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Presbyterian church’s 2,096-pipe organ

By Bryan Richardson

The human body needs checkups to make sure everything is working properly. The same goes for instruments.

Tuesday happened to be the day of the biennial tuning for the large pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church. The the timing was fortuitous because the organ will be featured in a public recital at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The featured performer is Stephen Hamilton, an emeritus professor of music at the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York.

Eric Johnson of Quimby Pipe Organs said the organ is somewhat temperature sensitive and needs to be tuned with the changing of the seasons.

Johnson and another Quimby worker, Kevin Lors, spent six hours tuning up what Johnson said is one of the larger organs they maintain. Lors pressed keys waiting to hear “next” from Johnson as he adjusted pipes for pitch correction.

“For the most part, it’s checking that the pipes are all in tune with each other and any little mechanical problems that have arisen since the last visit,” Johnson said.

The organ could be looked at as one of the church’s body organs, pumping music into the congregation. However, it also contains its own body system within its large frame.

When it was built in 1983, it represented the largest organ that Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, of Lake City, Iowa, had built in its nine-year history, containing 34 stops, 43 ranks and 2,096 pipes. “And you have to check them all,” Johnson said.

It has the second biggest pipe count of all the organs in Manhattan, exceeded only by the 2,458-pipe organ at K-State’s All Faiths Chapel. The three-level organ has a towering presence as it nearly reaches the ceiling, making it clearly visible from both levels of the sanctuary.

David Pickering, organ and music theory professor at Kansas State, has played the organ at the church since July 2010. He said he looked up the instrument before he interviewed for the position.

“When it came up Dobson Pipe Organs Builders had built the instrument, I was really excited because I was familiar with Dobson’s work,” he said.

Pickering said the instrument isn’t like too many others in this region of the state, being a non-electric organ; All Faiths Chapel and others have electric organs. “This instrument is a special instrument for this area since it’s one of relatively few mechanical-action pipe organs,” he said.

Johnson is also impressed with the organ. “It’s a fine instrument,” he said. “Manhattan’s fortunate to have it. It has aged very well.”

Johnson said he has tuned the instrument four or five times, so it has become an easier job. “You get to know the instrument and the instrument gets to know you,” he said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship you develop.”

It is a relationship that Pickering can also attest to. He said the organ has a variety of sounds and pitches. He’s learned to help “color the sound.”

“The longer I play the instrument, the more I realize I can experiment with the different colors the organ has,” he said.

Pickering said he’s also learned a lot from watching Johnson work, talking with Johnson and being inside the organ.

“I’ve also gotten to know the organ better from a physical standpoint,” he said. “That has also helped me understand how to better use the instrument.”

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