April 28, 2013

Kotzschmar Organ preparing for an encore

The jewel in Portland's musical crown is undergoing expert restoration.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Adam Loagocki works on the console of Portland’s Kotzschmar Organ. He is part of a team of experts who will make the organ “sing” again.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Jim Bennett of the Connecticut organ restoration company Foley-Baker Inc. explains the workings of an organ part.

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Among other tasks, Popovic and his colleagues have dislodged 100-year-old dirt and grime from the nearly 7,000 metal and wooden pipes, and rebuilt, repaired, retooled and otherwise renewed the organ's tractor-trailer-sized wind chest, a dozen or so air boxes, pneumatic controls, regulators, electronics, console and various other working parts.

The Foley-Baker shop on the outskirts of Hartford is packed with thousands of components from the organ, each and every part receiving individual attention and color-coded to ease its reinstallation.

"It's big, it's old and it's been through a lot," said Jim Bennett, shop foreman at Foley-Baker, who previously worked at Austin. "This is a very complex organ, and it's a complicated job."

The job is complicated because the Kotzschmar had a spotty history of maintenance. While the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ has done a remarkable job keeping the organ in good working order since the group's formation in 1981, the organ suffered neglect prior to that, Bennett said.

It was moved twice for renovations to City Hall, including a major renovation in the 1990s that resulted in the creation of Merrill Auditorium, and was pieced together and damaged in prior decades.

The price tag for this project is $2.6 million, half of which was raised privately. The city approved up to $1.25 million in bonds to pay its share. The Friends hopes to raise additional money to fund an endowment that will benefit the organ's upkeep going forward, said Kathleen Grammer, executive director of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ.

A CHAMBER OF WIND

The current work is necessary because of a leaky wind chest, Grammer said.

Think of the wind chest as the organ's lungs. It provides the air that pulses through the pipes, causing the organ to sing. The wind chest is a large chamber on which the rest of the organ sits, toward the back of Merrill and out of public view.

It is an air-lock chamber that is 53 feet long, 7 feet wide and 6 feet, 9 inches tall. The wind chest was originally 7 feet tall, but had been cut down to 5-foot-3 during a prior hall renovation. At 6-foot-9, the new wind chest will stand 3 inches short of its original height.

The process of rebuilding the wind chest began immediately after the organ was taken apart last summer, said Philip Carpenter, director of field service for Foley-Baker. It has been completely rebuilt with eastern white pine and poplar.

The craftsmen at Foley-Baker said they feel privileged to work on the organ. Foley-Baker cleared its schedule for two years to accommodate this project, Bennett said.

"It's certainly a challenge, but it's also a great opportunity," he said. "This is a rare chance to be involved in the saving and restoration of one of the very few civic organs in the country. To be able to take the instrument out and reinstall it and give it a new life is a great opportunity."

People will notice the difference in sound. "If they don't, then there is something wrong with them," Carpenter said.

The organ will be more responsive, with less hissing and more clarity of sound. Pipes that didn't work or work well before will sound like they did in 1912.

"The organ will be healthy again," Carpenter said. "Pipes need all the air they were designed to get in order to sound the way they are supposed to sound. They weren't getting that air before. They will now.

"It's an incredible instrument, and it's going to be phenomenal."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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Additional Photos

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Mee Racz works to prepare the organ’s offset chest for refinishing, as part of the organ restoration project.

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Milovan Popovic, known as a voicer, repairs and adjusts an organ pipe to prepare it to “sing properly.”

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Organ technician David DeBlois applies his expertise to making adjustments on the organ’s internal parts.

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Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist, plays the Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill Auditorium in 2009.

Gregory Rec/File Photo

  


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