The Mary Waterman Memorial Organ in Christ Chapel was dedicated Thursday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. with a ceremony and recital by an expert guest organist.
“It’s important to have a dedication because of the sacred nature of the music that gets played on it,” said Jim Holleman, music department chair and director of the choirs and orchestra. “There’s going to be a blessing, and it’s just a chance to celebrate that we did something really special here.”
The visiting organist, Nathan Laube, is part of the organ faculty at Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Stuttgart, Germany, and an international consultant in organ studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in England.
According to a review of one of his concerts in the Dallas Morning News, Laube is “universally acclaimed as one of the most brilliant organists on the concert circuit, with an encyclopedic knowledge of different organ-building traditions and performance practices.”
Preceding the recital, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn and Chaplain Adam Rick will make remarks.
The organ, which is an integral part of Christ Chapel’s design, was constructed by Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders, LLC in collaboration with the chapel’s article. Fritts built several other organs in the Midwest, including the one at Notre Dame University’s basilica and Oberlin College’s conservatory of music.
“This was a custom built instrument, designed for Christ Chapel for the space and for the specific way we use it,” Holleman said. “It’s a million-dollar instrument, so it’s just very unique. It’s not every school in the country that puts in an organ like this, or even churches just because of the sheer cost, and it’s getting to be a little bit of a dying art. A lot of schools have dropped their organ programs, where we’re building one.”
The organ was installed before the chapel was completed and dedicated in November 2019. There were plans to have a special dedication for the organ last spring, but it was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Holleman said. This will be the instrument’s first solo performance, though it has already been used in the religious services and orchestra and choir performances in the Chapel.
Having a special recital by an expert musician for an organ’s first performance is a tradition that goes back to the 17th century, said Assistant Professor of Music and Organist Derek Stauff. The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was often asked to be the first to perform on new organs and give feedback on the instrument. Laube has performed inaugural concerts on several Paul Fritts organs.
“It’s a very common standard that a new installation of an organ will have an organ recital,” Stauff said. “That chapel dedication featured a lot of different things and it was for the entire building. The organ was ready for that, though there was a little bit of tweaking that they’ve done since then, but nothing the average person would notice. It makes sense that there would be an event here on campus to dedicate it with an official recital.”
This organ was designed to fit Hillsdale’s exact needs, which required the instrument to be able to both accompany choir and orchestra, as well as suited to solo works. It has manual stops, which control the air flow to different sets of pipes, but also a computer system that can electronically control the changes.
The combination of manual and electric makes the instrument’s functionality failsafe, though Stauff said he tends to perform with the electric control since manual would require multiple people to operate it during a performance.
“There are things that are very modern to it, and that gives us the best of both worlds,” Stauff said. “In terms of the actual sound of the instrument, it tends to be rooted in German instruments of the late 17th and early 18th century. These kinds of stops tend to be versatile and able to accommodate a lot of repertoire.”
The organ’s design was also designed to complement the acoustics of Christ Chapel. Junior Clare Kearns, who studies organ performance, said that the acoustics are almost too good.
“It’s a huge blessing and a ton of fun to play, especially because the acoustics in the room are really spectacular,” she said. “It makes everything you play sound better, so it isn’t always great for practicing because it covers over some of my mistakes.”
Stauff credits the organ’s builders, Paul Fritts & Co., for the brilliant acoustics.
“It’s the space in which it’s in that really makes the instrument work, but I think this builder would make anything sound well,” Stauff said. “He and his crew have proven themselves over the years to know how to make an instrument fit a particular space.”
Though the dedication will be the latest in a centuries-old tradition, Holleman stressed how special this opportunity is.
“I would just encourage students to come because this is a very unique opportunity,” he said. “There are very few opportunities like this to hear a performer of this level, playing an instrument of this magnitude in a space this magnificent.”
But if students and staff can’t make the dedication tonight, there may be another chance in the future. Another chapel organ, which will be larger and live in the back loft, will be installed in 2022 or 2023.