As any experienced musician will attest, when your instrument is out of tune, it’s tough to concentrate on the music.
That notion extends to pipe organs, especially when you’re talking about one of the largest such instruments in Canada.
Christ Church Cathedral director of music, Donald Hunt, knows exactly how the church’s 2005 Hellmuth Wolff organ should sound.
“It’s been a little bit of time since the last tuning and I start to notice things get really kind of raunchy sounding, ” said Hunt, who is trained as an organist but these days mostly handles choir direction at the church.
In the past if the organ was out, it was a simple matter of calling in Grant Smalley, the longtime specialist who had Christ Church on his client list. His retirement in December left the Victoria church, not to mention others on the Island, in a bit of a lurch.
Luckily, the Royal Canadian College of Organists is a pretty tight group and when word went out that Christ Church (and others) needed help, Jason Barnsley of Calgary was there to answer the call. He recently spent a week in town making the rounds to various churches tuning up their instruments.
The well-travelled craftsman has degrees in organ performance and theatre and served a seven-year apprenticeship in building and servicing pipe organs in the Philadelphia area, before relocating to Calgary and venturing out on his own. His trip to the coast helped him pick up some future business around Victoria and on the mainland, where he says an in-demand technician is also due to retire.
“A lot technicians in the States have very large services areas,” he said, by way of comparison to what looks to be a promising next stage of his own career. “In fact, I know of one builder from the Midwest who has a Cessna and he flies around five states tuning and servicing. You kind of go where the work is.”
Hunt described Barnsley’s day of work on the Christ Church organ as “doing a onceover of the reed pipes … they’re the ones that fluctuate with the seasonal changes, with the temperature changes.”
A more thorough tuning, which takes days and involves all of the pipes, happens about every seven to 10 years, Hunt added.
The timing of the fine tuning is important, given the church’s Summer Organ Series concerts start this Friday (June 8) with a performance by Michael Kleinschmidt from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.
But as Hunt pointed out, the regular use of the instrument is equally so.
“The organ is used week after week on Sundays,” he said. “Really, that’s the bread and butter of my job. The primary function is to make sure the organ is sounding well – and the choir – for worship, and to support the congregational singing. So it’s crucial that it’s sounding great.”
He’s also very aware of the responsibility that goes along with being the keeper of the keys, so to speak.
“The congregation and members of the community banded together to build this wonderful instrument, so it’s so important that we maintain it.”
Other Friday night concerts coming up in the Summer Organ Series:
June 15: Alcée Chris III, winner 2017 Canadian International Organ Competition; Bach, Mendelssohn, arrangements of Art Tatum jazz compositions
June 22: Donald Hunt, Christ Church music director, playing works by Buxtehude
Tickets are $20 each or $45 for all three concerts, available at Munro’s and Ivy’s bookstores and the cathedral office.