:

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is widely considered one of the very best orchestras in the world. Time and time again, critics have lauded its unique sound. The extraordinary acoustics of The Concertgebouw and the exceptional musicians themselves play an important role in this respect. Another important contributing factor is the influence exerted on the orchestra by its chief conductors, of whom there have been only seven since 1988. Daniele Gatti was appointed chief conductor in September 2016.

The program was:

Kodály – Háry János suite
Beethoven – Derde pianoconcert in c, op. 37
Prokofjev – Oorlog en vrede: symfonische suite (versie Palmer), op. 91

The pianist is on the right and the conductor is in the middle.

Tonight’s conductor was Jakub Hrůša, and the pianist was Igor Levit, who played brilliantly and technically. Levit is 31 years old and is German-Russian. What I came away with, though, was how sensitively and quietly he played the pianissimo passages. His surprising encore was the famous Für Elise, which as you know, every beginning piano student learns to play! In fact, the audience laughed after the first three notes! But the way he played it was like it was the most sublime piece you ever heard—beginning super softly, so sensitively played and so incredibly touching. It’s something I will never forget.

I arrived to the concert early and as I rounding the corner from the tram (yes, I have been able to get around on public transportation!), I heard the sounds of street musicians playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, on … (wait for it)—violin, accordion and tuba! What a combination!

Also the price of the concert includes a before concert and intermission drink! I saw white and red wine, beer, soda and orange juice in glasses already poured, but I didn’t know about this policy until too late. Oh well, next time!

If you are ever in Amsterdam and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is playing, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity for an unforgettable experience.

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Boring … NOT!

When I was growing up, one of my father’s favorite activity was gardening—he cultivated cymbidium orchids and had a hothouse in the back yard full of them and of all varieties. He also loved going to nurseries and botanic gardens. All of my growing up years when he would say, “Let’s go see some flowers!” my sisters and I would moan and groan. How boring we thought it was!

So what is it that I did on my last day in North Carolina? Why, I decided to go to JC Raulston Arboretum on the grounds of North Carolina State University, not far from the airport!

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I was able to get an earlier flight than originally scheduled so my connections weren’t quite so tight. Still, I ended up stopping in Newark and then going all the way to Zurich before backtracking to Amsterdam. And what do you think I did after checking into my hotel? Why, going out to hunt for flowers to photograph!

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Today it was so cool and beautiful I ended up walking all the way to the Concertgebouw, about 2-1/2 miles away. I went to a free lunchtime concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra which was more like an open rehearsal. Still, I would say that the Hall was completely filled and since the Concertgebouw holds about 2,000 people, it was good that I stood in line for about 40 minutes so I could get a seat. The orchestra played “War and Peace” by Prokofiev, which I suspect they will be playing when I come to the formal evening concert tomorrow night.

Of course I was drawn to the organ, which I heard briefly on a tour of the concert hall afterwards. When the hall was built in 1883 there was no such thing as the science of acoustics so it was simply beginner’s luck that the hall is now considered as one of the acoustically perfect in the world, as there was no especial attention paid to acoustics at the time. At one time the interior was deep-cleaned extensively which meant getting rid of a microscopic layer of dust and the musicians complained that the echo increased by half a second! I don’t know what they did to fix it, because they certainly weren’t going to put all the dust back!

When the Concertgebouw was built, it did not originally have a basement, so there was nowhere for the musicians to change. In fact, a picture was taken of one of the instrumentalists without any pants—and the audience was already starting to come in!

Ever since, there has been an elaborate complex of artist suites and warmup rooms in the basement. We visited the guest conductor’s room which not only had a comfy sofa, coffee machine and a piano; it also had a toilet and shower. All of the soloists’ rooms also came with pianos.

I was also very interested to learn that there are separate warmup rooms for the various instruments.

For example here is the room for the double basses where they change and tune before the concert. There are also separate rooms for the woodwinds, the brass, etc.

The orchestra and soloists also have a private restaurant below where they can have a snack and drinks after the concert. Isn’t that great! They don’t have to drive anywhere afterwards when they want after-concert munchies!

We also went up to the attic above the stage so we could see where recording microphones and the lighting is manipulated.

On top of the stage at the Concertgebouw

I spent the afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum and decided to take the tram back to the hotel.

Van Gogh Museum

Oh my aching feet! Look how far I walked today!


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Reminiscing and reconnecting

This afternoon I reconnected with Diane Amidon, who lives in nearby Raleigh, NC. She and I first became acquainted when we were both freshmen at USC School of Music—she was a soprano voice major, and I knew her then as Diane Rose.

