When eight organists from around the region gather at Grace United Methodist Church in Homeland for the 16th annual French Organ Marathon on Sunday, May 18, all of them will take a back seat to the star of the show — the organ.
It's a pipe organ with digital sound and 50 ranks of pipes, built in 1951 by the former M.P. Moller Organ Co., in Hagerstown, and rebuilt in 1998 by Robert M. Turner, Organ Builder Inc., of California.
About as old as the church, it sits on a lift off to one side of the altar at Grace UMC, 5407 N. Charles St., at Northern Parkway, and has already been moved to the center of the altar for the concert.
On both sides of the organ's five manuals, or keyboards, are dozens of pull-out stops that give the organ a range of special sounds, from flute to tremolo, and from chimes and harp to trompette harmonique.
The organ is one of the most sophisticated in Baltimore, said Christopher Schroeder, minister of music and organist at Grace United Methodist.
"It fills the room really well," Schroeder said as he sat at the organ last week, practicing for the marathon, a free, four-hour concert in which each organist will play a 20-minute mini-recital of works by French composers. "It's very acoustical."
"It's a big monster of an organ," said marathon organizer Kitty Allen. It's one of the largest in the city."
Schroeder, who will emcee the event from 1 to 5 p.m. and perform, will be joined by organists from around Baltimore and as far away as the Washington suburbs to join him. They are:
• David Lawrie, organist and master of choristers at St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park;
• Michael Britt, organist and minister of music at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Baltimore;
• Henry Lowe, organist and music director at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Homeland;
• Tom Hetrick, organist and choirmaster at St. John's in the Village Church in Waverly and a former Charles Village resident, who now lives in Pennsylvania;
• Marvin Mills, organist at St. Paul's UMC in Kensington;
• Stephen Harouff, director of music and organist at Towson Presbyterian Church;
• Ted Davis, organist and choirmaster at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, in Baltimore near Catonsville.
Several of those interviewed joked that they were coming because they were invited, but Hetrick observed: "It's the love of the organ. Baltimore-Washington has a lot of very fine organists."
For the organists, many who know each other from the Baltimore chapter of the American Guild of Organists, it's also a chance to stretch musically.
"It gives the organists an opportunity to play [longer] pieces they wouldn't normally play in church," Schroeder said.
For the public, it's a rare opportunity to hear interesting French music, from popular to obscure works, played live by organists they may already know and love as churchgoers, he said.
And said Allen, "People can come and go as they want."
Playing the organ is a longtime avocation for Schroeder, 53, of Prince George's County.
The Indiana native grew up "in a big Catholic family" with seven siblings on a farm in Rushville, Ind., and took up the piano in third grade. His mother and father were organists and his dad also sang at church and in weddings.
"Since high school, I've had a church job on weekends," he said.
Schroeder earned a master's degree in organ performance and church music from Indiana University in 2008. Two years later, he came east from Broadway UMC in Indianapolis to take a job as organist and director of music at Towson Presbyterian.
He is new to Grace UMC, where his predecessor, Bruce Eicher, worked for 55 years and started the French Organ Marathon. Eicher retired last year. A brass nameplate on the organ at Grace dedicates the organ to him.
Taking over for Eicher as organizer of the French Music Marathon is "some pretty big shoes to fill, for sure," Schroeder said.
"I'm totally glad that it's going on, and I encouraged Chris to continue it," said Eicher. "We have an especially appropriate organ." He said. "It is so complete in its possibilities that any music can be played on it."
Eicher said the French Music Marathon is unique, at least to the area, although other churches, including St. David's in Roland Park, do Bach marathons.
"I'll be attending [the marathon] and I almost played in it," said Eicher, 82, of Timonium, who has also been playing organ at the Jewish synagogue Beth El Congregation for the past 51 years and still plays there twice a week. But he admits he is winding down.
"It's time to not play," said Eicher, who came to Grace UMC at age 26 after graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music, an all-scholarship school in Philadelphia. "In my head, I know what to do," he said, "but I'm getting more aches and pains."
Other organists will be picking up where Eicher left off.
"I do it to promote great organ music," said Lowe, longtime organist at Redeemer, who has played in past marathons. "I do it because I enjoy the French repertoire enormously. It's kind of a treat."
Schroeder hopes it will be a treat as well for people who normally come to church for church.
"It's a different time than Sunday morning service," he said. "Hopefully, you get a different crowd."