recycled parts breathe new life into vintage church organ
Parishioners help rehab, expand instrument at St. Martin’s
Charles Bergstrom, left, and Albert Holck, members of St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, helped last week on a project to rebuild and add to the church’s 1930s pipe organ.
During the week, St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, near the University of Texas campus, is usually still and cool inside, with its undulated walls and softly lighted stained glass windows. But last week, organ pieces lay scattered around the intricately designed woodwork on the altar, and the buzz of handheld drills filled the air while church members worked toward refurbishing the centerpiece of their worship services.
If there has been any upside to the closing of churches around the country, it has been that old organs — instruments central to church music across denominations — sometimes find new life. At St. Martin’s, on 15th Street, the head of the church’s music program, Thomas Pavlechko, has spent two years restoring the 1930s pipe organ. He has acquired two other organs that have helped expand the range and versatility of the first organ and collected pieces from
Victor Marsilio, who runs the Ohio-based Victor Organ Co., shows how a piece will fit on a vintage pipe organ at St. Martin’s Evangeli- cal Lutheran Church on Wednesday. He is helping church members rebuild the 1930s pipe organ.
Continued from B1 other organs that he hopes to incorporate into an organ ensemble that can create the beauty of the Gospel in surround sound.
With professional guidance from Victor Marsilio, who runs the Ohio-based Victor Organ Co., Pavlechko and about 40 of the church’s more than 1,500 members have been cleaning organ pipes with Pine Sol, dismantling windchests (where the organ pipes stand) and categorizing parts from three organs, all of which need restoration. At the same time, they’re learning more about how the music they love is created.
Originally, the church organ’s sound was confined to the back of the church. When Pavlechko played the Visser Rowland — a three-keyboard organ built in 1982 that has more than 1,700 pipes — he realized that it was suitable for church music from Bach’s era but not for music from the 19th century and beyond. To add more ranks, or sets of pipes, in 1999 Pavlechko purchased a used Kilgen organ, an elec-tropneumatic organ that can add a larger array of voices to existing organs. That organ was used to better accompany the choir and soloists from the back of the church.
His goal was to increase the range of the original organ even more by eventually adding yet another organ.
Then he left the church for six years to work in Memphis. When he returned in 2006, Pavlechko said, church members kept asking when he was going to complete his vision. So, the following year, he found another Kilgen organ on eBay. He plans to use it to add sound to the front of the church.
His way of collecting organ parts has saved tens of thousands of dollars, Marsilio said. New organs are typically $15,000 per rank, and the larger organs have about 100 ranks, which would run $1.5 million, Pavlechko said.
“What makes this project unique is that the congregation has not only shown its support in terms of money, but they’ve been able to save 75 percent of what it would cost for a new organ,” Marsilio said. And, he said, they’ve been able to recycle parts of organs from churches that have folded.
“I’m not good at the keyboard,” said John Sommer, 77, a member of the choir who was working on organ parts with his wife, Bess, on Wednesday morning. “But I love to listen to the music.” He was one of the volunteers who have helped Pavlechko fetch organ parts from such places as St. Louis and West, north of Waco.
In tough economic times, saving money has been a godsend for the church, which hosts well-known choirs like the Minnesota-based St. Olaf Choir and Conspirare, an Austin-based Grammy-nominated choral ensemble. And as Jo Oliver, a member of St. Martin’s Symphonic Winds Ensemble (she plays the French horn) puts it, “How many people get to say they helped build an organ?”
Probably not that many. Pavlechko hopes the project will be completed within the year.
“People in those churches made an investment in these organs,” Marsilio said. “Giving them new life and combining them into one instrument is a wonderful testament.”
Victor Marsilio looks through various organ pieces at St. Martin’s. ‘Giving them new life and combining them into one instrument is a wonderful testament,’ he said.
Charles Oertli, left, and Jo Oliver remove salvageable pieces from otherwise unusable parts.
Thomas Pavlechko, head of the church’s music program, hopes the organ restoration project will be completed within the year. See more photos with this story online at statesman.com.