Custom-built organ nearly installed in Christ Church


A custom-built organ almost installed in Christ Church, considered one of the largest organs in the world

By Anne W. Semmes

The main chamber casing frame arrives requiring the full Harrison & Harrison crew plus volunteers. Photo by Joanne Booknight.

Since early January, two large containers that have traveled from England have arrived at Christ Church Greenwich, with a final third arriving at the end of this month. They contain the parts of what is planned to be one of the world’s great organs that will fill New England’s oldest Episcopal church with exuberant new sound. “Everyone is going to be blown away by how different this organ is,” shares Jonathan “Jonny” Vaughn, associate church music director, who will play on this organ and played a major role in its design.

“Jonny is one of the finest organists in the United States,” said George Belshaw, director of advancement and engagement at Christ Church, who leads the organ committee that began its search for a new organ in 2013. Belshaw and his research team Vaughn, musical director Jamie Hitel, and Philip Moore, the famous British musical director, will travel to the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, before deciding on the British firm Harrison & Harrison, based in Durham, which has to its credit the cathedral organs of Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, King’s College Cambridge and the Royal Festival Hall in London.

“The sound of this organ,” says Hitel, “will be revealing in our church.” It was Hitel who came to the Church in 2008 tasked with “essentially rebuilding the music program,” now a world-class RSCM-certified church music program. It comprises six choirs – of which the men’s and boys’ choir is the epitome of Anglican choral tradition – and surely all will be enhanced by the new organ.
“Part of the Anglican accompaniment tradition,” says Vaughn, “is to have orchestral colors on the organ. Thus, this instrument has more than four thousand five hundred pipes. The reason there are so many isn’t because you need that number, it’s to give variety… So some of the colors you’ll find in the new organ that weren’t in the old organ are the clarinet… the oboes, more than one, and there will be a French horn. There will be a tuber. Lots of flutes.

The many pieces of the new organ to fill the sanctuary of Christ Church Greenwich. Photo by Joanne Booknight.

Vaughn is literally going to “go all out.” “A stop sign is a row of pipes,” he explains, and “A stop sign is actually a color. A stop is how you control it. Playing with all these games, he says: “I am in fact a conductor.

All those stops and 4,639 pipes now en route in the third container, plus that Harrison & Harrison team of six hard-working men with their 12-hour shifts cost $3,500,000. They replace a now reused Austin organ that surprisingly had 1700 more pipes than the new one.

But it’s all about the acoustics, and the Christ Church sanctuary lacked that bass sound, so the new organ will have two chambers instead of one, as seen in the new structure on the right side of the chancel. Vaughn explains how “the large chancel arch really traps the sound that passes from the chancel to the nave. Thus, the new organ is designed in such a way that its sound can project is just in the choir [where the choir is located] or just in the nave or both. Thus, when we accompany the choir, we will only play in projection in the choir. And when we play for the nave (the congregation), we also project ourselves into the nave.

Harrison & Harrison crew on top of the first stage of the main chamber case slice in the east transect of Christ Church Greenwich. Photo by Joanne Booknight.

Part of the marvel of the construction of the Harrison & Harrison organ is that it was built over the last two years in Durham and then taken apart – its case structures, carved oak frames and soundboards reviews for the two organ chambers – before delivering them to the containers. As attracted by this marvel, dozens of parishioners, including major donors, volunteered to unload these containers.

“The significance of the project,” notes Belshaw, “is that we’re really investing in the future of our music program. Because an instrument of this caliber allows us to successfully train young singers, because this type of organ is designed to support the voice, not dominate it. It is designed to support young voices and trained exceptional singers. It also helps sustain the music program as it helps us track additional musicians, music directors, organists. You need a good instrument to have a good successor.

“After Easter is when the painstaking work of harmonizing begins,” Vaughn explains. “Harrisons lead voice Andrew Scott and associate Andrew Fiddes will listen to every pipe from the nave of the church and make fine adjustments to ensure the instrument sounds its best within the acoustics of Christ Church. This is their job from late April to early July.
“For Harrison &. Harrison,” adds Vaughn, “This will be their flagship American instrument. They go as far as they can to make sure this instrument is a perfect fit.

Vaughn wowed: “The sound of the new organ will kind of hug you when you try to sing along. It’ll sound really rich – there’s a ton of bass.

We enter the nave of the church. Vaughn leads the way, pointing out the locations of the two new organ rooms, while Harrison’s team on ladders busy themselves lying in the elegantly carved frame of the east transept. He asks Rob, a worker from Harrison, what kind of wood the frame is made of. Oak is the answer. Rob is part of the same team that pre-fab the frame and is installing it now.
“We talked about it in the abstract,” Vaughn says. “And then you come here, you can really see the progress.” Progress needs to be made before the final container arrives. “And that’s when the pipes come in that Vaughn calls ‘the soul of the instrument’.

“It will be really exciting for me,” he concludes, “because I lived with just a list of milestones for three years. And these things are going to happen in a few weeks. I’ll carry them in a tray – these different stops – and I’ll know what it is.
A dedicated organ recital with the new Harrison & Harrison organ is scheduled for October 22, 2022.

Jaime Hitel, music program director for Christ Church, leads his choir of men and boys in the chancel beneath the new, up-and-coming organ chamber. Photo by Joanne Booknight.

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