Happy 50th Birthday, Von Beckerath!

Von Beckerath organ swell box image

Fifty years ago, St. Michael’s christened a magnificent organ built in Hamburg, Germany — a three-manual, 38-stop, 55-rank instrument. The master builder himself, Rudolph von Beckerath, directed the tonal finishing.

Current churchwarden Michael Smith, a self-described “organist of sorts,” takes up the story:

The first time I walked through these doors was in the spring of 1968. It was the organ that lured me, a country boy from Kentucky, to a poorly attended, dilapidated church in a sketchy neighborhood.

I was 19. The organ had created quite a stir in the hermetic world of organ enthusiasts. So I showed up at the parish house door in my hippie garb and asked whether I could play it. Amazingly, the answer was yes.

I was bowled over. Still am.

Our instrument strongly shows the influence of the mid-century Baroque Revival, which sought to build instruments like those that Bach & Co. would have played. But many of these “revival” instruments were disappointing — shrill and screechy.

Von Beckerath, however, had served a long apprenticeship with established organ-builders and knew his trade. Our instrument has the gnarly brilliance of its 18th-century exemplars, but solidity and gravitas too: never dull, but never tinny.

A lot of dust accumulates in 50 years, and parts wear out. During the recent restoration of the church’s north wall, John Cantrell supervised the removal and cleaning of the organ’s 3,000 pipes, and some ravages of time were healed.

How to convey the pleasure of playing this instrument? Fifty years after my first pilgrimage, I still sit at the bench, and draw a stop or two, and poise my modestly skilled hands, and experience the sensations of a hungry man about to bite into a really good thick sandwich. I feel it in my teeth.

In the Jean Chambers Memorial Concert Series: the Von Beckerath 50th Anniversary Concert, Monday, May 15, 7:30 p.m., $20. Stephen Tharp, artist-inresidence at St. James Madison Avenue, performs Bach, Saint-Saëns, Dupré, Liszt, George Baker and David Conte.

Image: The von Beckerath’s newly cleaned “swell division” — located directly over the organist’s head. “The organ’s softest sounds are found in the swell division,” John Cantrell says.