An Organ Crescendo 10 Years in the Making

Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue | Ira Lippke

By Kirk Petersen

After more than a decade of planning, fundraising, and construction, a prominent New York City parish has introduced a pipe organ for the ages.

More than 1,100 people packed the pews at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue for the Oct. 5 dedication recital of the new $11 million Miller-Scott organ. They heard more than 90 minutes of organ works from an instrument that combines an ancient invention with sophisticated modern electronics.

Saint Thomas occupies a unique spot among places for Anglican sacred music. In addition to a large church community, the parish also is home to the Saint Thomas Choir School, America’s only church-affiliated choir boarding school, which The New York Times likened to Westminster Abbey in London. Saint Thomas was founded in 1823, and the current building opened more than a century ago, in 1913.

Each year, 25 to 30 boys in grades 3 through 8 study, work and live at the school. They perform in the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, which periodically tours in Europe and throughout the United States.

With the new organ, “we now have the instrument to match the quality of the music and the world-class choir we have here,” said Ben Sheen, associate organist.

The church voted in 2006 to launch a capital campaign to restore stained-glass windows and acquire a new organ. The midtown church had not conducted a capital campaign since the 1930s, said Ann Kaplan, the church’s director of development. More than 1,200 donors have contributed close to $9 million toward the $11 million project.

Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue | Ira Lippke

The instrument is designated as the Irene D. and William R. Miller Chancel Organ in Memory of John Scott. William Miller is a former vestry member and retired pharmaceutical executive; John Scott, at one time the organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, was the church’s organist from 2004 until his sudden death in 2015, at the age of 59.

Scott was succeeded by Daniel Hyde, a Cambridge-trained Briton. The church recently announced that Jeremy Filsell will succeed Hyde in the spring of 2019, when Hyde returns to King’s College in Cambridge.

The organ is large, of course, but its 7,069 pipes are not record-breaking. The Boardwalk Hall Auditorium in Atlantic City has more than 33,000 pipes, but most of them have been out of commission for decades. The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia is the largest functioning organ, with 28,750 pipes.

More than 100 draw knobs control the various ranks of pipes on the Miller-Scott organ console.

“You have string stops, which are the softer stops on the organ, and the flutey stops, the reed stops, and then there’s one entire division of the organ that is dedicated to orchestral sounds,” Sheen said. “So we have an oboe, a cor anglais, a clarinet, a French horn, so it can replicate the full symphony orchestra just from one person playing it.”

Sophisticated electronics enable one musician to control all those stops while also playing multiple keyboards. Sheen said that many combinations of stops are programmed to respond at the touch of a button. He likened the organist’s console to an airline pilot’s cockpit. “You essentially control the entire orchestra from that one seat.”

Pipe organs have inspired the phrase “pulling out all the stops,” meaning to use every available resource. Sheen said that as a practical matter organists never pull out all the stops.

Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue

The organ was built by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa. The $11 million went to more than the organ — a variety of factors drove the rest of the cost, starting with structural work to the church. Steel girders had to be installed to support the weight of the organ, and acoustical changes were made to accommodate the new pipes.

The former organ had all its pipes on one side of the chancel, but the new organ required a new case on the other side. An ornately carved wooden case was designed and built to complement the existing one and the interior of the church.

“This is an instrument that will, hopefully, last without needing any renovations for 50 to 100 years,” Sheen said in explaining the total cost.

To appreciate the quality of the instrument, there’s no substitute for hearing it under the 95-foot vaulted ceiling of the church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. But the church website offers an audio webcast of the dedication recital, and even the tinny speakers of a computer can provide an aural glimpse of the range and complexity of the organ’s sound.

Kaplan said the New York City location also added to the expense. Dobson workers from Iowa typically were housed in the choir school, which helped with the cost, but travel costs were significant.

Hyde, who played at the dedication in October, will play the second of six recitals in the church’s Grand Organ series on Dec. 22.

Sheen and three other award-winning organists will play at the remaining recitals, which run through May. No tickets are needed for these recitals, although donations are requested.

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys will offer two performances of Handel’s Messiah in early December, with ticket prices ranging from $25 to $95, and a variety of other performances are scheduled.


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