I lost track of her after sophomore year and didn’t find out that she had transferred to the University of Hawaii until I saw her as the soprano soloist in the Lutheran Church of Honolulu choir at the rededication service after the building was remodeled. That was in 1974, after I finished graduate school and had moved to Hawaii. So it had been four years since I had last seen Diane at USC.

We renewed our friendship and I still remember helping her paint her kitchen a bright yellow, covering over old brown paint.

In June 1977, there were three weddings among LCH choir members: the first was Sandra Wagner (alto) to Joel Seavey; the second was Diane (soprano) to David Amidon (tenor); and the third was Carl Crosier and myself. Each wedding was increasingly more elaborate and complex! I played the organ for Diane and Dave’s wedding—and they moved away from Hawaii shortly thereafter.

The only other time I have seen Diane was when she and Dave celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 2002 and visited Hawaii, coming back to the Lutheran Church where they had married. Of course we had our 25th anniversary at the same time.

So today we met at the Duke University Chapel for Evensong, then went out to dinner along with my former student, Joey Fala, who played the organ (magnificently!) for the service. Diane now has a lay position in the Methodist church working with elders. Unfortunately Dave was working out of town and couldn’t join us. I hope Joey wasn’t too bored with our sharing of photos of children and grandchildren!

It was the weirdest feeling, knowing this woman throughout nearly my whole life, but only seeing her when we were young college students; then again as Middle Agers celebrating our 25th wedding anniversaries, and now as Senior Citizens—but both of us still feeling like teenagers!

Tomorrow night I am off to Amsterdam!

Here is the YouTube video of today’s Evensong.

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Reconnecting in North Carolina

When I was in Rome, Italy in November of 2015, our GoAhead tour director, Barbara Valloni, went around the room at the orientation meeting and asked us where we were from. One woman after another answered “North Carolina,” “North Carolina,” “North Carolina!” Apparently most of them were teachers (or relatives) and came from a small town called Lumberton, and they all knew each other. I couldn’t come all the way to North Carolina for the first time and not look them up! They treated me like family and included me on all their activities when we had free time. I consider that one of the best trips I’ve ever taken!

Diana Kirkpatrick

Then two years ago when I attended the Historic Organ Study Tour of northern France, I sat next to Diana Kirkpatrick, who I found out also lived in North Carolina.

I checked the map, and worked out a schedule to leave Durham about 9:30 am, as it would take about an hour-and-a-half to reach Fayetteville. Diana and I would meet at Ruby Tuesdays near St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church where she was scheduled to play a funeral. We talked about our future European travel plans and then Diana invited me to see the organ at St. Patrick’s. It is a four-manual Zimmer which I had fun trying out for a few minutes. Outside the building was a marquee advertising the services, and I was interested to learn that they not only have Spanish language, but also French language Masses (for Haitian immigrants).

Zimmer organ at St. Patrick’s, Fayetteville

Connie, Briana and baby Cora.

I then drove to Hope Mills, NC where I met Briana and Connie Jordan from the Italy trip. We had a good but short time visiting and reminiscing about the good time we had had together. Who would have guessed that I would come visit them in North Carolina! Baby Cora was so sweet, and is just six days older than my grandson.

Sandra Lopez

Then it was another half-hour drive to Lumberton where I found Sandra Lopez, whom I was immediately drawn to on the Italy trip because she reminded me so much of my daughter-in-law, Jessica.

What I didn’t know was that Sandra was actually having a book introduction party, with friends and colleagues from the ESL community. The author introduced herself as Kathy with a K, but who was born Cathy with a C and changed it legally to a K. I told her women my age are known are Kathy or Cathy but young girls are mostly known as Katherine or Katie, but not Kathy! My mother always told me I was named after Kathy who fell down into a well (you can read all about it on my high school blog post, “The story of Kathy Fiscus (1945-1949)” on why so many females my age were named Kathy.

Another guest was a woman who said she graduated from Punahou School! Small world!

With Sandra Lopez

After too short of a visit, it was time to drive to Greenville, where I wanted to attend the  6:00 pm senior recital of Jacob Montgomery, the other Duke organ scholar. Apple Maps told me it would take 2 hours and 13 minutes, and by the time I could finally leave Sandra’s, I didn’t have a minute to spare and drove over the speed limit of 70 mph (I swear, I was just going with the flow of traffic!)

