Benefit concert to restore historic organ at Congregational Church of Amherst

AMHERST – Driving through the center of Amherst Village one can’t help notice the imposing presence of the Congregational Church, an iconic New England meetinghouse dates that to 1774.

Without having been inside though, people might not be aware of an old treasure within: the 1871 Johnson tracker organ, one of a limited number of instruments built in the second half of the 19th century, only a handful of which are still in use today.

Rather than using a more modern electric or pneumatic action, a tracker organ is entirely mechanical. Pressing keys on the keyboard opens valves that brings the wind through the pipes and creates the sound. Because of that, the instrument is affected by changes in temperature and aging and is difficult to maintain. It currently needs some urgent repairs and upgrades to remain operational.

To help raise some of the estimated $48,000 needed, the church is holding a benefit concert at 4 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 24.

“We are trying to preserve the historic instrument that has been part of the church and community for so long,” said the church’s organist Michael Havay, of Hollis. “It’s been here through life’s passages, weddings, funerals, baptisms. When anything gets of this age, it needs to be cared for to keep it working for now and for future generations.”

“A Harvest of Song” will feature music by Havay, vocals by Director of Music Sara Phelps, of Merrimack, and a special appearance by the Nashua Flute Choir, under the direction of Eileen Yarrison.

The Nashua Flute Choir, comprised of 16 flutes of various sizes, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary by commissioning a piece called “Bone, Wood, Silver and Granite” by Lisa LeMay. The piece celebrates the evolution of the flute through history and celebrates its diversity and presence in many cultures. The world premiere was in Newport in October, and members will perform the piece again in Amherst. The choir will also perform “Helen’s Backyard Critters” by John Cohen, an arrangement of Smetana’s “Moldau” and several other selections.

Havay will perform a movement from popular organ composer Charles Marie Widor’s “Organ Symphony” and “Suite Gothique” by Buellmann. Yarrison’s solo flute will join him for “Fantasy” by Gabriel Faure, and the organ and flute choir will combine for “How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings,” from the “Requiem” by Johannes Brahms and “Cantique de Jean Racine,” also by Faure.

Soprano Phelps will sing the aria “Voi Che Sapete” from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” with flutes, and “Une Flute Invisible” by Camille Saint-Saens, accompanied by organ and flute.

“I am looking forward to singing with Michael and with the Nashua Flute Choir,” Phelps said. “The support of our congregation and the community is very much appreciated as we continue to raise funds for the organ restoration. What better way than with a concert.”

Admission to the concert is free, however a good-will offering will be taken. For additional information on the concert, the organ or to donate online, go to www.cc amherst.org/music/.

Brief history of the organ

(Adapted from http://ccamherst.org/music/johnson-tracker-organ/)

The William A. Johnson Organ Company of Westfield, Mass., which later became Johnson & Son Organ Company, was a highly respected firm that built 860 pipe organs throughout the U.S., Canada and Bermuda between 1844 and 1892. All Johnson organs were completely mechanical (tracker action) organs, with Barker lever tracker-pneumatic actions utilized in larger organs after 1871.

William Johnson built the organ currently used in Amherst in 1871. Its design was different from contemporary organs that tended to have a heavy tone with pipes that “spoke without accent.” Those earlier organs also had pneumatic or electric action that required the player to be some distance from the pipes and, some felt, unable to control them.

Johnson designed a “tracker” organ in which pressing the keys causes a direct, mechanical action; opening valves to admit wind to separate note channels below the pipes and using a slider wind chest to move thin strips of wood that open and close the holes on which the pipes stand. Some say the action mimics the human voice.

The Johnson Tracker Organ was first used by the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro, Vt. Later, the organ was purchased by and moved to a Methodist church in Melrose, N.Y., just north of Albany. It was there that the Amherst church found it, with the help of the Organ Historical Society. Robert Reich, of Andover Organ Company, was hired to dismantle and move the organ from New York to Amherst.

But more help was needed. Over four hot days in September 1961, Joseph Perkins, of the Music Committee, along with Richard Smith, G. Winthrop Brown and Patrick McCreary, wrestled the organ onto a U-Haul trailer and made the long trip to Amherst, with two breakdowns along the way. Because time was needed to raise the $5,000 it would cost to install the organ, a large group of Amherst residents unloaded the organ and stored it in Honora Spaulding’s barn.

The organ was installed under the direction of the minister, Rev. Trudinger, himself an accomplished musician, and the organist, Mrs. Willis. They also selected the voicing, or tone, of the organ’s 1,260 pipes. The organ had its first performance providing music for selections from Handel’s “Messiah” during Christmas 1962. It was formally dedicated in January 1963 and has provided background and accompaniment for our congregation and choir since.