A West Hartford synagogue fine-tunes its “masterpiece” organ
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – While organs are often used as an accompanying instrument in synagogues, Cantor Joseph Ness says that the organ can offer so much more.
“The organ provides a harmonic accompaniment for the cantor, support for the choir and a kind of grandeur that you wouldn’t get without the organ,” says Ness, the longtime cantor of Beth El Temple in West Hartford.
“It is one of the great instruments of western culture,” he explains. “What I try to do on the holidays is to write music for that instrument that will not just use it as an accompanying instrument but as an instrument that engages in dialogue with the choir, cantor and congregation. The organ has its own voice.”
Earlier this year, Beth El embarked on a mission to refurbish its organ, custom-built in 1965 by the Hartford-based Austin Organ Co. After more than 60 years, the organ was in fairly good condition but was in need of some fine-tuning.
To meet the need, five Beth El families came together to raise the $200,000 that it cost to refurbish the organ – the Zachs family, Mandell & Braunstein families, Robin and David Gelles family, Hoffman family, and Konover & Coppa families.
“I very much thank them from the bottom of my heart for making the instrument that will make our services all the more beautiful,” Ness says.
On Friday, Nov. 10, the newly rejuvenated organ will be rededicated at a Shabbat service during which Ness will direct the Beth El choir and longtime organist Floyd Higgins in a special liturgy to remember Kristallnacht. The service will also honor U.S. Armed services veterans in time for Veterans Day.
“We are delighted that we will have the opportunity to rededicate Beth El’s Austin Organ within the context of our annual Veterans Day Service,” says Rabbi James Rosen, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “The organ has been a cherished part of our congregational history and has enhanced our worship experience with a sense of majesty and beauty since the founding of the congregation. Thanks to the generosity of several donor families, the organ has been refurbished and renewed so that it’s chords and notes will long be a part of our prayer and musical experiences at Beth El.”
Higgins considers Beth El’s organ a masterpiece.
“It is unlike any organ that was built before or any built since,” Higgins says. “The art of organ-building is that every organ is different because it has to suit the space in which it sits.”
Beth El’s organ was built when the congregation had been in West Hartford for little more than 10 years. The instrument was funded through money raised by the Beth El Sisterhood’s prodigious annual art show that the women’s group was well known for.
“I think it was generally regarded that it would be a beautiful adornment for the building and a great instrument for music-making,” says Higgins.
Austin Organs Inc., one of the oldest and most illustrious organ manufacturers in the United States, was the natural choice to design the instrument. Founded in 1898 and known for building organs for many churches around the country, this was the first synagogue organ Austin ever crafted.
Its design began in 1965. The temple consulted with local musicians, including the organist at the Asylum Hill Church in Hartford at the time, for advice about what kind of organ to build.
Several variables were taken into consideration.
“They have to look at the space – what space is available, what the room is like, what are the needs of the musicians,” Higgins says. “And in this case the needs of an organ in the synagogue services was primarily to accompany the choir, not to take a solo role. So, they were looking at an instrument that didn’t have to be large but had to be capable of sustaining and supporting a choir or the cantor as they sang.”
When it was finished, the organ was listed as “Opus 2,421” by Austin, meaning that it was the 2,421st organ the company had created. It was dedicated in 1966.
“It served very beautifully for many years,” Higgins says. “Organs are built to last many years, however there are certain perishable parts. The most notable one is leather. Leather is the perfect material for certain applications in the mechanisms in the organ. But after 60 years, it begins to rot away. The Austin design is one that promotes an easy replacement of all of these leathers. And its time had come.”
Hidden away upstairs in the Beth El sanctuary behind the bimah, the organ is a conglomeration of different sets of metal pipes of all different sizes – a couple thousand of them in all – controlled by a wooden console made of walnut that sits in the middle of the organ loft.
“It is hidden away and yet it is right within the room,” Higgins says. “From a tonal point of view that is very important. It is fully out there, but you can’t see it, because the role of the organ in most synagogues is very background.”
As Beth El prepared to have the organ’s leather mechanisms replaced, Higgins was asked what other modifications or enhancements might be made.
“I was so fortunate because I had put together a little list of things I would love to do since we were going to be doing this major project, not really thinking that it would ever happen,” Higgins recalls. “But we are very fortunate that particular members of the temple stepped forward. I am just so grateful to these members who funded this.”
The project took about six months, beginning with the careful dismantling of all of the parts of the organ – pipes, console and all – and a thorough cleaning of the entire organ loft.
The Austin crew were “actively here every day for two or three weeks, but a lot of the work happened at the factory in Hartford over several months,” Higgins reports. Luckily, since Austin built the organ, they still had the blueprints and could easily access them for the job.
Austin cleaned up, repaired and retuned each of the organ’s pipes, which are made of an alloy of tin and lead. They added new tuners and valves, which open and close beneath each pipe, allowing the air to flow in and out and produce the musical notes.
The pipes were re-installed, some in different places for better sound. And a set of pipes rescued from a church that closed in Bridgeport were added to the mix.
The console was fully updated for a more digital “combination action,” and a USB, which allows Higgins to record what is played on the organ onto a thumb drive to be listened to later.
New electronic tabs and stops were added to the console, the electronic wiring was updated and electronic speakers were installed to “help the organ’s tone project and fill the room, not in terms of being loud, but full,” Higgins says.
All of the leather parts were replaced including the “gussets” which are a part of the air bellows and each of the thousands of small leather discs that are part of the pipe valves.
“It was an expensive investment but to me it was just a vote of confidence in the future of music-making here and protecting a unique investment,” he adds. “This was handed down to us from years ago and I guess it would be easy to say, ‘We’ll just throw it out.’ But they have made a statement saying we are not just going to let it go. We are going to invest in the future.”
Higgins says that the work done to the organ should last for another 60 – 75 years.
Cantor Ness composed new music for the High Holidays and the rededication service for the organ and says its sound is now “dramatically different.”
“There are many more different, larger, color of sounds which accompany the different emotions that one can bring out in the music,” he says. “It was more evenly balanced….you can tell it is a much stronger instrument now.”
Beth El Temple’s Kristallnacht and Veterans Day Shabbat and Organ Dedication will be held on Friday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. with oneg and sing-along at 9 p.m. For more information call (860) 233-9696. The event is free and open to the public.