Praise Him With Organ was the name of a mostly sacred and but still somewhat secular recital in recognition of the restoration of a rare pipe organ housed in St. Michael Church on 9th street. It was one of the most unique music experiences I’ve ever had and it’s not just because classical and choral music have never been on any playlist of mine.
The concert was held in a church, the audience sat in the wooden pews. The organ and the organist were in the balcony and in the back of the church, far above the pews. Unless you turned around and arched your head at a distinctly uncomfortable angle, the organist performed unseen. Even if were willing to risk a neck cramp, you still only caught a few glimpses of the organist’s back, maybe some elbow.
Part of the live music experience is watching a musician play; for musical theater or some other type of show, the orchestra is hidden. The point of those performances is not the music, it’s the show and the story it tells or extravaganza it presents, be it opera or musical comedy. Sometimes at large concerts, even sans show, the charisma of the celebrity on stage, the way he or she personifies the song, can overcome the actual musicality (or lack of it) of the performance.
Here, there was no distraction to the music, no visual point of focus to dilute the aural experience. Surrounded by colorful, stunning religious art – St. Michael is home to some of the best sacred art in the entire state of New Jersey – you merely sat and listened, your mind was what you heard because there was no stage to hold your attention, other than the intrinsic abstractions of your own consciousness.
The story behind this particular organ is fascinating. The church was founded in 1867, serving the then mainly Irish immigrant community. The St. Michael organ is a 1925 E.M Skinner Opus 542, which is similar to the one at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC. Similar is the key word because the pipe organ uses pipes – St. Michael’s has 2,702 pipes – which are fluted with wooden resonators, much like a whistle – and the pipes are placed through out the church, literally embedded into the architecture. Because the instrument must be customized to the building, the organs can only be similar to each other, each one is unique. According to notes in the brochure given out at the event, in the 1920s, EM Skinner was a premier organ manufacturer, but the company went out of business during the 1930s and as musical tastes change, pipe organs fell out of fashion. While Skinner made 2,500 (St. Michael’s was # 542) only 190 are believed to still exist and only 20 are believed to be in their original condition, making the St. Michael instrument rare indeed, so rare in fact that the Joseph Bradley Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving Skinner organs, agreed to underwrite the bulk of the cost restoring the instrument – $400,000, a five-year project by Peragallo Pipe Organ Company of Paterson, whose founder of the company first installed the instrument. “We are continuing the history,” said John Peragallo III, the latest generation of a family renowned in the tight knit pipe organ community.
As might be expected, Bach (Prelude in G Major BWV 568) opened the recital, which featured various works of organ specific composition. I particularly liked Carillon, which had a splendidly eerie feel – it’s hard to escape the Cabinet of Dr. Calgari/Phantom of the Opera connotations one has with the pipe organ's inherently spooky sound.
My favorite though was A Grand Instrumental Procession by George Frideric Handel – within a context of a march-type, steady rhythm this folk melody appeared, dancing around the other notes and it was echoed. You see the pipe organ has these things called stop, that create an accent to the sound so the it mimics say a French horn and here the melody would be repeated by a different instrumental mimic, it was almost a dissonance, this strange melody echo, separate but also contained by the main musical theme. Amazing this orchestral fullness was made by one instrument as well as the fact the musician the keyboard was not an octopus.
As the notes to the performance said, the pipe organ envelopes you. You become encompassed by the sound, enhanced by the fact that you are not seeing any performer. The sound was loud, but warm and while electronics are used in some of the keyboard wiring, the amplification is all acoustic, through the touring flutes that align the nave of the church. Hidden behind the organ of course are huge bellows that create the wind for the flutes.
This being an organ in a church, the program's intermission – between the opening and closing musical performances – featured Bishop Thomas Donato, who blessed the organ and the fluteswith holy water form an aspergillum and incense from a censer. The bishop is a downtown Jersey City native, who graduated from the now closed St. Michael’s High School. At the reception after I saw him talking to another born and bred JCite about growing up on 7th near Division Street.
After the blessing was a hymn, which was sung with organ accompaniment, When in Our Music God is Glorified. The song had this striking couplet: “And did not Jesus Sing a Psalm that night/when utmost Evil strove against the light?”, referencing the
the night before the crucifixion. Hey, the concert was in a church, blessing and prayers were part of the program. The finale was a truly grand performance of a Toccata in b minor. According to my dictionary, a Toccata is a composition for a keyboard instrument written in a free style that includes full chords and elaborate runs and is intended to show off the player's technique. Garden of Gethsemane
In addition to the reception, you were able to see the organ up-close and I got a chance to ask some questions of one of the Peragallos about the organ, it’s quite a contraption, as much a musical machine as a musical instrument. It has a real steam punk feel because the technology is old fashioned, real vintage yet the sound it makes fills an entire church.
What a unique musical experience. The sound wasn’t just magnificent, it was an aural embodiment of magnificence.