Not just organs…

I’m home now, just after a 24-hour journey to travel the 7,786 miles between Venice and Honolulu, with stops in Munich and Los Angeles. Now I remember why I shouldn’t jump at low airline fares: my plane ticket only cost about $1,400 but the return journey took me on Air Dolomiti, Lufthansa and United Airlines. What happened was that I flew to LAX on Lufthansa, and arrived at Terminal 4 where I had to pick up my luggage to go through Customs, even though my bags were supposedly checked directly from Venice to Honolulu. It was quite a hike, therefore, to schlep all my baggage to Terminal 7 where I caught the United flight to Honolulu.

In case you think I went to Italy and did nothing but see and play organs, you are only half-right. Something I really enjoyed looking at were the narrow cobblestone streets in the medieval towns, a far cry from streets in Honolulu!

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You may have seen my pictures on Facebook where I spent my last day in Murano, famous for its glass making. It was a place that my husband, Carl and I always wanted to visit—he liked to collect beautiful art glass—but we never got the chance to go together. I went to the Murano Glass Museum where I took some of these pictures.

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Also in Murano, I visited the Basilica of Santa Maria and San Donato where there is a large and colorful mosaic floor.

I also took a lot of pictures of waterways. Most of these I would call quick shots, because they were taken while riding the bus, or walking along with the Historic Organ Study Tour group— in other words, there was almost no time to carefully frame each shot; they had to be done in a split-second.

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Something that always impresses me when going to Europe in the summer are the numerous flower boxes. The flowers are so different from those found in Hawaii, and I couldn’t resist these brilliant colors.

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And in the afternoon, some of our group took a gelato break, including me!

It was a great trip!


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Finally! Organs I can play!

I sat next to Roberto at the Farewell Banquet.

On this last day of the Historic Organ Study Tour we were scheduled to visit the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino but in the words of our director, Bruce Stevens, “only one lady had the key to the church, and she is having surgery today, therefore the church is locked, and no one can enter the church.”

I loved this 2011 Zeni organ and it was easy to play.

Instead we went a long bus ride to visit the Conservatory “Pedrollo” of Vicenza where Roberto Antonello has taught since 1994 and where he has been named Director of the Conservatory for the next three years.

The building dates from the 11th century and once housed a Dominican order. Now two-thirds of the conservatory serve college students and the remaining third preparatory division students.

The 2011 Zeni organ was inspired by the historic Silbermann model and was purchased at an amazing price of €300,000 for 37 ranks. I knew already that I was going to love it even before hearing or playing it. I played two movements from Bach’s Sei gegrüsset and it felt good.

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Back to the Treviso area, we next visited the Chiesa di San Nicolo, an extremely large church with a beautiful 1778-1779 Gaetano Callido, the most famous Venetian organbuilder in the 1700s. The organ doors were painted by Giacomo Lauro with scenes from the life of Pope Benedict XI.

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I did find it a little weird with middle C way off to the right because of a short contra octave below the usual bottom octave. I tried to play several movements of Bach’s partita on O Gott, du frommer Gott, and because of the leaps in the bass, got a little discombobulated because of all those extra notes in the bass keyboard.

Chiesa di San Nicolo is a massive building.

We walked only a short distance to the Treviso Duomo, and what an organ  with which to end the tour! It was a collaboration between the Kuhn organbuilder of Switzerland and Gerhard Hradetzky of Austria. By far it was the only eclectic organ on the tour, and seemed perfect to handle all kinds of repertoire. We met the church’s organist, Giovanni Feltrin, who demonstrated the instrument for us with repertoire choices as well as improvisations. He also helped tour participants with registration (pulling the stops). The organ handled French baroque literature, as well as French romantic works, had warm strings and a beautiful flute solo stop, plus fiery and massive reeds. It had been voiced for 1000 people in the pews and at times was a little loud, but it was the easiest to play. I really wish I had had more time with this organ.

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What an incredible journey this has been! I’m grateful that I had this experience of learning about Italian organs, and being able to play these wonderful instruments. As Bruce Stevens, our tour director said, “Usually on a tour, there are two or three organs I don’t care for, but on this trip, I can’t name a single instrument I didn’t like!” Amen to that!

Thank you to Roberto Antonello for going above and over the call of duty to help us learn about Italian organs, and to our tour organizers, Bruce Stevens and Bill Van Pelt, and to our bus driver, Frank.

It was a fantastic trip!

(I will spend one more day in Venice before going home.)

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Chiesa di San Martino as seen from the road.

