Sunday, June 10, 2007

The King of Instruments at Nativity of St Paul: A sound sacred, and big

The children at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul love to drill Steve Rosenberg about the 2,882 pipes he can command at his fingertips.

What's the lowest note? What's the highest note?

Rosenberg, an organist for 37 years, will fiddle with the knobs on the church's new pipe organ and perform a monstrous, guttural sound - like a Jabba the Hutt belch. Then he'll press another key to play a faint whistle mostly audible to dogs and dolphins.

"I can't even hear that," remarked the Macalester-Groveland church's priest [priest? How 'bout "pastor?" Apparently reporters and editors at the PPD don't know much about religion.], the Rev. Peter Christensen, on a recent morning. "Can you hear that?"

It's no wonder members of one of the most prominent Catholic parishes in town are so intrigued by their new set of pipes. They've been waiting for one just like this for nearly 70 years.

Even as many churches like Nativity are opting for contemporary guitars and bongo drums [I don't believe I've ever heard a guitar at Nativity, and certainly not a bongo drum!] for their worship services, they're also investing in one of the world's oldest instruments. The resurgence has convinced national organ expert Michael Barone that "a new golden age for the organ" is here.
Nativity's organ, made by Cassavant Freres in Quebec, might be more modest but is nonetheless an incredible gift for the church. It cost more than $1 million to purchase and install the instrument. Parishioners Eugene and Faye Sitzmann, of St. Paul, funded the project in late 2004.

The Sitzmanns did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but a Nativity newsletter reported that the couple hoped their gift would "continue the fine tradition at Nativity of giving thanks and praise for the honor and glory of God ... in gratitude for our blessings through music."

The Cassavant replaces Nativity's original organ, which was installed shortly after the church was built during the Depression. Rosenberg recalls it suffered from a brittle tone and sticking notes during which the organ seemed to be playing with a life of its own.

During one of those episodes, the offending noise so irritated a former priest that he interrupted his own service to holler across the pews, "Steve, would you turn that thing off."

The church sold it for about $5,000, which barely covered the costs to remove it.

That set the church on an "unhappy journey with temporary electronic replacement organs," Rosenberg said. The first died after nine months. A second would fall silent during key parts of a performance - "generally timed for maximum embarrassment."

The new organ is five times the size of the old one, boasting nearly 3,000 pipes. It started its journey in Quebec, where it was meticulously built over a year and a half. Then it was disassembled and trucked to St. Paul.

Last Halloween, it arrived in pieces at Nativity, where Cassavant craftsmen reconstructed the organ over several weeks. Then it was tuned and voiced for several weeks. It will be dedicated today, and nationally known organist Ken Cowan will perform at its inaugural recital June 17.

When Rosenberg started to play the organ for the first time, he heard himself produce holy music the way it was intended.

"It was a revelation," he said, "that this would be a very fine organ."

Laura Yuen can be reached at or 651-228-5498.

Facts About Nativity's Organ

  • Made by Cassavant Freres in Quebec
  • Cost about $1.1 million to purchase and install
  • 2,882 pipes, ranging from 6 inches to 16 feet long
  • Span of nine octaves
  • 70 knobs
  • 32 pedals
  • 183 keys
  • If You Go

    Nativity of Our Lord will dedicate its new organ at 11 a.m. today. Nationally known organist Ken Cowan will perform at its inaugural recital at 7:30 on June 17. Nativity is at Stanford and Prior avenues in St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Online: Hear The New Organ In An Audio Slide Show At Twincities.Com. Pioneer Press


    Anonymous said...

    The Pioneer Press allows its readers to comment on articles at its website. When I read the article earlier today, I was expecting some comments along the line of "they should give the money to the poor instead of spending it on an organ". Instead, the only comment was something along the line of "congratulations, it's too bad such a fine instrument will be subjected to the music of Haas and Haugen".

    I just checked and I see there are no comments, or ability to comment, associated with the article. I wonder what happened? Technical glitch, heated debate, or Haas and Haugen threatening to sue?

    swissmiss said...

    I've been to Mass at Nativity recently, a few times before the organ dedication. I just wish, among all the items you mentioned...keys, pipes, knobs, etc., that it had a volume control ;} The music is SO LOUD that I can't even hear my kids talking (good thing) and can't even hear myself singing (bad thing?, maybe a good thing, too!)

    Cathy_of_Alex said...

    Bongo drums! The author just identified, to me, what "Catholic" parish they've been too.

    smissmiss: LOL!

    anonymous: Haas and Haugen have their fans. Someone at the PP must be one of them.