Organs aren't usually part of symphony orchestras. But one will be front and center when Howard County's Orchestra of St. John's kicks off its fourth season this Sunday, Nov. 13, with a concert called "The Splendor of Brass and Organ."
The program is designed to showcase the historic pipe organ housed in St. John's Episcopal Church, located at 9120 Frederick Road, Ellicott City.
"The church decided to set aside money to buy a wonderful Moller organ," said Ronald Mutchnik, who founded the orchestra in 2008 and serves as its artistic director.
"Moller was a very well-established firm that was located in Hagerstown. They bought the organ because they felt that music was a very important component of the church services. But it has gone beyond that and people sometimes come to St. John's specifically to hear that organ," he said.
The M.P. Moller Co. flourished for most of the 20th century in the mid-Atlantic until closing in the early 1990s. The organs they made "have an amazing sound," Mutchnik notes.
Hearing the classic organ in an historic church is an experience, Mutchnik said.
"The acoustics of the church allow it to resound so magnificently," said the Ellicott City resident, who is also a violin virtuoso. "That's why we thought it was really important to feature the organ in one of our concerts. It's quite a treasure."
The organ will be used as the centerpiece of one of the concert's three compositions, "Organ Concerto No. 2 in G Minor," written by the 19th century German composer Joseph Rheinberger. It will be played by Nancy Stavely, the orchestra's musical director and resident organist at St. John's.
"Nancy has been the organist and choir director at the church for over 20 years," Mutchnik said. "She's a well-respected organist and has played in the Baltimore Bach Marathon every year. People will be coming to the concert specifically to hear her and that organ."
The composer, Rheinberger, isn't a household name, but Mutchnik compares his romantic style to that of Brahms. The composition, he said, is "an extremely effective piece.
"It's just very well written. It's tuneful, it's bright and it's positive, and we thought it was a great way to open the concert."
One composer who is a household name is Bach, whose "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F" the orchestra will also be tackling on Sunday. The concerto is famous with fans of pop music, as well, because its high-pitched trumpet part inspired Paul McCartney to add a similar sound to the Beatles's number one single from 1967, "Penny Lane."
The trumpet part that impressed McCartney is considered among the most difficult to play in all of classical music, Mutchnik said.
"Trumpeters spend months preparing for it, to work it up."
To that end, the Orchestra of St. John's enlisted one of the top trumpet players in the region, Scott Sabo, to perform the part.
Sabo is the principal trumpet with both the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. He also performs with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Symphonic Brass.
"He's a wonderful trumpet player, and he jumped at the chance when we said we were looking for a player for this piece," Mutchnik said. "He didn't hesitate for a moment."
The final selection on Sunday's bill will be a new composition titled "Softly and Tenderly," which was written by Maryland composer Richard Lake. The piece came to the orchestra by way of luck: Mutchnik happened to be sitting near to the composer at a Bach concert series in Baltimore and Lake introduced himself and asked if Mutchnik's orchestra performed new music.
"So Nancy and I gave it a listen and we agreed it was a beautiful piece," Mutchnik said.
The composition is based on an old hymn, he said, and "develops the basic hymn tune in many wonderful ways. It's very effectively written and we think it makes a nice compliment to the more heroic and bolder sounding music for brass and organ."
The orchestra, Mutchnik says, was very fortunate to have a composer come forward and offer a composition with no strings attached.
"Normally, you'd have to pay some money to commission a composer to write a work," he says. "But Richard Lake had in mind that he was going to write a beautiful piece for strings and he was looking for an orchestra to perform it."
The strings Mutchnik refers to will be played by the orchestra, which Mutchnik conceived as a "chamber orchestra," meaning a smaller version of a traditional orchestra which contains fewer string players and puts an emphasis on brass.
Mutchnik said he's happy such an orchestra caught on with local audiences — and caught on to the point where it has been able to survive and prosper for four seasons.
"Many organizations breathe a big sigh of relief if they make it through their third year," Mutchnik said. "With the first year, there's a lot of fanfare and everybody's excited to get something off to a good start. The second year you cross your fingers and hope enough people are interested to come back.
"But once you've passed your third year," he concludes, "you begin to feel like maybe this is going to be a permanent thing and can last a long time. So we're very happy to begin our fourth season, and delighted that ticket sales are up."
The Orchestra of St. John's opens its fourth season Sunday, Nov. 13, 4 p.m., at St. John's Episcopal Church, 9120 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Admission is $25 general ($60 for a three-concert subscription), $10 for students ages 18-24 with ID and free for anyone age 17 and younger when accompanied by an adult. For concert or donation details, call 410-461-7793, ext. 501, or go to http://www.orchestraofstjohns.org.