We left the Hotel Villa Argentina this morning and stopped at the Chiesa di San Martino in Valle di Cadore, 21 miles away. You can clearly see this church from the main highway but because our bus could not navigate the narrow roads around the church, we had to walk to it from about 1/4 mile away.

When we arrived at the church, I was surprised to see how tall the ceiling was inside and how big the church was. In fact, almost without exception the Italian churches have had very high ceilings in comparison to churches in the U.S. That helps with the acoustics enormously. The organs, likewise are very tall—I’m guessing 25 feet high or more.

Today’s staircase.

The biggest challenge and daily battle we face on the Historic Organ Study Tour is having the right music to play when it’s your 5 minute turn on the organ. Due to short octaves or having only one manual or limited pedalboards severely restricts the type of music that will work. I’m finding that most of the music I brought does not work! (sigh!)

You have seen my pictures of the narrow stairways we have had to navigate, and in most cases I have brought only the music for the piece I’ve chosen to play on this organ, plus my purse and my phone (to take pictures). Too many times I have climbed the stairs then sat down on the bench only to discover I will “run out of notes” due to the short octave.


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It happened again today at San Martino and I was foiled again when I chose Bach’s Praeludium in D minor. There was no low G# so I had to jump up and use the one an octave higher, which was not always successful in terms of voice leading. Ah, I just have to forget Bach already! It’s just not possible on these Italian organs without severe compromise.😂

I also had difficulty in connecting to the internet in last night’s hotel so I wasn’t able to upload my last batch of pictures. I wanted to show you some of the winding roads and hairpin turns we had to navigate yesterday—after 60 switchbacks I stopped counting! We really had to give our kudos to Frank, our bus driver, for taking us up the mountain and safely bringing us back. In quite a few instance our bus would enter a switchback only to be blocked by oncoming cars. In most cases the cars backed up to give us more room to negotiate the turn. Otherwise we would still be sitting there.

Another hairpin curve!

Such a treacherous road—so close to the cliff!

We drove 44 miles to the town of Feltre where we visited the Cattedrale di San Pieter Apostolo and its 1767-68 Gaetano Callido organ, his largest (or second largest) instrument—there is some dispute about this. There are extra notes on the bottom octave meaning that middle C is off to the right about half an octave. The Great is again on the top as we have seen elsewhere in this area (this is contrary to the usage in Germany and the U.S.)

Catthedrale di San Pieter Apostolo

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I decided to play it safe and play Frescobaldi’s Domenica Mass again. Better than running out of notes, although it means I’m sight reading.

Although we have one more day left in the tour, tonight was our farewell dinner, a time to thank our tour leader, Roberto, and directors Bruce Stevens and Bill Van Pelt, in addition to enjoying each other’s company. Next year’s tour will be in France and Switzerland!

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Mountain roads

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With a leisurely Sunday morning I took the opportunity to take pictures of my gorgeous surroundings near the hotel. Our bus took off in the opposite direction as yesterday—towards ever higher ground with many switchbacks. If there is anything I will remember about today, it is all the winding but picturesque mountain roads we traveled today. And look what awaited us as we got to Colle St Lucia!

I love it up here!

Amazing that I shot this sign as our bus was moving down the hill.

On the other side there was even a sign telling us that there were 29 switchbacks (turns) ahead—some of them were treacherous to say the least—extremely tight hairpins for our bus and a little scary, knowing we could tip over at any moment.

Thanks to our expert driver, Frank, we arrived safely at the Chiesa parrocchiale di San Lorenzo Martire with its 1790-92 organ by Girolamo Zavarise. The organ was actually meant for another church but was rejected by the buyers who considered the instrument not in compliance with the contract. This was an extremely colorful organ, and I thought at first that it had two manuals since Roberto played several examples of solos with accompaniments. Yet it had only a single manual with a split keyboard, allowing you to have separate registrations for left and right hands.

Chiesa parrocchiale di San Lorenzo Martire

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The hotel had packed us sandwiches to eat on the way to our next church, Chiesa parrocchiale di San Bartolomeo, an absolute jewel of a church against this spectacular mountain backdrop. In addition to beautiful paintings, stained glass and other appointments, it houses the oldest organ in Venice, dating from 1660, from an anonymous builder. I played the Kyrie and Christe eleison from Frescobaldi’s Domenica mass which sounded quaint as the organ is tuned in meantone temperament. Notice instead of a bench there is a chair with a red cushion!

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On our way back I was sitting on the right side of the bus to photograph some cows who are “on holiday” in the mountains! We were treated again to picturesque vistas amid winding roads and hairpin curves. Many times we met up with oncoming traffic on the narrow road and had a couple nail biters with cars who didn’t yield the right of way. I’ll not forget these mountain roads!

