March 2018 TAO Cover Feature

Christ Church
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Fisk Opus 150

By Charles Nazarian

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Completed installation

There may be no city in America more aware of its history and with more passion for architectural preservation than Philadelphia. The Christopher Wren-inspired Christ Church, once attended by four of our nation’s founding fathers, is located in the heart of the Historic District and encompasses the burying ground where Benjamin Franklin lies. Its airy interior is illuminated by arched, multi-pane windows, graced with an elegant barrel-vault ceiling, and composed of handsome Palladian features that visually express the birthplace of our democracy in the ideal proportions of Greco-Roman architecture. At the center of the wraparound gallery stands a stunning white organ case whose somewhat mysterious history goes back to the original pre-Revolutionary period instrument by Philip Feyring and a distinguished later organ built by Henry Erben in 1837.

King’s Chapel, Boston

I first visited Christ Church during an architectural tour in 1980 and was immediately struck by the building’s visual relationship to a building I knew well, King’s Chapel in Boston. The organ there was built in 1963 by Charles Fisk, the first three-manual mechanical-action organ built in America in the mid-20th century, which helped to establish his reputation as a builder who was as sensitive to historic preservation ideals as he was to rediscovering the secrets of Classical organbuilding. The handsomely carved oak case at King’s Chapel was conserved in this new instrument, removing unfortunate side additions from the previous and much larger Aeolian-Skinner organ that had ruined its proportions. While strolling about the interior of Christ Church I could not help but muse about a Fisk instrument someday standing within the Erben case, perhaps with a matching Ruckpositive. I shared this fanciful wish with Charles Fisk upon my return to his Gloucester workshop, where I pinned a photo of the Christ Church organ to the model room wall.

It was therefore with some glee that I welcomed the Rev. Timothy Safford, rector, and Parker Kitterman, organist and music director, into our model room a few years ago and waited silently until they noticed the dusty old “pinup.” Pastor Tim exclaimed “that’s our organ!” and my reply was that I had waited over 30 years for them to arrive. Thus began a collegial and historically informed discussion within a collaborative circle that included John Milner Architects, a Pennsylvania firm noted for preservation design, the vigilant organ and building committees, the Christ Church Preservation Trust and other Philadelphia historic preservation panels, the acoustical consultant Dana Kirkegaard, and the entire Fisk team.

1:16 scale design model

In December 2015, Fisk staff members joined Dana at Christ Church to engage in acoustical studies of the nave space. The listening experience involved a vocal quartet and numerous instrumentalists performing at various locations and elevations within the gallery envelope. Stepladders, temporary staging, even the interior walkboards of the organ were utilized by the musicians, some of whom were rather amused, if not petrified, at where they were asked to perch while they played or sang. In the end, these tests taught us not only about the room’s acoustical response and reverberation characteristics, but they also informed us as to divisional placement and wind pressures. Three aural “sweet spots” were revealed: firstly, a dynamic elevation for the main Great and Swell divisions approximately 12′ above floor level from where the musicians’ sounds spoke clearly to the nave, without distortion, and engaged the entire breadth of the room, including the areas under the arcade formed by the columns and side vaults; secondly, a vocally resonant spot 6′ higher up in the space, closer to the ceiling vault, from where the live sounds “lit up” the upper volume of the nave—and where we eventually placed four of the Great division’s solo stops; and lastly, a delicate, focused, and extremely beautiful place for sound at the center of the gallery railing. These studies also confirmed once and for all that the entirety of the sound-producing portion of the new instrument must reside in the gallery space, forward of the archway into the tower, and that this open archway would have to be filled with a massive, bass-reflective wall.

Chaire division

During this same visit, conversations with Pastor Tim and Parker brought to light their earnest hope that a new instrument could somehow be designed to feel closer to the people in the nave, and that the choir as well needed to be more integrated into the worship experience. This revelation, together with the acoustical tests, plainly pointed to the addition of a division of the organ on the gallery rail, as well as an acoustically transparent railing construction.

Knowing how fraught the decision to change the interior of this historic building would be, we had all along imagined that the whole of the organ would be housed within the Erben case and that the third division of the instrument might either be in the classical Oberwerk position at the very top, or perhaps in Brustwerk position above, or to either side of, an attached console. But our acoustic tests dictated otherwise. So, with a clear explanation of the many benefits (and some trepidation), we decided to broach the possibility of a Chaire division in the center of the paneled bow-front gallery rail expecting full well that it might never be approved.

