A Mighty Wind

The new, old-school pipe organ at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is ready for its closeup. 

Installing a 15-ton pipe organ into a new space is like tailoring a suit, says organ builder Alex Ross. “We show up with a suit that has too much material and then we decide what to remove to get things just right.”

In March, two tractor trailers filled with parts and piping arrived at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the second largest Catholic parish in the Richmond area. Since that day, Ross and two of his fellow organbuilders from the Montreal-based Juget-Sinclair company have been getting the church’s grand new gallery organ ready for the masses.

The instrument will finally be unveiled at a special demonstration given by the Juget-Sinclair team on July 12, an event open to the public, but it will see a true workout on Oct. 30, when Olivier Latry, the Titular Organist at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, will play the new Opus 55 in a special dedicatory concert, an event that is already sold out.

“We really want to connect the organ with the community,” says Robin Côté, the president of Juget-Sinclair, which is renowned for its adherence to old-school, handmade organ building in the 15th-and-16th-century European style. He points out that representations of various Virginia plants and flowers are carved into the wood of the new instrument, trimmed in gold leaf (bluebells, tulips, daffodils). The chosen floral and botanical designs represent the favorites of Cathedral donors, and are in memory of parishioners who have passed. There is also a maple leaf, a nod to the Canadian craftsmen responsible for this beauty.

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the second largest Catholic parish in the Richmond area, is located at 823 Cathedral Place.

It took two-and-a-half weeks to assemble the huge Opus 55 from sections made back in the company’s workshop in Canada, Côté says. The rest of their time has been spent on what he calls “voicing” or tailoring the sound of the instrument to the cathedral’s acoustics. “Voicing is not really a technique you learn in school, you have to travel, play instruments, be curious,” he says. “You are searching for something and that something is related to your own experience but it also needs to fit into a tradition.”

Alex Ross explains that he and the other builders showed up with the organ “too loud and too rough and gritty and ugly sounding, and from there we decided how much to rein it in to make it beautiful. Through the different phases of calming down the pipes, making them more beautiful, we may have to cut them shorter to change the tuning.” It’s a laborious, time-consuming process, but a necessary step in order to make the instrument sound perfect and in harmony with the Cathedral, which can seat 1,000 parishioners.

The company’s founder, Denis Juget, is also working on site, speaking to the importance of this project. The organ is the largest that Juget-Sinclair has ever constructed, the last of three that the Cathedral acquired to replace the church’s original, much renovated and overhauled gallery pipe organ (with 3,916 pipes), said at one time to be among the largest in the country. The first two, smaller, organs have already been installed: a 203-pipe continuo organ now used in the sanctuary (the elevated portion of the cathedral), and a mid-sized 1,494-pipe Chancel (or choir) organ, situated closer to the altar, used for weddings, funerals and choral group concerts.

Boasting 4,332 pipes and 67 Stops, or sounds, the Cathedral’s new main gallery organ is so heavy that Sacred Heart has had to reinforce its choir loft area with steel plates because some of the pressure points of the organ are 4,000 pounds or more. “We really looked at bringing an organ that was constructed in Europe back in the 16th, 17th, 18th century,”” says Carey Bliley, chair of the Cathedral’s 12-person pipe organ committee. “We wanted that kind of style, which uses old-world mechanical action. Hopefully it will be around for centuries.”

What powers this formidable instrument is a whole lot of wind. “This instrument is credited to the ancient Greeks,” says Ross. “From medieval times into the 19th century, the wind was provided by bellows-pumpers [called “calcants”]. The bellows in these organs provided a constant, steady wind pressure, and many calcants were necessary in the case of larger organs.” Some writings mention up to 70 people needed to pump certain organs, he adds, “although this is likely exaggerated.”

Thankfully, organs no longer require the strenuous attention of pumping calcants. “Nowadays, electric centrifugal blowers [the cathedral’s is 3.5 horsepower] are used to provide the wind,” Ross says. “Small bellows are still used to regulate the wind pressure since the blower provides more pressure than the pipes need. Wind ducts then carry the wind throughout the organ to the wind chests, where the pipes are situated. When the player presses a key, a valve opens and admits this controlled air into the pipes.”

Our photographer took this in late March when organizers first started installation. The organ was in the sanctuary at that point.

Organist Daniel Sañez, the church’s director of music and liturgy, says he’s “terribly excited” by the new installation. The classically-trained musician, a Fullbright fellow who studied under Johann Sebastian Bach’s successor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, will not only have a spectacular new organ to play, he won’t have to deal with the old tubular-pneumatic model anymore. It came with the church in 1908 and was held together by duct tape and chewing gum (literally) after more than a century of use.

“It was a testament to Daniel’s skill that he could make it sound as good as it did,” says Anthony Marques, the rector of the 2,300-member Cathedral, situated near Monroe Park and the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I was listening to the organ this morning and I was telling the builders how excellent the quality of the sound is,” Sañez says. “And how the various national styles of organ building, German, Italian, French, and the various periods, like baroque, classical, romantic, are all synthesized so beautifully in this instrument. I think professional organists around the world will be really fascinated by the sounds this organ produces.”

Ross says that the Jaget-Sinclair crew wants the Opus 55 to be able to convey every imaginable human emotion and experience. “That means there are beautiful and delicate sounds but also bright and exciting sounds, and also harsh and ugly, even angry, sounds. The whole gamut. We are helping Daniel convey his emotion to the people who are listening. And if we do our job well, and he does his job well, the people downstairs are going to be moved by the music, whether they like it or not.”

A demonstration of the new Opus 55 pipe organ will be held on Friday, July 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. 823 Cathedral Place. The event is free.  

Time lapse video (credit: Mike Kremer)

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