Northminster Presbyterian Church
C.B. Fisk Inc.
By David C. Pike
Over the last three quarters of a century, Northminster Presbyterian Church, set in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis, has grown from a modest assembly gathering in a borrowed space on Sunday evenings to many hundreds of members worshiping in a smartly updated building on Kessler Boulevard. Today, this faith community is an active and dynamic force not only in Broad Ripple, but also in several communities around the world. The well-known red-brick colonial-style edifice, which has been expanded multiple times since its 1957 inauguration, is as notable for the outstanding music made inside as it is for its landmark 40-foot-high steeple.
Northminster’s top-notch music program is the concerted work of two of Indy’s very fine church musicians. John Wright has served as director of music ministries since 2000. His many responsibilities include overseeing an ambitious choir program and serving as artistic director of Sound & Spirit, the church’s arts series. Wright, who holds a master of music degree in choral conducting from the University of Tennessee, served as director of the Montreat Conference on Worship and Music in 2016.
Marko Petričić, music associate and organist, holds MM and DMA degrees from Indiana University, where he studied with Christopher Young. A winner of numerous organ competitions, he is a member of the music faculty at the University of Indianapolis, where he initiated a program in organ and sacred music. He has performed on most keyboard instruments with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Moreover, as an accomplished bayan accordion performer, Dr. Petričić has won top prizes at several international competitions.
Music has played an indispensable role at Northminster since its founding. On its website, the church spells out its musical mission in unequivocal terms:
The Christian faith is a singing faith, answering the call in scripture that exhorts God’s people to “Sing to the Lord.” When we gather to worship and glorify God, music draws us closer with a unique and compelling power. From African-American spirituals to Bach cantatas, from Tanzanian folk songs to newly commissioned hymns, Northminster’s choirs, soloists, and instrumentalists lead the congregation in the singing of praise that spans time and many cultures. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the sounds and poetry of liturgical texts, seek to enhance worship, to comfort, encourage and inspire, and to embrace those within and beyond the walls of our church.
A lofty imperative to be sure, but by early 2014, Northminster’s musicians were experiencing profound frustration with regard to their ability to serve the church’s musical aspirations. The pipe organ, a three-manual, 37-stop pitman chest electropneumatic dating from 1963, had begun to exhibit severe signs of decrepitude, even in the wake of a 2001 renovation. Its placement—divided, speaking sideways, and buried in chambers on either side of the chancel—was far from ideal. Understandably, the church leaders were wary of pouring more funds into propping it up, and thus the idea for a new mechanical-action instrument was born.
Conversations about the possibility of a new Fisk tracker for Northminster began in February 2014 with an introductory phone inquiry from John Wright. By May of that year, an initial visit had been made to the church, and a preliminary proposal was in the works. It would take five years for all parameters to be ironed out, but in due course they were, and at long last, in April 2019, a contract was signed.
Our discussions from the outset revolved around the need for a versatile instrument, limited in scope, that would make the best use of a confined chancel placement. Leading congregational song with strength and gusto was at the top of the list. Providing suitable resources to proficiently accompany the church’s superb choir was every bit as essential. With these cardinal objectives in mind, tonal and visual concepts developed for the organ, concurrent with a reimagined chancel space. In the proposed design scheme, the proscenium and side walls that bounded the existing organ chambers would be removed, increasing both the volume and footprint of the chancel area and creating a single acoustical space for music-making, the spoken word, and congregational participation.
Visual design ideas for the organ and remodeled chancel layout were investigated in a 1:16 scale model, allowing for thorough examination and discussion of their merits and limitations. Fisk visual designer Charles Nazarian spearheaded this lengthy collaborative process. The opening up of the chancel area that resulted from Charles’s input has provided a greatly enhanced setting, both visually and practically, for worship services and musical performances alike. Traffic flow is much improved. The choir now has room to breathe. The end result of this collaborative effort is an instrument in an acoustically sympathetic environment that serves the larger needs of the church and at the same time supports the continued development of a robust music ministry.
