April 2016 TAO Cover Feature Article

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church
Carmel Valley, CA
Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Lake City, IA

By John A. Panning


Photo by John Chu

These days, it would be easy to believe that pipe organs have become trophy items, affordable only by large or significantly wealthy churches. There is a grain of truth to this. Hollowed out by elec­tronic imitations and shifting tastes in worship music, 
the market for pipe organs has changed. While our magazine covers continue to feature large, even enormous, instruments, the number of two-manual “normal church organs” that allowed The Diapason to print an annual issue devoted to their design is now much reduced. In particular, the promise once attached to mechanical-action instruments of modest size seems not to have lived up to the hopes of early partisans. Perhaps this is a welcome sign of the maturing of the art. One suspects that many early mechanical-action instruments were attractive to organ committees as much for their low cost as for any aesthetic advantages. Sadly, the casual construction represented by the low cost, the experimental nature of some of the mechanisms, and the whiplash-like stylistic changes of the last several decades have conspired to shorten the life of some of these instruments. For some, this may raise questions about the suitability of mechanical-action pipe organs in today’s worship settings.

And yet, despite today’s availability of things as varied as combination instruments and neo-symphonic unit organs, we believe the argument for tracker organs remains unassailable. Now, with more than half a century of experience, American mechanical-action organbuilders are creating instruments admired and commissioned by clients worldwide. While initially of greater cost than alternatives, we make no apology for craftsmanship; spread over the lifetime of a thoughtfully designed, artfully built, and beautifully voiced instrument, the modest effective cost remains a compelling argument for such an investment. And the joy to be found in the playing and hearing of a pipe organ built for the ages remains unparalleled.

It was this interest in something of long-lasting beauty and versatility that led the members of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church to commission a mechanical-action instrument from us. The spare but handsome building, designed by member Mel Blevens of Holewinski Blevens Fedelem & Lukes Architects in 1963, accurately reflects a parish of modest means but artistic vision. Never 
intended to house a pipe organ, St. Dunstan’s had been served by an increasingly cranky electronic, whose speakers front and back broadcast a confusing wash of sound. Fitted with carpet, inadequate lighting, and pews stained the color of asphalt, the church was not the most visually or aurally welcoming space.


John Streufert (L) scribing mouths on the feet; Bill Ayers (R) rounding the bodies of the tapered Nasard 2-2/3′

As we invariably find, enthusiasm about a new pipe organ generates enthusiasm generally. Our design for an organ standing front and center, together with recommendations from acoustician Robert Mahoney, encouraged the parish to beautify its worship space by removing the carpeting and staining the concrete floor, refinishing the pews, and installing new LED lighting. The revised altar platform, now deeper and constructed of solid concrete rather than noisy plywood, is sheathed in gorgeous sedimentary stone, quarried near Jerusalem, in which fossils can be seen. A new communion railing by general contractor Tim Scherer and an ambo by liturgical artist Jeff Tortorelli complete the chancel.

Standing behind all this, the organ makes a commanding statement that draws attention to the front of the church rather than overwhelming it. To accommodate the choir, seated to one side of the chancel, the organ console is placed on that end of the case. From this location, the organist can easily give direction to the choir while remaining abreast of activity in the nave.

Director of music Steven Denmark, an organ performance student of Ladd Thomas (1966–72), had long dreamed of the form the organ would take, and together we explored many stoplists. But his thinking was dramatically changed by a 2014 visit to the organ in St. Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, England. Installed in 1905 and attributed to Charles Mutin, the organ appears to contain older elements built by Mutin’s master, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Set within a small but acoustically stunning Gothic Revival chapel, this organ of only 14 voices makes an unforgettable impression, which I myself experienced during a visit shortly thereafter.

