Bangor landmark turns 150; series of concerts to mark event

Posted Oct. 03, 2010, at 5:52 p.m.

Unless you’re a parishioner at St. John Catholic Church on York Street in Bangor, you might not know that there’s something huge, old and magnificent located just outside of downtown Bangor.

Just over 35 feet high and containing nearly 2,000 pipes, the E.&G.G. Hook’s Opus 288 pipe organ is a monumental musical instrument and a still very much playable slice of New England history, which this year has its 150th anniversary. Though the church itself is a landmark, a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture that’s even more beautiful inside than out, Opus 288 is one of the finest pre-Civil War organs in the country and a landmark in its own right.

In 1860, Boston-based brothers Elias and George G. Hook installed the organ, at the time the height of musical technology and the 288th of the more than 600 organs the brothers would make. One hundred fifty years ago, it cost the church $4,000, and it was delivered to Bangor from Boston by steamship. The E.& G.G. Hook company was renowned during the latter half of the 19th century as the best organ maker in the world.

“Organs like this tell us a lot about the culture that existed at the time it was made,” said Kevin Birch, music director at St. John’s and founder of the St. John’s Organ Society. “It shows what kind of city Bangor was back then, that it was a rival to Boston. It was a major acquisition, for the city and for the church. It’s like having a Stradivarius. It’s like Tiffany glass. It’s the best of its kind.”

One of the reasons Birch moved to Maine from Massachusetts nearly 20 years ago to work at St. John’s was the opportunity to work with the organ. For someone like Birch, working with an organ like the Opus 288 is like a chef having nothing but the finest-quality ingredients to cook with every day.

“It’s an exquisite instrument,” said Birch. “It’s a joy, for me, to work with it.”

To celebrate the organ’s 150th anniversary, Birch has organized a program called “A Hook Holiday,” a four-day series of concerts, lectures and a daylong bus tour of other organs in the state that starts tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 5, and runs through Friday, Oct. 8. Organ players, scholars and enthusiasts from all over the country will visit organs in Bucksport, Stockton Springs, Belfast and Augusta.

“It’s quite a mix of people,” said Birch. “There are professional organists, scholars, students, experts in 19th century organ building, and contemporary organ builders. The organ is still an exciting medium, even if it often is in more academic settings.”

They will attend organ concerts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at St. John’s, and at the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Though the tour itself is booked up, the evening concerts are free and open to the public, though donations are appreciated.

“Not everyone knows that this is here, even though it’s been here for 150 years,” said Birch. “I think people walk into the church and just kind of go, ‘Wow.’ It’s a real gem. It’s worth just coming into the church and seeing it. It was clearly designed with the look of the church in mind, so it reflects the architecture and harmo-nizes with the space.”

Starting three years ago, Birch began a process of restoring the organ, working with Robert Newton of the Andover Organ Co. in Methuen, Mass., to painstakingly recondition and groom each pipe. From the large ones visible on the outside of the machine to the tiny, inches-long pipes arranged deep inside the instrument, it’s a complex process for a complex machine.

Standing in front of the organ on the upper level of the church, you see the many white knobs above and to the side of the keyboard, each labeled with a different musical instrument that the particular knob reflects. Names of familiar instruments such as the piccolo, flute and oboe are written on some of the knobs alongside lesser-known ones such as the viola di gamba or celestina. The craftsmanship and intricacy of the pipes, knobs, pedals, keys and other mechanisms on the 1860 organ are fascinating to look at. It’s quite a machine.

“Even after all these years, I find different combinations of sounds on this organ,” said Birch. “It’s always interesting. It’s pretty amazing to think that this is essentially how it sounded 150 years ago.”

Tuesday’s 8 p.m. concert at St. John’s will feature organist Kevin Birch, the choirs of St. John’s and All Souls Congregational Church, and conductor Kay Byther Eames. Wednesday’s 7 p.m. concert at the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta will feature organist Gunter Kennel. Thursday’s 8 p.m. concert at St. John’s will feature organist Paul Tegel. Friday’s 8 p.m. concert at St. John’s will feature organist Dana Robinson. For information, visit www.hookopus288.org.

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