Vermont's largest pipe organ is set for debut
By Susan Green
Free Press Correspondent

The largest pipe organ in Vermont will make its debut at the First Congregational Church in Burlington on Sunday about 145 years after instrumental music first rang out in the South Winooski A venue church.

In 1854, a mid-19th century congregation paid a mere $2,000 to hear the heavenly notes of a Simmons Pipe Organ. For the contemporary version, custom built by Stephen Russell and Co. of Brattleboro, members of the church have pledged $400,000.

"This congregation loves music," said the Rev. Adrian Carr. "We balance the cost with a commitment to our mission. We hope we can do more than feed and clothe people."

Director of music Nancy Osborne, the church's organist, added, "We're also nurturing their spirits." With 4,158 pipes of various sizes - from no bigger than a pencil to 16 feet high - the new organ might be able to deliver significant spiritual nurturing. Russell said that, other than a few electrical components, each piece of the instrument is handmade.

"It's an enduring physical legacy for every generation - like the church building itself," suggested David Gordon, the South Vernon cabinetmaker who has reconstructed the chamber that holds most of those pipes and the facade in front of it.

The 1842 Greek Revival structure now boasts an organ, more than two years in the making, that is not encased in a single cabinet. Instead, it is built into the walls in separate parts of the chapel. The smaller section, above and behind the pulpit, was completed more than a year ago.

The larger section is at the back of the room in the balcony, behind a three-keyboard console with wooden foot pedals and 69 stops that can produce a variety of sounds. "You can compare this organ to an orchestra; it provides 69 individual voices that can be combined In different ways," Russell said. "This is a fantastic instrument that's extremely versatile."

When Osborne played a snippet of "Two Preludes for Organ" by C. V. Stanford- the piece she will open with during Sunday morning's service - music reminiscent of flutes and reed instruments filled the room. "It's well suited to all types of organ literature, from early Renaissance to contemporary, French romantic style to baroque," she said. "It's very exciting." Gordon said Russell's organs are "very rational. He's a gifted tonal architect."

The previous 47-pipe organ, in place since 1952, was a mechanical-action, factory- produced and deteriorating device made by Estey, a Brattleboro company that went out of business four years later. "The sound was fuzzy, windy, indistinct and nasty," Russell said. "To be blunt, it had an awful sound," Osborne said. "The pitch wavered quite a bit. It was loud and obnoxious to the ears."

Church organs
A history of organs at the First Congregational Church:
. 1854: Simmons Pipe Organ
. 1889: Woodbury & Harris Pipe Organ
. 1934: Hammond Electric Organ
. 1948: Baldwin Electric Organ
. 1952: Estey Pipe Organ
. 1998: Russell & Co. Pipe Organ

Organ concert
The new organ will be celebrated with a free concert.
. WHAT: "Hornpipes: Concert for Trumpet and Organ"
. WHO: David Pettit on organ and Alan Siebert on trumpet
. WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday
. WHERE: First Congregational Church, 38 S. Winooski Ave., Burlington