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Super pipes: Recital to showcase Aspen Community Church organ

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesVisitors to the Aspen Community Church are greeted by 29 brass-colored pipes; the other roughly 1,760 pipes that are part of the church's pipe organ are largely hidden from view.
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ASPEN – E. Power Biggs, a prominent classical organist from the mid-20th century, liked to refer to his instrument as “just a box of whistles.”

“And it is. It’s just air going through pipes,” Jon Busch, an Aspenite with an attraction to pipe organs, affirmed. “When I was a kid, my dad taught me to make whistles out of river willow – slide the bark off, make a slot, slide the bark back on and you make a whistle. That’s what this is.”

The ‘this’ Busch was speaking of, though, was quite a bit more complex – and more impressive, costly, powerful and useful – than the willow whistles Busch fashioned as a child. Busch was standing in front of the organ at the Aspen Community Church – the second largest pipe organ on the Western Slope, boasting 1,791 separate pipes. Walk into the church sanctuary and the pipes are an impressive sight: the eye can’t miss the rank of pedal-open diapason pipes – 29 brass-colored pipes at the center of the chancel, the longest of which stands 16 feet tall.

Which leaves 1,762 pipes still to account for, a handful of which are in the upper balcony. The rest are hidden away in a manner that would delight a child accustomed to the secret passageways of a Hogwarts building. Approach an ordinary-looking wall on the right side of the chancel. Make sure to bring a screwdriver. Unscrew and remove the panel. (The precaution of “locking” the door with a screw came about after church officials believed someone had been using the space as sleeping quarters.) Duck carefully; shuffle, curl, crawl and stumble forward; and among a crazy-quilt of ladders, crawl spaces and footholds is the heart of the organ – the rest of the 1,700-plus pipes, mostly grouped in geometric lines so orderly they seem sacred. These pipes – either metal, made of a mix of zinc and tin, or wood, generally poplar – range from a few feet in length to the size and shape of a pencil. It makes the organ console, even with its numerous keys, pedals and knobs, seem insignificant by comparison.

James Welch, who holds a doctorate in music performance from Stanford and is organist at Santa Clara University, will demonstrate just what this particular box of whistles is capable of. Welch has a particular specialty in Latin organ music, having traveled and performed extensively in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. But the program for Friday’s Aspen Community Church concert has a heavy French theme, with pieces by French composers Louis-Claude Daquin, Louis Vierne and Charles Gounod, and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Topping the concert is Charles Widor’s Symphony No. 5.

Strictly speaking, not all 1,791 pipes are necessary for Friday’s performance (which has been arranged by Busch, a former bassoon student at the Aspen Music Festival). When Busch gave me a demonstration of the organ, he pointed out how many of the organ’s features are nearly duplications – one sound a deeper variation on another, for instance, or a different approximation of a flute tone.

But more pipes means a more precise interpretation of what the composer intended. The organ at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Busch said, which has just seven sets of pipes (compared to the 30 at the Community Church), wouldn’t allow a performance of tonight’s program; the St. Mary’s organ lacks reed pipes.

“In a strange sort of way a pipe organ is like an orchestra. If you don’t have trumpets in an orchestra, you can’t play the fanfare by Paul Dukas. You can play string orchestra pieces – Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – but you couldn’t play the Symphony No. 5,” Busch said. “The larger the organ, the more voices you have, the greater literature you can play. With more ranks, you can get into more subtle shadings of tones.”

• • • •

Before 1999, the Aspen Community Church had a small organ, with just seven ranks. (A rank is a set of pipes with a particular sound.) Not only was it small, it wasn’t particularly good. At the Denver church that was its previous home, the organ was put on stilts during an excavation project. The stilts collapsed, the organ fell, and some of the metal pipes were ruined. New pipes were made, but they didn’t match perfectly. By the time it got to Aspen, in the mid-’60s, it was “worn out and not worth rebuilding,” Busch said. In Aspen, it only got worse: once, a window was left open during a storm and the console got soaked.

In the ’90s, money was raised to get a new organ. Or not exactly new. Most organs seem to be works more or less in progress, with ranks added here and there as they are needed or found, or as additional funds are raised. The organ the Community Church bought had started its life in 1958 in a Boston church, installed by the Wicks Organ Company. It had 13 ranks to begin with; in 1978, the Bostonians added another seven. When it got to Aspen, numerous pipes were added – Busch had purchased various parts of an organ that had been sitting in storage in Terre Haute, Ind.

The organ cost the Aspen church $150,000, including transport and installation, which Busch says is “amazingly inexpensive – to replace it today, it’s been estimated at $660,000.” The organ was shipped to Illinois, home to the Wicks company, where it spent a year in the rebuilding phase. Once in Aspen, it took a week to install the organ, with two tonal finishers then taking nine days to adjust the pipes to suit the room.

When it was completed, the Community Church organ became the biggest on the Western Slope; a church in Grand Junction has since added a few ranks to their organ, giving it the title of largest in the region. But the Community Church’s – the largest of Aspen’s four organs – is big enough, with reeds, trumpets, flutes, one set of strings, and diapason. (A trumpet pipe mimics, to an extent, the sound of a trumpet; a flute pipe approximates the tone of a flute. The diapason, Busch said, “doesn’t imitate anything. It’s unique to the organ. It’s the sound where people say, ‘Yes, that’s an organ.'”)

“This organ is complete in a basic way,” Busch said. “You don’t have multiple sets of strings, but you can do a good job on most literature if you’ve got one set. You might lack a little in subtlety.”

Actually, the Community Church organ is, in a sense, incomplete. In the boiler room is a set of bell clarinet pipes that have sat there for over a decade. The installers said the pipes came in too late, and they were through adding more and more components.

“You can keep adding pipes to the organ,” Busch said. “But you get to a certain point and the room just can’t handle any more. And as you can tell, the room is pretty full of pipes.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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