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Amid spectacular scenery…

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After finishing breakfast, I walked around our hotel and with every step I took, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the spectacular mountain scenery. This area has got to be one of the most gorgeous places on earth!

Today the Historic Organ Study Tour took us to churches in the vicinity of our hotel in the Cadore region. If I lived here, I would have a hard time staying indoors— I’d want to spend as much time as I could outside admiring the scenery.

Chiesa dei Santi Simone e Taddeo

Our first stop was at the Chiesa dei Santi Simone e Taddeo, another beautiful church, where we played the 1791 Gaetano Callido organ.

Here’s a panorama I took of the area behind the church.

“The hills are alive, with the sound of music.”

The altar at Chiesa dei Santi Simone e Taddeo

Just a review of each church we visit: Our tour leader, Roberto Antonello, begins by giving some information about each organ and then plays a 10-15 minute mini-recital. Afterwards, tour participants are welcome to try out the organ, and Roberto is at hand to help with organ registration. Here’s a video of me playing Quattro Corrente by Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Next stop was the 1848 Giacomo Bazzani e Figli organ at the San Vito di Cadore Pieve dei Santi Vito, Modesto e Crescenzia. It was here that the organ had fun special effects such as the Piatri (cymbals), the Rollante (drum roll), and the Campanelli (glockenspiel), which Roberto demonstrated ably to our amusement.

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Chiesa della Beata Vergine della Salute

After lunch, we drove a short distance to the Chiesa della Beata Vergine della Salute, where the organ had to be pumped by hand! Here is a short video with Eric Talbot showing how it works.

The beautiful keyboard was inlaid with ebony and boxwood. Also there is original 18th-century writing on the music rack which gives advice on how to register the organ.

Instructions on how to register the organ.

Tomorrow is Sunday and we’ll get to sleep in—our bus doesn’t leave until 10:25 am. Woo-hoo!

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A Dolomite feast

The view from my hotel room.

I thought by now you must be a little tired hearing about all the churches and organs we have been discovering and playing on the Historic Organ Study Tour, so this post will be a little different.

This morning we left the Treviso area and traveled to the northeastern part of Italy called the Dolomites, a mountain range as part of the Southern Limestone Alps. Our tour director, Bruce Stevens, had asked the Hotel Villa Argentina to prepare us a “simple supper” and this is what we got.

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(It was as delicious as it looked!)

Our first stop on our way here was at the Chiesa Parrochiale di Santa Lucia di Piave, home to a 1892 Gaetano Zanfretta e Figli organ. Our tour leader had told me my selection of Schmücke dich, o liebe seele by Johannes Brahms would work here, so that is what I played. Either my fingers are out of shape (which is a strong possibility) or I am just a weakling, as I found the action quite stiff when playing this piece.

The organ is certainly capable of some big sounds as heard in the following example.

As you can see above, the stunning interior is painted throughout—Italy has no end to beautiful churches.

Chiesa dei Santi Martino e Rosa

The next stop was in Conegliano at the Chiesa dei Santi Martino e Rosa where an 1882 Giovanni Battista de Lorenzi organ was built. The organ is situated in a baroque choir loft, with numerous intricate carvings on the organ case. The Great manual was again on the top. I played the first two movements of Bach’s partita on O Gott du Frommer Gott, and it worked well.

Tomorrow it’s back to the bus for exploring more churches and organs.



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True confessions

Montebelluma Chiesa di Santa Maria in Colle

Okay, I’m going to readily confess that I don’t play Italian organ music. In fact, I really wasn’t even planning to go on this Historic Organ Study Tour for that very reason—aside from a few small pieces by Girolamo Frescobaldi, I just don’t have any Italian pieces in my repertoire.  Oh, I have the sheet music by Frescobaldi, Gabrieli, Cavazzoni, Palestrina and Zipoli etc. in my organ library, but I never open the books! And the truth is. I’m sightreading all of the music I brought to play on this trip (in front of all these organists—gasp!)
Putting it another way, I feel like I’m wearing jeans to a prom, or wearing an evening gown to a picnic!

The big surprise is that I’m really loving listening to these historic instruments (and the contemporary organs built in historic Renaissance style). I’m finding that the organs are much more colorful and aggressive than I had imagined, and much louder than I had guessed they would be. Especially I’m really surprised at hearing the reeds—much more buzzy and honky than either French or German reeds.

The steep ladder steps to the console.

