The Pipes of May

Spring concert features newly refurbished organ

The three-keyboard Wicks organ at St. John in the Wilderness has just undergone an extensive refurbishment.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

When the organ at St. John in the Wilderness bursts forth for this month’s American Guild of Organists concert, it will mark the return of the church’s Wicks organ, a three-keyboard (or “three manual”) instrument that’s just undergone an extensive refurbishment. “I’ve been familiar with this organ for many years,” says organist Howard Bakken, who’s been playing since he was a teenager. “I can assure you it’s a far different instrument with its improvements.”

The work was carried out by fellow organist Dan Angerstein, who relocated his Angerstein Organ Works to Hendersonville from New England some years ago. The Wicks organ’s original configuration had three sets of pipe chambers, called divisions, but only two keyboards to control them; and although church organists over the years learned to deal with the odd arrangement, the passage of time inevitably produced issues with the quality of sound, or voicing, produced by each pipe. Among the problems were an uneven supply of air to the pipes and a host of mechanical problems that needed attention. 

“When Dan Angerstein came across a used three-manual insert that fit into the existing console, he enabled each division of the organ to have its own manual, simplifying everything,” explains Bakken.

Organs are famously challenging instruments to master. There’s the coordination required between hands on the keys and feet on the pedals, for one thing, along with the delay between activating a key and the sound produced. The organist must read the music simultaneously from three staves — one each for the pedal, bass, and treble notes — manipulate stops in different arrangements to coordinate the sound from the divisions of pipes, and, while playing choral works, maintain an even tempo for a choir that may be in another area entirely of a reverberating church.

The Wicks organ is one of a series of relatively small, affordable instruments produced since the early 20th century by the Illinois-based company. The founding three Wicks brothers — a watchmaker, a cabinet maker, and a jeweler — built their first pipe organ in 1908 for a local church whose old reed-based organ had broken down. Today, Wicks organs are popular with smaller, rural churches like St. John in Flat Rock, that have both limited space and resources.

The May concert at St. John is the latest in a series of annual recitals offered by members of the American Guild of Organists, founded in 1896. “The AGO event has moved each time,” explains Bakken, who serves as treasurer for the Blue Ridge AGO chapter. “We’ve been at Holy Cross in Tryon, Cavalry in Fletcher, First United Methodist in Hendersonville,” he lists. 

Among the works to be performed is the Toccata from “Suite for Organ” by Florence Price, the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Price’s work, published in the mid 20th century, gained modern recognition after additional manuscripts were discovered in 2009.

Her music is played more every year, and aligns with the theme of “renewal” that made “it appropriate to [hold this year’s concert] at St. John in the Wilderness,” says Bakken.

The Blue Ridge chapter of the American Guild of Organists will hold its annual members’ recital for the public on Tuesday, May 3, 7:15pm at the Episcopal Church of St. John in the Wilderness (1895 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock). Free. For more information, see blueridgeago.org or “Blue Ridge Ago” on Facebook.

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