Several years ago our music director Marlin Nagtegaal mentioned that a homeless, disassembled pipe organ might be “available” for St. John’s. The organ was a1977 Gabriel Kney 19-rank, two manual tracker instrument, originally designed and built for Park Street United Church in Chatham, Ontario. Who could have predicted the amazing outcome of those first tentative enquiries? Today, the shining oak and copper façade soars into the right transept vault as if it was always meant to be there. St. John’s members were among the first to sample the warm, clear and brilliant textures of its 1,200 or so wood and metal pipes, covering 19 ranks and 16 stops. A number of leading organists who dropped in during final touches to the mechanism and tuning are already calling it the finest “new” tracker (non-electronic, non-computerized) organ to be installed in the area in the past 30 years – high praise indeed for an instrument that came so close to being dispersed for parts, or perhaps left to silently disintegrate in storage.
But how did some 6,500 lbs. of boxed, tied, taped and bubble-wrapped bits and pieces come to look like the majestic structure that area musicians are becoming so excited about? The secret lay in a powerful mixture of persistence, patience, mechanical creativity (there was no “user assembly manual”) plus a good dose of faith. Over the weeks and months following the spectacular teamwork of the pickup trip to Chatham, the Kney organ rebuild mostly moved along steadily without too much fanfare. As with any large and complex project, much of the behind-the-scenes work was neither exciting nor glamorous (try dusty, sweaty, backbreaking, and head-scratching…) but the goal of a finished instrument, an even better-than-new instrument, was never far from anyone’s thoughts.
So under the guidance of our patient and skilled professional technician, Les Smith of Fergus, Ont. — and often during some of the hottest summer days on record — Marlin and Alfred Durichen put in countless hours of learn-as-you-go volunteer labour. But whenever extra hands were needed, choir members and supportive parishioners would turn up without a moment’s hesitation to do some unusual and often finicky tasks: gluing airtight pieces of canvas over dozens of unneeded holes; replacing pedal and lever felts to prevent unwanted “percussion” effects; wiping down dusty cabinet panels; cleaning dirty keyboards; handing structural parts up ladders into mysterious high shadows; feeding lengths of wire through a loom-like grid and hoping they got through untangled; and (not to be forgotten!) extricating mummified bat-parts from inside a pipe.
It would be fair to say that everyone who took part in the organ project has acquired one or more interesting new skills, with the added bonus of getting to know one another a lot better. But the biggest surprise came with the critical (and potentially risky) decision to completely clean every one of the dirt and tarnish-encrusted façade pipes right down to its original bare copper. Seeing the brilliance of just a few square centimeters of polished metal, however, was enough to motivate choir president Lynda Smith to appeal to the congregation for just a “few” volunteers to pitch in on a Saturday morning pipe-cleaning bee.
Instead of the expected half-dozen, 30 pairs of willing hands turned up! And thanks to St. John’s Altar Guild members, who generously entrusted this small army with gloves, rags, sponges, and their precious supply of polishing cream (available only by special order), the full set of copper pipes soon looked brand new. What made this task so critical was that individual care had to be taken with each pipe; they are all working parts of the organ, not just decorative. None of the volunteers had ever handled “live” organ pipes before, yet the results were both mishap-free and lovely to look at.
The newly cleaned façade pipes were installed almost immediately and the difference they made took everyone by surprise. We’d all become accustomed to watching the organ structure grow visibly week by week, like an oversized Meccano or TinkerToy creation. But with the copper pipes up front, we eagerly awaited the next step of hearing them speak. For months the actual sound quality of the Kney organ in a space so different from the one it was first designed for, was a big unknown factor – the ultimate $55,000 gamble for doubters and believers alike! But the instrument turned out to have a more beautiful timbre than anyone anticipated (it’s all about rich “overtones,” Marlin explained) … and at about one-tenth the cost of starting from scratch.
With the summer-long “rescue” and restoration now complete, our 1977-2007 Kney organ was ready for its official dedication in a free public recital on Sunday, October 14, 2007. The featured performer was former St. John’s music director Barrie Cabena, who has also composed new music for the occasion that will show how harmoniously both our organs sound together. Rather than marking the end of a project whose congregational support and involvement almost rivaled that of the annual Pudding Factory, this event promises to launch a vital new role for our parish as a centre for cultural outreach.
Perhaps when St. John’s comes to celebrate its second century as a parish family, folks who’ve been enjoying Waterloo Region’s finest Kney organ for decades will ask nostalgically: Does anyone remember the first time Marlin mentioned, “…there’s this tracker organ I know about… it’s all in pieces in a warehouse; maybe we could get it…?”
By Pauline Finch (Kney organ work crew and project photographer)