Our Opus 50, completed last spring for First Lutheran Church of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the latest in a series of midsize three-manual organs we have built over the past 30 years. Its design reflects a blending of our general ideas with those of the cantor, Brett Wolgast, developed over several years. Dr. Wolgast is a fixture in Cedar Rapids, having served alongside his wife, Marita, at First Lutheran since 1990, and chairing the music department at nearby Coe College, where he has taught organ for decades. His distinguished career and innate good taste made him a wonderful collaborator in this project, which not only created an instrument suited to First Lutheran’s music program but also provided something distinctly new to the range of instruments in Cedar Rapids.
In its unrenovated state, the sanctuary of First Lutheran was no temple of tone. A lowered, acoustically absorbent ceiling killed any natural resonance or bloom. The previous organ was scattered about the rear gallery, which itself felt claustrophobic and unwelcoming. The recent renovation, executed to plans by acoustics and organ consultant Scott Riedel, has completely transformed the space: reinstating its full height, hardening surfaces, reconfiguring critical areas for greater flexibility, and creating a fine, natural resonance. Best of all, the reordered gallery now has plenty of room for the organ, a large choir, and occasional instrumentalists.
Brett Wolgast was clear in his desire for a mechanical-action instrument, which we in turn were eager to arrange so that each division would be in good physical relationship to those who sing with it. A substantial steel chassis supports all components while ensuring very close action tolerances between the windchests and the detached console. To ensure a stable environment and solid tuning, a microclimate system, like those we have installed in many of our organs, gently and continuously circulates conditioned room air throughout the instrument.
The organ’s lowest level contains the single wedge bellows, wind ducts, and key action chassis. One level up, at the case impost, are the enclosed Swell and Choir. Stops in these divisions are voiced clearly, mildly, and, in the Choir, with a bit of articulation. Thanks to heavy shutter fronts with stepped edges, each enclosure has a wide dynamic range. Behind the 40-voice choir, the Swell and Choir speak with a solid clarity, grand but not overwhelming. At the organ’s top level are the Great and Pedal, whose principal choruses enjoy a commanding tone without any forced quality, thanks to the considerable reflective properties of the peaked roof.
In certain voices, Dr. Wolgast was eager to see some Neoclassical tone represented. The Choir flutes and Dulzian, and the Pedal Schalmei, evoke that period’s plucky tones without seeming alien. Midway through construction, the specification saw one important alteration. As initially conceived, the Great and Pedal were to have shared a 16ʹ Prestant, as we have done on our organs in Fredericksburg, Va., and Monona, Wis. But when we heard the renovated room and its improved bass response, we became concerned that the Great plenum might become too heavy, particularly in the left hand. As a result, the choruses are now arranged more classically (Pedal 16ʹ, Great 8ʹ, Choir 4ʹ), with two options for sub-unison tone on the Great: more transparent with the 16ʹ Quintaton, fuller with the 16ʹ Bourdon. Both work well and tie back to the Neoclassical idea. The Swell’s chorus, while balanced primarily with accompaniment in mind, still adds something to the others.
The organ’s visual design follows the simple lines of the renovated sanctuary. Subtle curves and angles in the facade profile, together with delicate inlays of figured maple against walnut, help to link the console and facade as common elements of a larger whole. The key action is sensitive without being fussy. The only assists are in-chest double pallets, combined with adjustable pneumatic assists for bass notes. The fully adjustable Hall-effect keying sensors allow seamless blending of the mechanical- and electric-action windchests.
A word must be said about the extraordinary collegiality and cooperation from this church, from Pastor Steve Knudson right down the line. The scheduled organ installation came during a peak of COVID infections, and there was a disparity between the situations of our two states. Just when numbers were easing off in New York, Iowa was experiencing a surge, which would have required a two-week quarantine for our crew. Therefore, the organ sat in our erecting room, quite playable, for months; our technical director Peter Geise even used it for his church’s worship broadcasts.
Finally, the stars aligned, and we headed west. Our installation was greatly facilitated by protocols the church put in place. First, we were given our own story of the complex (which included the organ gallery level) so that we never had to come in contact with church staff. This also made available several unused rooms for component storage and workshop space during installation. With that logistic seen to, the church next addressed our appetites. The astounding Ruth Ehrhardt, food service coordinator, served us 21 meals a week right in the church. And not just cereal and sandwiches: cooked breakfasts, wonderful lunches (often with soup), and full suppers. As a result, our crew was able to keep travel almost exclusively between hotel and church, all while having the benefit of Ruth’s delicious cooking and welcome company.
The August 2021 dedication festivities were among the first large-crowd events we had experienced since March 2020. The Wolgasts presided over two beautiful dedication services, Saturday evening and Sunday morning, with multiple anthems, even a new work—“Ponder Anew”—commissioned from Wayne Wold. Strategic newspaper coverage brought a beyond-capacity crowd to hear Ahreum Han’s dedication recital. Her resourceful registrations and charming verbal program notes won everyone over. And the full room showed the sanctuary’s true acoustical bones: while reverberation was inevitably reduced, the organ had essentially the same impact as with the room empty. We could not have been more pleased.
While we of course consider all our artisans to be indispensable, two people deserve special mention: Peter Geise, who is responsible for the organ’s technical and visual design, and tonal director Duane Prill, who skillfully blended new and old pipes into his usual cohesive whole. Both men worked with uncommon dedication on the organ’s tone and action, first in the shop and then for weeks on site. The unified effect of the organ, action, tone, and appearance owes a great deal to their efforts. And once again, we thank all of First Lutheran Church—the pastoral staff, musicians, cooks, administrators, and grounds personnel, not to mention the congregation that supported our efforts. Their commitment, through thick and thin, has allowed us immense satisfaction in this journey.
A 2022 concert series is planned, beginning with Ivan Bosnar on Sunday, May 1, at 3:00 p.m. For more information, visit ParsonsOrgans.com.