No matter how you play them, Baltimore has pipe organs worthy of respect


Baltimore has proved a pipe dream come true to almost 300 organ fanciers from all over the United States and Europe this week.

Starting last Sunday and concluding tomorrow, Baltimore and its environs have played host to the annual convention of the Organ Historical Society. Members have visited 36 organs, most of which were built in the 19th century, and gathered each evening for recitals.

Baltimore has been host to this convention twice before, in 1958 and 1971. The reason is simply that the city was -- after New York and Boston -- one of the great organ building centers in the United States in the 19th century. Many of the builders were Germans -- three of the best-known were Henry Niemann, Adam Stein and August Pomplitz -- and many of their shops were located on what is now Redwood, but was once German Street.

"There was a great deal of immigration to Baltimore and churches were going up all the time, many of them with very fine organs," OHS executive director William T. Van Pelt said yesterday after a mini-recital on the organ in what used to be St. Joseph's Monastery in Irvington and is now the Mountain Manor Treatment Center for chemical dependency.

"What's unique about Baltimore is that so many of these instruments are still in use."

Baltimore organ builder David M. Storey contributed his services, along with volunteer efforts from other builders and technicians from other states, so that many of these organs were worthy of having recitals played upon them by the distinguished organists who are among the convention's visitors.

At each site, the OHS members listen to a mini-recital and then -- at the recital's conclusion -- join voices in a hymn. Eight particularly noteworthy organs have been recognized with a plaque, signifying "outstanding historical merit, worthy of preservation."

The conventioneers made clear yesterday how worthy of preservation they deem organs to be. A contemptuous passing reference to an electronic organ provoked convulsive laughter. Organ fanciers call such devices "toasters with loudspeakers"

and speak about them with something like the disdain that old-time baseball fans reserve for artificial turf and aluminum bats. Pipe organs are almost invariably designed for the spaces they inhabit, but the portable electronics do not share such an intimate relation with the space in which they are placed.

"The basic sound of organs is similar, but each instrument takes on the special quality of the space," said Marvin Mills, an organist from Washington. "The room is the most important stop on an organ."

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