It is at such times that I am eternally grateful to Charles Fisk for his insight that pipe organ design is most akin to three-dimensional sculpture and that design development within an architectural scale model is the most flexible and direct means to “getting it right.” The model’s large scale is a key feature of the process. At ¾” = 1′ , one only has to position his or her chin at floor level to enjoy a standing person’s sightlines and “feel” the space as if actually in the room.

There may come a time when a digital 3-D image of a room interior, with the ability to easily experiment with the appearance of a proposed pipe organ, will become possible. But computers, as we know them, require us to tell them with precision what we want to see. The physical scale model encourages much the opposite: as we test our sometimes dearly-held notions of what may be correct, the results can be surprisingly unappealing and one is instantly drawn to trying other options. The design process is complex, and achieving a balance of mechanical, acoustical, and aesthetic factors requires consensus among clients and design team. In this we find the physical model once again proves its worth.

In the end, the scale model was the true author of the Christ Church organ and room modification designs. It guided us to many solutions, such as lifting the Erben case about 30″ on a new but formally paneled base, with confidence in how the upper case elements such as the large urns and center lyre with starburst would look relative to the vaulted ceiling. It enabled us to gain approval for the Chaire division on the gallery rail, and then to proportion its casework, position it fore and aft as well as vertically relative to the railing, develop its shape from a number of compartmental options, and fine-tune the scaling of the cornices, carvings, and even the under-paneling details.

Additionally, the model proved an effective tool in our close collaboration with Christopher Miller of Milner Architects, the church committees and, significantly, the Philadelphia regulatory agencies. Christopher’s wealth of experience and his careful shepherding of the many facets of the project through these various governances were invaluable. He carefully altered the radius of the newly reconstructed bow-front gallery rail to add floor space for the choir around a detached console and to neatly engage the side panels of the Chaire case. He also developed a system of removable panels, while preserving the classical elements of the original railing design, so that the sounds from the organ’s Pedal division (located in the lower case), as well as choir members and instrumentalists, would not be impeded by what had been a solid rail.

Chaire carving detail

It has often been said that the best compliment that one can give to the appearance of a new pipe organ in a period room is that it looks “as if it had always been there.” Similarly, one hopes that the nuanced and vocal voicing of this instrument on relatively low wind pressures (2¼” water column for the manuals), and especially the Chaire division, will delight the ear and reinforce the illusion that this organ is uniquely suited to its home. The goal we sought is harmony in all the elements, which is a high bar to achieve. We must leave it for others to judge whether we have succeeded.

Charles Nazarian is visual designer for C.B. Fisk Inc., Gloucester, Massachusetts

In memory of Esther Cupps Wideman, student of and advocate for the classical pipe organ and its literature.

On behalf of Christ Church and our many supporters, I am thrilled to welcome C.B. Fisk Opus 150 into our community and the world. In 2015, a generous lead gift from the late Philadelphia organist Esther Wideman, bolstered by a matching challenge grant from the Bodine family, allowed us to contract with Fisk for a comprehensive three-manual organ to be incorporated into the existing 1837 organ case by Henry Erben. The Esther Wideman Memorial Organ has afforded us the opportunity to position the pipework out of the church’s tower space into the nave proper, elevate the Swell and Great to a better acoustical placement, and build a Chaire division into the gallery rail. Fisk has created an instrument of greater clarity, warmth, tonal variety, and sweeping grandeur than could have been imagined previously. With the Chaire and Great choruses playing off each other, complemented by a super-expressive Swell, Opus 150 is an absolute joy on which to lead hymns and improvise during services, and it is equally at home with repertoire from the Baroque era to the Symphonic/Romantic tradition, to the present day.

We also took the opportunity during our construction period to re-imagine the west gallery as a space more conducive to music making for singers and instrumentalists gathered around the organ. A more streamlined console with a lower profile, combined with an open rail and a new hardwood floor surface, has made it much easier to lead our choirs from the console, and for them to be able to hear each other and be heard from below. At the center of it all, the organ just radiates beauty, both visually and sonically.

Per Esther Wideman’s vision, this organ is intended as much for the public to enjoy as for our own congregation. To that end a number of dedicatory events are planned this spring, culminating the weekend of May 5–6, which will feature a recital by Alan Morrison and festive Evensong. A weekly recital series will begin shortly thereafter. Later in the summer we are hosting an AGO Pipe Organ Encounter, a week of learning and discovery for young organists. In the fall, a newly commissioned work by the International Contemporary Ensemble will feature Opus 150 during the Philly Fringe Festival. These are just some of the ways that we are celebrating a truly great instrument worthy of the great public space that is Christ Church.

Parker Kitterman
Director of Music and Organist

Chaire carvings by Morgan Faulds Pike

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