That said, today our bus took us out into the Treviso countryside to the Montebelluma Chiesa di Santa Maria in Colle. The church sits high on the hill with the added clock tower, giving even more height. This example played by our tour leader, Roberto Antonello, will give you an idea of these gutsy-sounding organs.

The organ was built in 1806 by Gaetano Callido, and although it did not have a short octave like organs we have previously played on this trip, I found the action stiff and hard to play. Also new to me was the fact that the Great manual is on the top rather than on the bottom. 

We drove to the Chiesa di San Cassiano in Quinto di Treviso about half an hour away. This 1865 organ is most unusual in that it is only one of five organo fonocròmico still playing. Invented by Giovanni Battista De Lorenzi, it uses a kind of “double touch” to activate two pipes for every note for every stop. 

Chiesa di San Cassiano

The whole reason for this is to imitate the more expressive qualities of the human voice — to have a “swell” on each note. In other words, each register consists of two ranks, and one can play either rank alone or the two together depending on how far the key is depressed. Pressing even harder opens the swell box. 

The kind of music that would suit this organ would be operatic arias, or circus music, none of which are in my repertoire! I settled on a chorale prelude by Helmut Walcha, which some one commented as “sounding oriental.”

Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo

When we arrived at the Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo my heart sank. The 1999 Andrea Zeni organ was the first one on this trip that had two full manuals, and a full pedalboard, no short octaves! 

My heart sank, though, because today was the one day I had decided to leave my organ shoes at the hotel, and here was one organ where I could really have made use of them. The organ was built in French Romantic style to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Cavaillé-Coll and unfortunately, I did not have a single piece of French music with me! No shoes and no music, groan!

I asked around the other tour participants and thankfully found Stephen Morris  willing to loan me some of his music. He had a copy of Flor Peeters, Aria, so that’s what I played. 

Like borrowing a dress and shoes to go to the prom! (I took off my athletic shoes and played in my socks.)

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Appearances are deceiving

This morning we schlepped our luggage down to the Zattere dock where we took a ferry to Fusino. I have neglected so far to tell you that the weather has been absolutely gorgeous, blue skies, clear, cool (about 78 deg. F) with a light wind. Picture postcard perfect! What a difference from the last time I was in Venice with my husband and son four years ago when the heat was in the high 90s and the humidity was unbearable!

Our bus picked us up at the dock in Fusina and took us to Treviso, 20 miles away. We went to a church which had been turned into a museum, Museo Chiesa di Santa Caterina, which had a new organ (1998) built in a Renaissance style. I loved this organ! The sound of the instrument was colorful and the principal stops were understated but very beautiful. 

Unfortunately my number didn’t come up so I wasn’t able to play, but the deputy mayor came over to bring us greetings on behalf of the city of Treviso. They are very proud of this organ and rightly so. 

We took a group photo with the deputy mayor.

Here is an excerpt from Grant Hellmers’ turn at this organ.

The vast majority of organs we have seen (and will be seeing) on the Historic Organ Study Tour have a first short octave. This means either the keyboard or pedalboard has an incomplete bottom octave. At first glance it starts on E instead of C. In actuality the lowest note is a C, followed by F, then D, then G, then E, then A. Huh? 

Here is a diagram:

The reason organ builders did this was to save money and space in the case—after all, who needs those notes anyway? In Italian music before 1800, those notes were seldom used.

When it was my turn to play the organ at the Chiesa di Santa Croce (which is no longer a chapel but is part of the university) it completely threw me for a loop! I know I didn’t choose the right music when the tour leader, Roberto Antonello, told me my Bach piece wouldn’t work. So I chose a canzona by Andrea Gabrieli, but there were still a few weird notes when I forgot about the short octave in the bass.

Chiesa di San Leonardo

I had the same result with the piece I chose for the Chiesa di San Leonardo, the next church we visited. I played Bach’s C Major Fantasy for manuals only and had a few oopsy moments when I forgot about the short octave in the bass. The extremely narrow and short keys on the keyboard also felt strange. Oh well, if I had an organ with a keyboard like this, I would get used to it. 

We checked into our Treviso hotel—my room is so cute with its single bed and modular furniture. This hotel is definitely a step up from our Venice accommodations. We’ll stay here two nights and then will return at the end of the trip.

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A change of plan


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Our appointment to see the Chiesa dell’Ospedaletto fell through which gave us on the Historic Organ Study Tour an opportunity to do something else beside see organs. Several of us walked about a block to the Accademia, where one of the most famous art collections is housed right on the Grand Canal.

I think my favorite was the Croce di San Teodoro made in the 15th century. The incredible detail kept us looking to discover ever more miniature figures in its body. Sorry my photo doesn’t really do it justice.

