January 19, 2018
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Maine’s first organ institute hopes to spark enthusiasm for instrument

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Kevin Birch | BDN
Kevin Birch | BDN
Johan Halvorsen prepares to play the E. & G.G. Hook pipe organ at St. John Catholic Church. Halvorsen, 16, of Guilford likes playing the organ because "it has so much color." He will participate in the Maine Historic Organ Institute later this month.

Johan Halvorsen has two sets of friends — his Guilford friends and his organ friends.

That’s because Halvorsen, 16, is one of a small group of teenagers in the state who plays historic pipe organs. He has been taking organ lessons for six years but finds the instrument very different from the other ones he plays, including the piano and viola.

“It allows for so much color and combinations of colors that is just so unique to the organ,” he said recently. “It’s really intriguing.”

Maine’s aging organists need a lot more people like Halvorsen to replace them, according to a recent study. The vast majority of historic organs are located in churches where attendance is dwindling. If the organs are going to survive they need to be maintained and played to ensure that moving parts, including keys, pedals, stops and wind system keep moving, experts have said.

The American Guild of Organists found in a 2015 survey that more than half of its members reported serving 31 years or more as organists at churches. Most members were in their mid-50s to mid-70s, USA Today reported earlier this year.

“In the next two decades, current Boomer members will ‘age out’ of the AGO, with strikingly few younger members able to ‘take their place,’” the report warned.

Local chapters of the AGO also reported declining membership, USA today said. Membership decreased from 18,367 in 2007 to 14,880 just before Easter 2017.

The aging of church organists in Maine is one of the reasons Kevin Birch, organist at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor, helped organize the Maine Historic Organ Institute to be held Oct. 24 – 28. The event also will mark the 25th anniversary of the St. John’s Organ Society.

“The institute brings together a team of nationally-acclaimed organ teachers, scholars and organ builders with students of the organ — from high school and college level to advanced professionals — for a week of study and performance on distinguished vintage organs in our area,” Birch said.

Birch is recognized internationally for his expertise in the playing and history of the instruments made by E.&G.G. Hook of Boston, which made the organ at St. John’s on York Street and the one recently restored and installed at Hammond Street Congregational Church.

The institute is the first of its kind in Maine. It will feature organists and organ builders from throughout New England and beyond. It will allow students to work with teachers they’ve never met before.

“As teachers, performers and organ builders, we are indebted to our mentors and all who encouraged us to learn more about these cultural treasures,” Birch said Sunday. “We are so pleased to share our admiration and passion for historical organs with a new generation.”

The institute also will include lectures, master classes, tours of organs in Bangor, Bucksport, Blue Hill, Hampden and Stockton Springs. Each day Tuesday through Friday with a concert at 7:30 p.m.

Sarah Johnson, 23, of Garland is coming home from Boston University, where she is working on her master’s degree in sacred music, for the institute.

“The best part of playing an organ is the different sounds you get from the instrument,” she said Sunday. “It allows for a lot of creativity and a whole range of expression.”

For information on the institute, visit http://hookopus288.net/maine-historic-organ-institute/ or call 217-6740.


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