Opus 154 has two manuals and comprises 19 stops (17 of which are independent voices) and 1,063 pipes. The facade is composed of pipes from the Great 8′ Prestant, built of polished, hammered 75 percent tin. The console features keyboard naturals capped with camel bone and sharp keys of ebony. A ¾-horsepower blower supplies the more than 14 cubic meters per minute of wind required to play the organ. All pipes are voiced on a wind pressure of 3¼“ (82.5 mm) water column. The temperament is Fisk II.
The specification leans toward the German Baroque but includes an enclosed front-to-back Swell division for effective accompaniments. The organ is eclectic in that it combines a principal chorus reminiscent of Gottfried Silbermann’s small village church instruments, a Spire Flute modeled after the Spillpfeifen of Friedrich Stellwagen, Schnitger-style reeds on the Great and Pedal, and Cavaillé-Coll-inspired flues and Hautbois in the Swell. Opus 154 has a refined and responsive mechanical key action featuring carbon fiber trackers, a lively and buoyant wind system, an electrically controlled stop action, and a solid-state combination action.
Whether we’re building a large cathedral organ or an instrument of more moderate scope, the end result—visually, mechanically, and tonally—represents a summation of our cumulative organbuilding experience. Working within the limitations of a relatively small number of stops presents substantial challenges in both tonal design and voicing, especially for an instrument that is being asked to do so many things. In terms of specification, our point of departure for Northminster was Fisk Opus 107 at the Dover Church in Dover, Massachusetts, where, since its 1993 inauguration, the organ has excelled in the roles of leading worship and supporting a fine music program. As with every instrument we build, the tonal and visual designs for Opus 154 were tailored to the church architecture, the volume and acoustical properties of the space, and organ placement.
As historically informed organbuilders, it is important that we occasionally step back and remind ourselves that we live in America and that the better part of our work is for American institutions. While we stand with one foot firmly rooted in the centuries-old organbuilding traditions of Europe, our other foot is securely planted on this side of the Atlantic. It is our mission to create musical instruments that are relevant to modern-day Christian worship and organ pedagogics here in the States. We are also mindful that, in order to stand as viable musical tools now and well into the future, our organs must show artistic backbone and design integrity as exemplified by the European instruments of yore. The exuberant facades and enduring voices of these antique organs provide us a unique connection to the past even as they bring us joy and comfort here in the present. In the centuries to come, may the same be said of Opus 154.
From the Music Associate-Organist
The organ committee at Northminster Presbyterian Church conducted a lengthy and detailed search to replace the 1963 Reuter organ. The new instrument needed to fulfill many roles equally well, most importantly to lead, inspire, and support congregational hymn signing. In addition, it needed to serve as a great accompanying instrument for the 45-member chancel choir, for chamber ensembles, and even for full orchestra. Lastly, it needed to be an exciting concert instrument that convincingly performs different eras and national styles of organ repertoire. As such, this organ would also be an excellent teaching instrument.
While not a large organ (19 stops, 26 ranks), C.B. Fisk Opus 154 fulfils all of its functions superbly in our remodeled and acoustically improved chancel space. The vocal tone of the 8′ Prestant on the Great sings beautifully throughout its entire range. The 4′ Principal blends well into the principal chorus, but also acts as a solo stop that is not overly assertive. The principal chorus with the mixture fills the room but does not overwhelm in its intensity. The Spire Flute is the most versatile stop on the instrument, as it can act as a soft solo stop, continuo stop, and the fundamental support of the full organ. Schnitger-style reeds on the Great and Pedal are wonderful for congregational singing and a variety of solo repertoire.
The Swell division is enclosed front to back, and this provides an enormous dynamic expression. Cavaillé-Coll-inspired flues and Hautbois in the Swell complete the tonal design of this organ. The bewitching beauty of the Celeste pairs equally well with the harmonically rich and gentle Chimney Flute and the surprisingly effective Violin Diapason. The Cornet décomposé, with Nasard and Tierce, provides a variety of solo stop combinations.
The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but accompanying a quartet of singers and playing service music for virtual-service recordings has been a rewarding experience even without using the full potential of Opus 154. As the world gradually shifts back to normal, we look forward to resuming live music-making, as we welcome everyone to see and hear this marvelous organ in person!