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June 24, 2013

National Organ Society Convention Pipes Up in Vermont

Erben-Highgate_FallsIt's a good week to be an organ lover in Vermont. I'm not talking organ meat — though there's plenty of that to be had these days as well.

No, I'm talking about the National Convention of the Organ Historical Society, which begins today in Burlington. It's attracted more than 300 enthusiasts from all over the U.S. and even abroad, according to convention chair Marilyn Polson of Chelsea, who plays a 119-year-old historic instrument at the Bethany Church. The OHS, she explained, was founded in 1956 by people who wanted to raise awareness of and protect/restore 19th-century pipe organs.

It seems that in the 1950s, a craze for playing Baroque music resulted in some of the instruments being altered in ways that I can't explain — something to do with high-pitched stops. In a phone conversation, Polson was indulgent of my organ ignorance, but was firm in her assertion that "19th-century pipe organs are so listener-friendly!"

In addition to intentional alterations, she said, many organs at churches have simply suffered from "benign neglect," as maintenance and repairs are likely not in the general budget.

The five-day convention will give participants plenty of opportunities to geek out ("We love to talk organ," Polson quipped), including day trips on tour buses to rural churches in 14 central and northern Vermont towns that have exceptional examples of said instruments. Those are Randolph, Williamsburg, Northfield, Montpelier, Stowe, Hardwick, Greensboro, Cabot, Plainfield, St. Albans, Highgate Falls, Vergennes, Richmond and Sheldon.

In the picture above is an 1837 organ built by Henry Erben, at St. John's Church, Episcopal, in Highgate Falls. Erben also built the most senior instrument on the OHS tour, at Grace Episcopal Church in Sheldon. It's 180 years old. Polson said that organ once lived at St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington — but long before the church's original structure burned down.

Evening recitals in Burlington, featuring players locally, nationally and internationally known, are open to the public. Tonight's recital, with Joan Lippincott, is on the C.B. Fisk organ at the UVM Recital Hall. The Fisk is a relative youngster, built in 1976.

The only other non-church organ on the tour is the Geo. S. Hutchings model, built in 1884 and later altered, at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. It's housed in a former chapel — the campus started out as a seminary, Polson noted. The recitalist there, on Wednesday night, will be Paul Tegels.

If you're interested in hearing some fine organ playing, you can find the schedule here. A $20 donation is requested per recital.

Polson said the OHS convention has been in Vermont once before, but it was way back in 1972, in Woodstock. Her first convention was in 2007, at which, she recalled, "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."

It's easy to see what makes an organist happy. Asked what gets one mad, Polson offered this:

"We are unhappy with electronic imitations — especially when a church puts in an imitation instrument."

I also asked her who is the best organist in Vermont, but she diplomatically declined to go there. "We're all colleagues," Polson explained.

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