Pipe organ revolutionized

  • July 24, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - You could say it’s a pipe dream come true. On the Plains of Abraham during the papal Mass at the 49th Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City, the virtual pipe organ had its largest live audience. More than 50,000 people attended the event in June.

The $25,000 organ was designed by Markham-based Classic Organ Works specifically for the June congress.

The virtual pipe organ is a mini-version of a traditional pipe organ and is powered by a computer. And it’s similar to the traditional organ in that it has 61 keys and three separate keyboards, said Bernard O’Grady, Classic Organ Works’ marketing manager. But the key differences are in how each is played, their size and price. The computerized organ has a touch screen console which allows organists to choose a windpipe on the screen to change the sound. Windpipe sounds from historic churches with top-notch traditional pipe organs are recorded and downloaded into the virtual organ’s sound system. In Classic Works’ organ, the sounds were recorded from a church in France.

Size-wise, a traditional organ dwarfs its virtual counterpart. The price can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a high-end virtual organ.

“We want to make the pipe organ accessible to children, to different cultures and to promote the Catholic tradition of the hymns around the world,” said O’Grady.

O’Grady’s passion for music runs deep. His great-granduncle, Msgr. Edward Ronan, was the founder of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School and O’Grady himself is a choir school alumni.

The virtual pipe organ technology has been around for a few years. Its first and most famous incarnation is the virtual pipe organ created in 2003 by Marshall and Ogletree for Trinity Church Wall Street, an Episcopal church in New York. The church’s traditional pipe organ was damaged by dust and debris in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the city.

“If a (virtual pipe) organ is properly designed, it is like a flight simulator to an airliner,” said Richard Torrence, director of operations at Marshall and Ogletree in New York, whose company has produced four of the organs at an average cost of $500,000 to the buyer.

Meanwhile, Classic Organ Works has partnered with German-based Hauptwerk to produce the unit. O’Grady said the virtual organ and its parts are available in 72 countries to churches and organists but there are no Toronto churches that use it.

As for the sound quality, organist Marc D’Anjou said the organ at the Eucharistic Congress came close to the original. D’Anjou, organist at Quebec’s Notre-Dame Basilica, accompanied the choir using the virtual organ during the papal Mass. He said the sounds “were very, very natural. I have the impression that it was like the real thing.”

Geoff Butler, the organist at All Saints parish in Etobicoke, said he hasn’t heard of the virtual pipe organ, but said it seems to be part of a trend.

“Most of the churches nowadays are putting in some type of electronic organ,” he said.

Butler has bee playing an electronic organ at his parish since 1981.

At Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, for the past 12 years organists have been playing on an electronic organ instead of its 128-year-old pipe organ. The traditional organ requires restoration, said Fr. John-Mark Missio, director of St. Michael’s Choir School, which is responsible for the Cathedral’s music ministry. Missio said restoration would cost from $800,000 to $1 million.

For more pictures see: Classic at International Eucharistic Congress

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