Organ celebration to pull out all the stops
Festive Choral Evensong and Organ Recital
4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27
Grace Episcopal Church, 926 Lake St., Oak Park.
For information and directions, visit www.GraceOakPark.org
Updated: January 23, 2013 5:54PM
How do you say happy anniversary to a church pipe organ?
By playing it, of course, and massing all the choirs in the church for a concert that literally pulls out all the stops.
Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park is doing just that next Sunday afternoon, when an Evensong will be presented in honor of the 90th anniversary of its Casavant Organ, Opus 940, which boasts 76 ranks, 61 stops and 4,648 pipes and dates from 1922.
“Ours is one of the 10 largest organs in the Chicago metropolitan area,” said Dennis Northway, who has a doctorate in Choral Conducting from Northwestern University, but bears the modest title of Parish Musician at Grace. “Plus, our church has 350 seats, so ours is also the largest institutional organ for the smallest seating capacity.”
Northway leads a number of ensembles at Grace, including the Schola with about 55 children; the Madrigal Singers, with 20 high school students, and an adult choir of 25 voices. The church also has a Movement Choir with about half a dozen members who take part in liturgical dance, and an ensemble called Strings of Grace, for people who, as Northway puts it, ‘like to fiddle around.” There is also a Cherub Choir with singers as young as 18 months.
This English Gothic Revival church was designed by architect John Sutcliffe in 1898 to resemble St. Paul’s Knightsbridge, London, built in 1839.
In 1922 the vision for a great organ originated with Grace Church member Albert Cotsworth, a descendant of the Episcopal Church’s first American bishop Bishop Samuel Seabury. A pipe organ aficionado, Cotsworth chaired the music committee at Grace. He collaborated with the church organist and choirmaster, an Englishman named George Clark, who just happened to be a sales representative for the Casavant Pipe Organ Company in Quebec, Canada.
No less than the internationally renowned French organist Marcel Dupre gave its inaugural concert Dec. 28, 1922. The famed composer and teacher, who has been called the “Paganini of the organ,” returned again in 1947 to celebrate the instrument’s 25th year.
Mezzo-soprano Nancy Smiley of River Forest is a member of Grace Episcopal and has been in Northway’s Adult Choir for 15 years. “Before joining the choir, I met Dennis when we were both singing all over town,” she said.
“I’ve sung with many conductors and Dennis is the best of the best,” she said. “He is a regular Pied Piper with the children. They can just feel his love of music,”
Northway has written more than 200 compositions, and four will be sung at Evensong: “Seek God who made the Pleiades,” and “Opening Preces,” plus a settings of Psalm 100 “Jubilate Deo,” and Simeon’s Canticle “Nunc Dimittis.”
Baritone Cliff Hunt of Oak Park is impressed with the number of professional singers who are part of the Adult Choir. “I have enjoyed singing all my life, but mostly pop songs. I was never a professional,” he said. “I joined the choir about 12 years ago when I was 68 years old. My wife and I were walking by Grace on one of the Village Days. The doors were open and Dennis was playing the organ. It was just beautiful, so we walked in.
“Dennis gets so much out of us,” he continued. “I am especially impressed with his handling of the children. He never has to tell them to be quiet or settle down. I wish he had been my music teacher when I was in high school.”
Indeed, through the years, Northway has been a significant influence on young choristers.
For example, three young people who were or are in the Madrigal singers are seriously considering careers as parish musicians. Madeleine Woodworth, 16, who attends the Chicago Academy for the Arts, began singing in Grace’s Cherub Choir at 18 months. She learned violin through the Suzuki Method and also played piano.
As a member of the Strings of Grace, Woodworth was once asked to play a part written for organ. She enjoyed it and at the suggestion of Northway, who was a former Dean of the Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, she attended the organization’s Pipe Organ Encounter Class.
Since then she has gone to the guild’s classes in Wheaton, St. Louis, Sioux Falls and Colorado Springs. Though she has played many different organs and finds performing empowering, she loves the Casavant at Grace most. The number of stops are daunting, she admitted, but declared, “It is its own orchestra and because the organ is built into the space, the player is in control of every sound wave in the room.”
Charles Carpenter, 20, has been a musician at Grace for four years. He had excelled at the piano and when he met Northway, he immediately fell in love with the pipe organ at Grace. “I love the power of the organ, the beauty of the music,” he said. “I love all the different sounds the organ makes, (especially) the trumpets, oboes, clarinet and flutes.”
Adam Gruber, 20, is in his second year at Oberlin College. “I don’t remember what started me on the organ,” he said. “I played piano since I was eight and knew all along that I wanted to play the organ. What intrigues me is the variety of sounds. It’s limitless. This organ (at Grace) has a great dynamic range.”
“This organ has been used faithfully by the congregation over all its 90 years,” concluded Northway. “That is something we must to celebrate.”