We then met back at the hotel to walk together to the vaporetto, which is the water bus system, an amazingly efficient people mover in a water-based society. We got off at the Rialto stop where we walked a short distance to the Chiesa di San Salvador where there is a new instrument by Hendrik and Jürgen (2009), inspired by Venetian Renaissance style with split keys for G#/Ab and D#/Eb.

I hate to name favorites so early in the game, but I really enjoyed playing this instrument. It was tuned in meantone and the stops were really colorful, with a clear and transparent texture. The pitch, however, drove me crazy with A=493, which is more than a whole step high. Here are two little video segments to whet your appetite.

Five of us ate lunch at a restaurant right on the canal, including Jim Litton, Annie Spink, Charlotte Woods, JoAnn Condry and myself. As you may recall from last year’s tour, (check out the post here), it had been 43 years since I saw Jim Litton, my former professor in Classical French Organ Literature at Westminster Choir College. (All I know about Classical French Organ literature I learned from Dr. Litton!) We were talking about former students doing well, and he mentioned Christopher (Kit) Jacobson, the Duke University Organist with whom my former student, Joey Fala, will be working! When I told him about Joey’s story, he said he was at the New York City AGO opening meeting where Joey played as a winner of the NYC organ competition! Small world!

Jim Litton, Annie Spink and Charlotte Woods

JoAnn Condry and myself.

The last stop of the day was at the Chiesa di San Cassiano, a beautiful church with a 1734 Pietro Nacchini organ.

You can see Minnesota Public Radio host Michael Barone in the slideshow below.

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Climbing ladders

If you are an organist in Venice, you can’t be afraid of climbing ladders or have a fear of heights. Otherwise you’d never be able get to the organ console.

Chiesa di San Trovaso

We walked to the first church we visited today, within a block of our hotel—the Chiesa di San Trovaso where the Gaetano Callisto organ dates from 1765, and at one time was considered the most famous organ in Venice. Nicola Sari, a student of our tour leader, Roberto Antonella, gave us a short demonstration of this instrument and what I was struck by was the wide range of its tonal colors and the crystal clear voicing.

The next hour at the church was open console time which means that anyone in the group who wished to play could do so. In our group of 40, there are 23 who pre-signed up to play, and we followed a strictly alphabetical  order. First “at bat” in our group is Minnesota Public Radio host Michael Barone; I am number six.

Everyone who played the organ had to confront the almost vertical “ladder” to get to the console. I was used to climbing many spiral staircases to get to organs, but climbing this ladder was a first. Some of our group depend on canes for walking, but even they were brave enough to climb up here.

When I got to the top what I was really surprised to see was all the graffiti on the organ case! To say that I was shocked was putting it mildly, although it can’t be seen by the average churchgoer.

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When it was my turn to play, I found that middle C was not in the middle of the keyboard but was off to the right because of extra notes beginning with F-1. I was also fascinated by the lever at the top of the stop knobs, which was a mechanical way to pull the stops for full organ. Sorry for the poor quality of the video below, but this was really fascinating to me.

We next visited the 1743 Pierre Nacchini organ at the Chiesa San Rocco in a building which is remarkable for the elaborate choir loft. Apparently this was only a temporary structure in 1789 to accommodate 30-35 singers for a festive occasion—designed to give “impressive solemnity and glamour to a grand ceremony and then taken down, much like the great Baroque stage machines.” A historic reconstruction of this choir loft was made permanent in 2013.

Getting to the San Rocco organ required navigating a spiral staircase but was easy to do in comparison to the ladder at San Trovaso. But if you’re claustrophobic….

Here’s a little video excerpt of the San Rocco instrument.

After lunch, we walked back to the church next door: the Basilica di Santa Barbara del Frari, where several people took advantage of the two organs placed across from each other above the elaborately carved and gilded choir stalls. The organ on the left side was a 1732 Giovani Battista Piaggi while the organ on the right was newer and larger, a 1795 Gaetano Callido organ. We heard several selections for two organs featuring antiphonal sections with the instruments playing separately as well as together. Again we had to climb steep steps like a ladder to access the organ.

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Michael Barone remained in the organ loft after his turn to help me with the registration of my selection of Quattro Corrente by Frescobaldi then graciously took my picture at the console!

In case you are wondering why I’m not wearing my organ shoes, it’s because the piece I chose was for manuals only. You can see also the very limited and short pedalboard.

Of note was the marker in the third chapel to the left of the altar, denoting where composer Claudio Monteverdi is buried.

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