Randy Hausman fitting sliders to the Recit windchest

Randy Hausman fitting sliders to the Recit windchest

Encouraged by the possibilities on display in the Farnborough organ, essentially a one-manual instrument divided over two keyboards, the design of Opus 94 took a new turn. Although improved and now proportional to the space, the acoustic of St. Dunstan’s Church is but a pale shadow of that at Farnborough. However, a foundation-rich design as exemplified by the Farnborough organ is not only an appropriate response to a less-reverberant room but also a musically responsible choice for a parish with a traditional choral program. In Opus 94, nine of the manuals’ 15 stops are of 8′ pitch. For dynamic flexibility in both accompaniment and literature, the Plein Jeu and manual reeds stand within the Récit enclosure. Steve Denmark felt strongly that some sort of jeu de tierce registration should be present. There is no precedent in the work of Cavaillé-Coll for an independent Tierce, and when a stop of 22/3′ pitch was included, it was always a Quinte. We elected to make both mutations as flutes with strongly ascendant trebles, so that they function well with the principal-toned unisons. A Bourdon 16′ shared between Grand-Orgue and Pédale is a feature of most Cavaillé-Coll choir organs that I didn’t feel we could replicate here; the poor bass response of the church dictates a scale and treatment for the Pédale that would have muddied any manual texture.

Most of the pipes were built in our shop; the pipes of high tin alloy—the facade pipes, strings, and reeds—are the work of Killinger in Freiberg am Neckar, Germany. All are voiced on a wind pressure of 70 mm, regulated by a large, weighted, single-rise reservoir. The key action is balanced, running from the console to transverse rollers just above the floor that are fitted with crank arms for the pulldowns. While not a historic feature, the coupling manual offers useful registrational possibilities beyond the common II/I coupler.

The angled geometry of the church interior called for a similarly nontraditional case design. In the facade, the pipes of the Montre 8′ make a bold, sweeping gesture, echoed by slotted openings at the level of the manual windchests. The instrument’s white oak case 
is crowned by a sheltering roof whose slope parallels the ceiling above. Despite its modern appearance, the instrument is laid out in a traditional way, with the Grand-Orgue standing immediately in front of the Récit. The Pédale Soubasse pipes, painted our customary “Dobson red,” form a wall at the end of the case opposite the console. Mechanism is present for the eventual installation of a Pédale 16′ reed.

Randall Wolff fitting rollers for the mechanical key action

Randall Wolff fitting rollers for the mechanical key action

From the first, the members of St. Dunstan’s parish took an unusually active role in supporting the organ proj­ect, organizing creative fundraisers and spending many hours in renovation tasks. Central to this effort was the leadership of the Rev. Rob Fisher, rector of St. Dunstan’s, and Steve Denmark, who together worked tirelessly to generate interest in the project, not only from within the parish but also from the Monterey Peninsula community. Support came in various forms, including members providing lunch for the installation crew and voicers, and comfortable lodging on the estate of George and the Rev. Marcia Lockwood, once owned by Hank Ketcham, creator of “Dennis the Menace.” The ruggedly beautiful scenery of the Valley, Carmel Bay, and Big Sur was not 
directly provided by the parish, of course, but was a powerful inspiration to us nonetheless.

Parishioner Lee Collins, whose advocacy for a pipe organ long predated the arrival of Fr. Rob and Steve, passed away in December 2015 at age 93. He lived to hear and see his dream come to fruition, and would be delighted to know that the flowers for his funeral are in the photo on this month’s cover. He and his fellow parishioners understood the beauty of appropriate scale, now a counter-cultural concept in our world of giant televisions in modest living rooms, snacks that have the calories of entire meals, and electronic organs that think they are cathedral instruments. They recognized that something of appropriate scale could be imbued with craft, beauty, and timelessness. We are gratified that St. Dunstan’s Church chose us to realize this vision, which will, God willing, bring together worshipers and music lovers for generations to come.

John A. Panning is vice president and tonal director of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders.

View the stoplist

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders

William Ayers
Abraham Batten
Kent Brown
Lynn Dobson
Randy Hausman
Dean Heim
Donny Hobbs
Ben Hoskins
Arthur Middleton
John Panning

Kirk Russell
Bob Savage
Jim Streufert
John Streufert
Jon Thieszen
Pat Thieszen
Sally Winter
Randall Wolff
Dean Zenor

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