Winston Salem Monthly
Posted: Monday, December 31, 2012 10:10 pm | Updated: 3:06 pm, Wed Apr 17, 2013.
Inside a modest workshop in Mocksville, Tom Lewtak is creating organs of international acclaim.
By Rose M. Walsh
We can make a pipe sound like a trumpet. Or a flute. Or a cornet. He calls it giving each pipe a "voice." It’s one of the fine arts of organ building honed by Tom Lewtak, a Polish-born craftsman who now makes Mocksville his home.
Take a look around his cozy workshop, and you’ll see pipes of all sizes wrapped in paper on a worktable, each waiting for the chance to come alive. These particular pipes will become part of Lewtak’s latest creation—an organ called Østerhåb Kirke being placed in a brand new Lutheran church in Horsens, Denmark. Tom’s company, Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders, won a contract to build the organ after church leaders from Denmark saw one of his creations first-hand (a grand organ that sits in the First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, N.C.). They selected his company over a number of other competing Danish and German craftsmen.
When Tom finishes installing the organ later this spring, it will be a momentous occasion: Lewtak Pipe Organs will become the first-ever American firm to build an organ in Denmark, a country known for its great organs and meticulous craftsmanship. While the Østerhåb Kirke project is the latest in Tom’s long line of masterpieces, his path to world-renowned organ builder is one that passes through many places and improbabilities.
Tom and his wife, Jola, have been wedded to music most of their lives. Both were, at one point, church organists in Poland. They met at the Academy of Music in Katowice.
One day while playing a concert in Poland, Tom caught the ear of a music professor from Binghamton University in New York. The professor eventually offered him and Jola full scholarships to attend Binghamton, which they accepted.
The couple arrived in New York in 1993 with their suitcases, a baby, and $373 in hand. "We had nothing when we got here," Tom recalls. Eventually, though, they both landed church-organist jobs in New York. It was here that his career would shift from organ player to organ builder.
Tom was serving as the organist at St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus, N.Y., when the priest there decided to replace the electronic organ with a pipe organ acquired from a nearby church that was closing. When Tom looked at the organ, he knew it was the wrong size for his church. Many of the parts were also damaged beyond repair. So Tom offered a solution: he’d take some of the parts from the unusable instrument and build a suitably-sized organ for the church.
Building a pipe organ, as you might imagine, is a complex task. It requires years of research and hands-on apprenticeship to master. Luckily, though, Tom had minored in organ building at the academy in Katowice. He also had a brother Pawel (Paul) Lewtak, an architect, who could help him create the right facade (or organ case).
But before he could build the organ at St. Joseph’s, Tom had to become familiar with the art of voicing (i.e. making each pipe come alive with its own unique quality of tone). He took a year’s sabbatical to Denmark where he worked with an expert voicer and learned how to scribe and hammer each pipe until it sang its own sound: gentle or harsh, loud or soft, perhaps acquiring a trumpet or flute sound. He also apprenticed on an organ in Norway, voicing all of its pipes.
Tom eventually returned and finished the New York organ, completing a four-year education process. He continued his work as a church organist until 2006 when he became a full-time organ builder. The company’s work has since been featured on the covers of several trade magazines including The American Organist.
Song of the South
When Tom decided to move his company from New York to North Carolina, he did so for several reasons.
"We always had it in mind that we would like to move here someday," Tom says. "We liked less snow and lower taxes. Plus this is the Bible Belt, and the religious life in North Carolina is very active. There are more churches here, which is good for my business."
All the pieces fell into place last summer when Jola was offered a church music job in Clemmons. The Lewtaks found a log home on 15 acres outside of Mocksville. They now live there with their two youngest children—Kacper and Marceli—both teenagers. The Lewtak’s oldest child, Timothy, 23, has graduated from Harvard Business School and is working in San Francisco. (Timothy is the baby who arrived with them in New York all those years ago.)
It’s been a long and well-toned road that led to Mocksville, but it’s one the family seems happy to have found—especially Tom. "I am a happy man," he concludes. "Every morning I get up, I am itching to put my hands on this work."