The real unsung heroes

From time to time, I have written posts about organists being a dying breed—we are few and far between, and going the way of the dodo bird. Fewer students learn how to play the organ, and it’s just not possible to pick up the instrument “in ten easy lessons”—it takes years of commitment and practice. With my own young students, organ lessons and practice have always competed with sports practice and games, drama club practice, speech and debate tournaments, etc.

Something I found out last summer, though, when I was traveling with the Historic Organ Study Tour group in France, was that if you think organists can be classified with the dinosaurs, an even rarer breed is the organ technician: they just don’t make ’em any more! I happened to meet an organ technician on the tour, and he was the one who made me aware of the problem.

Jim Gruber at Makawao Union Church, Maui

Jim Gruber at Makawao Union Church, Maui

In last Sunday’s concert at the Higashi Hongwanji Mission, I wanted you to be aware of two men behind the scenes who were key to Joey Fala’s recital. One was Jim Gruber, a local retired organ technician who now lives on Maui. He used to be part of the Joliet (Illinois) Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts— I’ve heard that theatre pipe organ technicians are even rarer! Jim will be coming to Oahu to tune the Central Union organ for Joey Fala’s recital this coming Sunday, March 19th at 7:00 pm.

Jude Oliver at Punahou School

Jude Oliver at Punahou School, Honolulu

Jim, along with Jude Oliver, an associate of Bob Alder in Church Organs Hawaii, spent two days working on the Wicks organ last week that included rebuilding the massive DC rectifier, fixing multiple dead notes and ciphers, and a complete tuning. On Sunday morning, Jude was called in for an emergency cipher repair (stuck note!) on the low C pedal note. As you can see by the picture, Jude is in is 20s and we are thrilled that he has taken up this line of work!

The last few weeks, I’ve been driving back and forth on the Pali Highway to St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Kailua, to observe the organ restoration work on their 1983 J. W. Walker & Sons organ. Thirty-four years ago, the company shipped the organ from England to Hawaii—and sent one page of instructions on how to put it together. According to Mark Wong, who was St. Christopher’s organist for over twenty years, the first instruction was “Assemble the Great,” meaning the main division of the organ: a herculean task! Mark was present every day of the installation and says that no one from the company ever came to Hawaii to oversee the construction.

The J. W. Walker & Sons pipe organ, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Kailua

The J. W. Walker & Sons pipe organ, St. Christopher’s Episcopal, Kailua

Consequently, in my mind, the St. Christopher’s organ always sounded unfinished: it was never “voiced,” which is a procedure in which organbuilders manipulate the loudness and softness, tone quality and timbre of each organ pipe.  It is a meticulous task which when finished, make the pipes sound even in tone and volume, forming a beautiful music instrument.

In addition to never being voiced, after so many years, there were many broken parts of the Walker organ—features which simply didn’t work any more after years of use and being subject to the salty ocean air.

So our friend Hans-Ulrich Erbsloeh from Germany has been in the islands since January 28th, along with his assistant, Berndt, to do a complete overhaul and restoration of the Walker organ. If you remember, Hans was the chief voicer of the Beckerath organ at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu in 1975, has maintained the organ for many years, and has been a close friend ever since.

The re-dedication concert of the Walker organ will take place on May 21st at 4:00. Guess who has been asked to play? Here are some of the pictures I took of the work in progress.

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Hans also attended the four hand, four feet recital at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu recently:

Hans with Paul Tegels and Dana Robinson at LCH

Hans with Paul Tegels and Dana Robinson at LCH

Bless you, organ builders and organ technicians!




About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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