The Advocate (1), April 2006
Volume 6, No. 12
March 22 to 28, 2006Bravo!
Organ dedication set for Easter Monday
By Matthew Craver
It all started when a small church in Oswego closed.
St. Louis Church was closed and its pipe organ was sold to St. Joseph’s church of Camillus with the thought that it would become a springboard for a much larger project. Would it ever.
The old organ, a tracker consisting of two manuals with 21 stops, was built by Casavant Freres in 1896 and labeled the Opus 69. When St. Joseph’s acquired the organ, it was unusable, and the cost of a legitimate historical renovation was for more than the parish could afford. Even if there was money to repair the instrument, St. Joseph’s is nearly four times the size of St. Louis, which means the volume of sound needed to fill the church could not be reached by the Opus 69.
The organ was taken apart and moved piece by piece to Camillus – a total of 1,202 pipes, many of which were badly damaged from poor maintenance.
What if someone who knew how to build a pipe organ from scratch could do the work – take the parts from the old organ and use them as the nucleus for a new one? Luckily, Tomasz (pronounced Tomak) Lewtak, the music director at St. Joseph’s, attended a music academy in Poland where he studied the art of organ building.
“We bought an old instrument and it was in horrible shape,” Lewtak said. “We used what we could and scrapped the rest.”
In 2001, Lewtak began work on the new pipe organ.
“We bought 1,200 from Oswego and added another 1,300 pipes,” he said, noting that each of the new pipes was specially ordered from Germany. He started from the inside out, building around the original Opus 69 instrument. Lewtak would not say what the organ cost to build, but did say that if the work were contracted to an organ builder it would cost about a million dollars.
“This is very European in its design,” he said. “It’s very ornate and harmonious. It is like a flower and just blossoms up.”
Various artists and architects were approached about the project, but none were familiar with how an organ works. There were two guiding principals behind the design: first to fit the organ to the shape of St. Joseph’s arched ceiling, and second to show the instrument is a blend of old and new.
In the end, that task would fall upon Tomasz’s brother Pawel (pronounced Paul) Lewtak. The façade is made of white ash with mahogany ornaments, but what makes it unique is the use of mirrors.
“Every organ is unique, some more than others,” he said. “I have never seen mirrors on the façade of an organ before. When I go to a church I get tired of seeing the same thing over and over. With mirrors the reflection changes everything.”
The façade took almost a year to build – 28 gallons of clear-coat lacquer and 110 sheets of furniture grade plywood.
Pawel has visited from Poland several times over the past four and a half years and will stay until the organ is dedicated April 17.
“The idea was to build something that would fit the interior of the church,” he said. “It was a very complicated task.”
For years, and electronic organ substitute and a Kawai grand piano were the source of music at St. Joseph’s Church of Camillus.
“It’s important for the congregation to have a good instrument,” he said. “The music is important for the liturgy.”
“It’s not just the music that’s magnificent, but the appearance too,” said Audrey Knox, who sings in the choir at St. Joseph’s. “It looks like something angels would play,” she said.
The Rev. Ronald Bill said he expects the organ will not only encourage singing, but bring the liturgy to life. And while Bill has seen organ renovations before, he admitted he has never seen anything quite like this.
“Any church would be lucky to have an organ like this,” Bill said. “It is of such magnitude and truly awesome.”
“It has been a very long project, but I am happy it’s over with,” he said.
All told, Lewtak usually spends anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day working on his masterpiece. The project has taken Lewtak four and a half years to complete. Broken down, that’s about 15,000 man-hours and almost 2,000 hours in testing the pipes. Each of the 2,500 pipes has to be tested for sound one at a time. The largest pipe is 16 feet tall and the shortest is about a half-inch.
“It’s like a little house filled with pipes,” he said. “It is very intricate and pretty mind-boggling.”
“You don’t see many things like this in this country,” he said. “It is the king of instruments.”
Little known facts
- It is the largest organ, built by a native of Poland on American soil.
- Many of the tools used to complete the project were custom built.
- Professor Ulrik Spang-Hanssen from the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Denmark was consulted.
- Lewtak moved to the United States 14 years ago to study at Binghamton University where he completed his second master’s degree in organ performance. Fittingly, he was hired as music director at St. Joseph’s Church of Camillus, a position he has held for the past 9 years.
- Behind the organ on the loft is a workshop.