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Historical Society to showcase restored pipe organ and organist Gavin Klein

The 585 pipes of the Harvard Historical Society’s 1870 pipe organ will be breathing hard this Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. as 18-year-old Gavin Klein performs a program of classical and Shaker music for the society’s “Organ Celebration.”

Gavin Klein practices on the organ he will be playing for his performance at the Harvard Historical Society, Sunday, May 15. Klein, a senior at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, will attend The College of the Holy Cross with a full-tuition organ scholarship. (Photos by Thomas Kilian)

The celebration honors the end of Klein’s two-year stint as artist in residence at HHS, and the organ itself, which was recently completely restored. The program will include selections from Bach, Handel, and Pachelbel, as well as variations of Shaker tunes that Klein composed specifically for the historical society’s organ.

Klein, a Bolton resident, began piano lessons at the age of four. But when he heard an organ on a trip to Europe in his early teens, he was hooked. The family found an organ on Craigslist, a 1950s electric model, and the owner “practically gave it to us,” he told the Press. He started organ lessons and discovered his love of classical organ music from the Baroque and Romantic periods. He now has a new Rodgers organ, as well as a piano, harpsichord, and harmonium.

In a few weeks Klein will graduate from Nashoba Regional High School, and in the fall, he’ll be embarking on a unique college experience as the only organ performance major at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He won a full four-year scholarship to the school, and during those four years he’ll be the chapel organist. Since he is the only organ major, Holy Cross is bringing in the director of music of the Archdiocese of Hartford as Klein’s instructor. Together, they will work to broaden the organ program at the school. Klein will also have the privilege of taking master classes from the world-class organists who perform in the college’s concert series, and he’ll get to turn pages and pull stops for them as well.

Klein recognizes that making a living as a musician is not easy, and he plans to have a second major, possibly economics. But he said music will always be a big part of his life. As an organist, playing for church services is “your bread and butter,” he said, and he plans to continue doing that. Before he heads off to Holy Cross, he hopes to do one more show at HHS after this Sunday’s, one of Handel’s organ concertos, which will require flutes and strings in addition to the organ. Klein said it would be a good opportunity to bring not only the community, but also other musicians together.

Klein plays No. 5 from “Fugues on the Magnificat” by Johann Pachelbel.

The society’s organ presents a challenge to Klein, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall. He said people were smaller in the 19th century, so the distance to the keyboard and the pedals is better suited to someone about nine inches shorter than he is. But he has already performed five concerts and a few memorials at the Historical Society, so he’s getting used to the adjustments he needs to make for his height. During his artist residency, Klein also worked with the society to get the organ up and running and keep it tuned after its restoration was completed in August 2020.

Prior to this Sunday’s performance, the organ had to be tuned, and what Klein called a “sticky pedal” had to be fixed. Andover Organ Company craftsmen Jonathan Ross and Michael Eaton, who also worked on the restoration, talked to the Press while they worked on the organ the morning of May 10, describing the uniqueness of the instrument, the challenges of the restoration, and the tuning process.

An 1870 instrument, built in Cambridge

The organ was built by George Stevens in Cambridge. Ross said by 1870 organs in Europe were larger and louder, and the trend in organ building in America was to do the same, but Stevens stuck to his conservative English style of a gentler-sounding organ. The result was an instrument perfectly suited to the building, which was then the Still River Baptist Church, with just the right volume for leading hymns.

Ross and Eaton said the organ is mostly original, and it’s difficult to find those these days. That’s because in the middle of the 20th century, restorers thought it was more desirable to bring old organs up to modern standards. But ideas have changed since then, and restorers now try to maintain as much of the original materials as possible. Luckily, this was the Stevens organ’s first comprehensive restoration, so it escaped modernization. Although an electric blower was added in the 1920s to provide air to the pipes, and a new blower was installed as part of the restoration, Andover Organ also restored the hand pump mechanism so that the organ can once again be played without the blower. Ross said it doesn’t take a lot of effort to use the hand pump, “but it would probably be a bit much for a full concert.”

Ross, who was the project manager on the restoration project, said the pipes presented the biggest challenge. Most of the pipes in the HHS organ are metal, and the old way of tuning those was with an instrument called a “cone” that reshapes the metal at the top of the pipe just a little to change its length, thereby changing its pitch. But many of the metal pipes had to have their shape restored just to make them tunable. Ross said a lot of time was spent debating if switching to the newer tuning method of an adjustable aluminum sleeve would be the best course of action for some pipes. The organ now has a combination of cone-tuned pipes and pipes with aluminum sleeves.

A 10- to 12-year undertakng

The organ took about a year to restore at a cost of $80,000. Historical society member Denis Wagner told the Press the initial plan was to disassemble and remove the organ, including its wooden cabinet. But Andover Organ found a way to take the organ out of the cabinet, and that saved a lot of money. Even so, Wagner said, it took the society about 10 to 12 years to raise the money from donations, mostly lots of small ones. Eaton said organ restoration is expensive because of labor costs—most of the work involves handcrafting nearly every piece of the organ. “You’re not going to find the parts at Home Depot,” he said.

Tuning a pipe organ is also a major undertaking. Although the keyboard on the Stevens organ has only 56 keys, there are also 12 “stops.” Each stop produces a different sound, essentially providing an orchestra, including trumpets, flutes, and oboes. Most of the stops have 56 pipes associated with them, one for each key. Some stops don’t support the keys in the lowest register of the keyboard, so the total number of pipes in the society’s organ is only 585, but still enough to keep two tuners busy for hours. They always work in pairs, with one person pressing keys and pulling stops while the other tunes each pipe.

Ross and Eaton said they learned their craft while on the job, as most pipe organ restorers and repairers do. About a dozen employees work at Andover Organ, and while they do two or three big projects like the Stevens organ restoration each year, they also tune and maintain about 400 organs annually. Tuning takes them from Maine to the Carolinas and as far west as Buffalo. Ross said there is a shortage of pipe organ craftsmen, as people who got into the business when organs were more popular some 50 years ago are now retiring.

They said they aren’t in it for the money, but for the craft. “This is the type of organ that gets us talking—an original organ in its original home, restored and unaltered,” Ross said. He added that listening to the organ is like traveling back in time. “This is as close as we can get to what they would have heard when it was first put in.” Eaton agreed, saying “Stevens would recognize it as his work.”

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