Jacob Montgomery

But when I finally arrived in Greenville, it was about 6:03 pm and it was within blocks of St. Paul’s. However, I couldn’t get close because all the streets were blocked off because of a street party! After making turn after turn and driving around in circles, I finally parked the car some distance away and started to walk, arriving during his performance of Marcel Dupré’s Cortège et litanie, which I have played many many times. The Fisk organ was LOUD and IN YOUR FACE, as many of his instruments are. Still I enjoyed Jacob’s choice of repertoire.

Fisk organ at St. Paul’s, Greenville, NC

By the time Joey and I drove back to Durham after the reception, it was after 10 pm and had been a loooong day—I drove over 400 miles today!

But it was deeply rewarding to reconnect with all these friends, whom I’m quite sure, never believed I would ever see them again, no less in their home of North Carolina.

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Forty part motet

Attendees take in Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet” at North Carolina Museum of Art’s “You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences.” (Photo: Triangle Today)

I spent Friday at the North Carolina Museum of Art and by far, the most captivating experience was “Forty Part Motet” at a special exhibition called “You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences.”

It was a room full of 40 speakers—apparently every single singer had been miked individually in Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium for eight 5-part choirs. What that meant was that I could walk around the room, and hear each singer sing his or her part, but it was combined to capture all the reverberation as sung in Salisbury Cathedral by the choir. As you can see by the photo above, the speakers were arranged in choir groupings, and you could easily hear the antiphonal effects of choir vs. choir as well as the thrilling parts when all the choirs sang together. The recording is repeated every fourteen minutes.

Years ago, we tried to perform this piece in of all places, the First Hawaiian Bank in downtown Honolulu, which has cathedral reverberation, if you can believe that. It would have been a thrilling experience — except it turned out to be an utter and dismal bomb! A complete disaster! You need 40 voices who are extremely secure in their parts, plus a really good conductor, none of which we had in that situation.

Here is a YouTube performance by the Taverner Choir of this monumental piece in a graphical representation.

If you are in the Raleigh, NC area, I strongly urge you to visit the special exhibit,“You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences,” before it ends on July 22nd. You can find the exhibit’s official photographs at Triangle Today.

In the meantime, enjoy some of the pictures I took.

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Duke organ crawl

Flentrop organ

After Friday’s carillon recital, Joey Fala booked time on the four major pipe organs so that I could have a chance to play. We went on an “organ crawl,” which is what organists call it when they visit organs in other churches. According to one source, “It’s called a crawl, because participants literally can get down on their hands and knees and crawl around the organ chamber to check out all the nooks and crannies and see how the mechanisms and pipes work. …”

We didn’t actually enter any of the pipe chambers on this visit, but in order to go to most instruments required climbing narrow steps, and on the way to the Flentrop organ, you pass by this sign:

We started off by playing the beautiful Flentrop organ in the back. I had brought along the Great Eighteen Chorales of Bach and played through “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele,” which I plan to play for an upcoming funeral. I found the action a little stiffer than what I was used to, but the tone of the organ was lovely. Of course, I made Joey take a picture of me on the bench.

In case you’re wondering, my T-shirt reads “Organists Gone Wild”

What is rather unique is the organist’s view of the en chamade (horizontal) pipes, which is what you see when you look up from the bench.

We then walked through a large underground maze of offices, lounges and even a kitchen to reach the stairs leading to the chancel area.

A Brombaugh organ in a small chapel is built in an Italian style, which was very similar to ones I saw on last year’s organ tour to Italy. By that I mean that the keyboard had short (incomplete) octaves, a similar stop list and meantone tuning.

And then it was time to play the large 4-manual Aeolian organ in the nave. Joey had brought his copy of Dupré ‘s Fifteen Antiphons, and I played several selections. It was a scenario in which teacher-student roles were reversed: I played while he pulled the stops. What a dream of an organ! I could have easily spent much more time here, exploring the many tonal colors of this instrument. Listening to these Dupré antiphons with the type of sounds for which they were intended was truly thrilling.

In the Divinity school chapel, there is a Richards-Fowkes organ which is similar to their organ at First Lutheran in Boston—very colorful stops with lots of overtones.

Okay—true confession time. My favorite instrument of all the Duke organs was … (drum roll, please), the Aeolian! Oh, it did not play Bach very well—I played Komm heiliger Geist on it, not really achieving the brilliance of the Beckerath sound to which I am accustomed, but by far it was the easiest organ to play, with more or less “standard” manuals and pedalboard.

I took a picture of an unusual label on the Aeolian console (a light indicator for telephone? I guess this was designed before ubiquitous cell phones)

One more instrument: the little positiv organ which Joey had played for the anthem at Vespers. It has all wooden pipes and has 8′, 4′, and 2′ registers.

A detailed explanation of the four major organs can be found here.

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