PORTLAND, Maine — “This hasn’t seen daylight since 1875,” Nick Orso said, lifting the hood of a creaky wooden organ in his Portland workshop and extracting a dusty reed. The thin sliver that gives the instrument its pitch is one of a thousand pieces he’ll buff and rebuild.
Orso is one of Greater Portland’s last organ repairmen, and he’s on a mission to save the musical instruments from disrepair and discontinuity.
An essential part of churches, organs unite the congregation. In medieval times churches were considered shelters for organs.
Emblematic of another age, organs and their distinctive sound, once prevalent in ballparks, skating rinks and “The Lawrence Welk Show,” have largely been swept aside by loud pop music. And most home pipe organs have become relics sequestered in mansions.
The bulk of Orso’s work is getting church organs back in shape. The 70-year-old approaches each job like a surgeon. He notates the ailing parts and their extremities, snaps photos and plans the steps to recovery. Orso’s three-ring binder on works-in-progress — such as the State Theatre’s epic Wurlitzer — bulges with details. He works on turn-of-the century organs housed at Bowdoin College, in old farmhouses and in chapels and cathedrals from Kittery to Millinocket.
Like a doctor, Orso even makes house calls. Arriving with a red tool box, which includes dentist-like tools, and a spatula for prying open compartments, Orso repairs, rebuilds and tunes electronic, reed and pipe organs back to their original condition, inside and out.
Some jobs are triage, but many are akin to historic restoration.
“Every piece of material has to be just like it was when it was made. You can’t use anything updated,” said Orso, who works with churches listed with the historic registry. “Everything about them has to be original.”
That means crafting a new leg, if need be, repairing felt supports and sourcing or simulating ivory.
At the Limerick Free Baptist Church, Orso made a forlorn pipe organ play again after 20 years of near silence. Parishioners were enraptured, said Don Kent, who served on the church’s music committee a year and and half ago, when Orso was called in to rebuild the organ.
Over at the First Congregational Church of Bridgton Maine, a similar tale is told.
“Nick is an artist,” said Joe Devito, who hired Orso to restore the church’s 1930 Estey organ. “He does not settle for anything but perfection.”
After working on the church’s ailing organ from June to December last year, Orso had the instrument humming like new in time for Christmas Eve. At the service, parishioners cheered and cried as the organ thundered back to life with verve.
As one of a handful of organ repairmen left in southern Maine — there’s Faucher Organ Company in Biddeford and David E. Wallace & Co. in Gorham — Orso stands out for his solo dedication. He doesn’t build organs; he repairs, restores and modernizes them.
In the hands of this master organ repairman, no instrument is too grand or too average. Plying this hands-on trade in Portland for 40 years, Orso has been in and out of churches with more frequency than some clergy.
“If it’s in a church and plays music, I’ve probably worked on it,” Orso said inside his workshop, a three-car garage attached to his modest home off Brighton Avenue.
The work and income are steady, even though he doesn’t advertise or have a website, and relies on word of mouth to find clients.
But he fears his chosen trade’s future is endangered. When the septuagenarian puts down his tuning knife, who will pick it up?
“An organ is becoming as extinct as my work. The churches are keeping me going,” he said.
The next generation
Orso hates the phrase “dying breed,” but he knows that’s just what he is — especially in largely rural Maine. Cities like New York, with large cathedrals housing majestic organs, require regular repair and there is plenty of work.
Here in Maine, not all churches have the resources to restore organs. Last Easter the Hammond Street Congregational Church in Bangor debuted a refurbished pipe organ that had not been played in 60 years. The $193,000 job was a cause for celebration.
Learning the ropes took Orso 2½ years. Youth today don’t have that kind of time. School schedules are packed. There is no glamour in his craft and little cool tech involved. Unlike farming, organ work has not undergone a do-it-yourself renaissance.
He’s tried to entice the next generation of Maine repairmen and has struck out time after time.
“I went to job fairs and not a single student came to my table. They don’t know what an organ is. So what’s the appeal? Maybe if I was a computer repairman I’d get more interest,” Orso said. “How many kids growing up have an organ in their house?”
He has approached vocational schools to teach the subject. No luck. “There aren’t any schools to learn this trade, but there are people still buying brand new pipe organs,” he said.
The market for custom pipe organs has slowed as churches disappear and the cost of the instruments rises — but the industry will likely survive, according to Matthew Bellocchio, project team leader for Andover Organ Company in Massachusetts.
He is the past president of the American Institute of Organbuilders, an association that holds training seminars across the country on organ repair. Another outfit, the American Guild of Organists teaches teenagers the ins and outs of organ repair, Bellocchio said.
“There are young people entering the industry, and that will continue because people will always buy diamonds,” he said. “Though there is a lot of Cubic Zirconia, a diamond is a serious investment,” just like an organ.
As long as musicians still take a shine to the instrument, guys like Orso will fix them.
“It’s not in my genes to really retire,” Orso said. “My father worked until he died.”
Tuning into a career
The Syracuse, New York, native became fascinated by organs at an early age. While attending parochial school, he watched with intrigue as its church organ was repaired, he said.
Instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a car mechanic, he had a four-year career as an electronics repairman in the Air Force. He worked on B-52s being sent to Germany.
When he returned from service in his early 20s, Orso experienced an organ epiphany.
It was an idle weekday when his parents asked him to let in an organ repairman to work on their home instrument. Watching with awe as the man plied his trade, the engrossed Orso was soon transported back to that day at school and hatched a new plan.
He started an apprenticeship as a backup, “in case I couldn’t fly forever,” he recalled. Organ apprenticing by day and attending flight school well into the night, Orso learned the arduous trade of making these instruments come to life again.
But flying 25 days a month for steel companies took its toll on his marriage.
When he moved to Maine in 1977 with his wife, a Yarmouth native who wanted to return, she issued an ultimatum: “It’s me or the airplane,” she told him. So Orso got a job at Knapp’s Music Store on Forest Avenue as a service manager. In 1982, he set up his own organ repair business.
The career, which calls on all his woodworking, welding and problem solving skills, has kept him rapt ever since. He’s watched parishioners brought to tears when he’s resurrected an organ that had been mute for 40 years.
If Orso retired, Kent of Parsonsfield, who hired Orso to repair a home reed organ, would be hard-pressed to find someone to fill his shoes. “I’m not not sure who we would get at this point,” he said. “Hopefully he won’t retire any time soon. It would not be good.”