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Sounds of old challenged by the new

Beach United Church is giving a new voice to an old instrument – the church organ.

Robert Hiller, left, Toronto representative for the Casavant Freres organ builders, and apprentice Sasha Achtemichuk stand by the Guilbault-Thérien organ that was moved from Bellefair United to the new Beach United Church. Originally built in 1928 by Franklin-Legge, a Toronto company, the organ was substantially rebuilt in 1991 by Guilbault-Thérien at a cost of $250,000. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Robert Hiller, left, Toronto representative for the Casavant Freres organ builders, and apprentice Sasha Achtemichuk stand by the Guilbault-Thérien organ that was moved from Bellefair United to the new Beach United Church. Originally built in 1928 by Franklin-Legge, a Toronto company, the organ was substantially rebuilt in 1991 by Guilbault-Thérien at a cost of $250,000.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Reopened in October after a major, multi-year renovation, Beach United now features sun shades, solar panels and an open sanctuary without a single pew.

Adding a 2,000-pipe organ might seem like a throwback for such a modern space, but not to renovations lead Karen Watson.

“I want to see us challenge that, and bring the organ along with the rest of the changes that we’re making,” she said.

So far, the Guilbault-Therien that moved from Bellefair to Beach United shows a promising start.

As soon as it’s settled into its new perch, the church’s new music director, Andrew Lacombe, together with organ consultant Christopher Dawes want the organ performing in some non-standard ways.

“Many organists, frankly, don’t experiment much with how the organ is used,” said Dawes, noting that most prefer to hear it as a stand-alone instrument.

That single-minded idea of the organ as a stand-alone instrument does have a logic to it.

“Essentially, you are a one-man orchestra,” says tuner Sasha Achtemichuk.

At the core, he explains, pipe organs are designed on a grid pattern, where one axis holds a series of different instruments, and the other a series of notes.

But given a reverb of three or more seconds and a daring organist, new sounds can be found in that old structure.

“It’s cool when you hear really good guys playing because they won’t stay perfectly in time with metronome,” said Achtemichuk.

“They sort of swell and move around – it’s amazing.”

Another way to jazz up an organ is to actually let it play jazz.

Dawes has experimented with jazz for organ, and with gospel too.

Every few years, Dawes likes to play an organ concert at Roy Thomson Hall together with the Toronto Mass Choir.

Dawes has also paired the organ with brass orchestras, a single saxophone and, most curiously of all, the alphorn.

Music for organ and alphorn is “an extremely small literature, mainly from Switzerland,” he said laughing.

Still, Dawes did manage to team up with quite likely the only professional alphornist in Canada.

“I don’t think his pager goes off all that often,” he said, noting that alphorns play exclusively in F-sharp major, a key with six sharps on the staff.

“But he somehow managed to commission a piece from a famous Montreal composer for organ and alphorn.”

But before the breakout Swiss organ sound can come to Beach United, Robert Hiller has to tune the organ so that every one of its 2,000 pipes “speaks” as it should, and also blends with the forest of pipes around it.

Up a ladder and then stepping carefully around the open rows of electromagnets that control the organ’s air valves, Hiller puts one of the free pipes to his lips and blows a note through the “toe.”

Organ pipes are machined to an exact height and diameter, he explained, and so long as the organ blower pumps a steady flow of air they will always hit the same volume and pitch.

Still, there are subtle ways to tinker with their sound. Like reed instruments, each pipe has a metal tab called a “languid” at the mouth that can be bent to change the volume slightly.

They can also be notched to soften or harden the sound at the very beginning of a new note, which organ voicers call the “chiff.”

“In the sixties, we had clean mouths and they would go ‘tck,’ ‘tck,’ ‘tck,’” he said.

“All the pipes had a very strong attack.”

But most of an organ’s sound is in the larger design, Hiller said. The tuning he is doing at Beach United is really just cleaning up its existing sound.

Now 58, Hiller got into organ voicing as a 19-year-old apprentice to Casavant Freres, a Quebec-based pipe organ builder with some 3,800 organs made since 1879. He has seen many shifting trends in the kind of sound builders aim for.

Until the 1950s, Casavant and other North American builders emulated the British sound, he said – booming, heavy things without any high notes.

By the 1960s, he said a much more Baroque style came in, favouring the high or “bright” notes.

“We went to the other extreme,” he said. “In the eighties, we hired a French tonal director. All of a sudden, the organs got more balanced.”

Beach United’s Guilbault-Therien is a mostly French style, he said, meaning a balanced sound, often with strong reeds.

And compared with many other organs he has moved recently, Hiller said this job is not so difficult. The only significant changes were re-stacking some pipes for symmetry, and moving the blower behind the organ to keep it quiet.

Most important, Hiller said, the new space at Beach United is of a similar size and acoustic to the organ’s former home at Bellefair.

“Half the sound of an organ is its room,” he said.

Hiller managed the installation of one of Toronto’s favourite concert organs, the 1970 Casavant that was moved from Deer Park United Church to Church of the Holy Trinity by the Eaton Centre.

“The acoustic is so good the organ sounds 10 times better,” he said.

“It’s got six-second reverberation.”

When panels go back over top of all its switches, magnets, wires and air vents, the organ at Beach United will once again look like an orderly set of pipes and keys, but Hiller and Achtemichuk know what’s hiding inside.

“You have to be a mechanic, and you have to be musician,” said Hiller. “Being a musician is probably only about a third of the job.”

Trained as engineer, Achtemichuk agrees.

“It’s a simple concept, but it’s complicated to get it to happen.”

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