He was working in his office one day when Michael Ruppert and Christopher Nordwall of Rose City Organ Builders stopped by to say if the church ever needed any work done on its instrument, to give them a call. As a matter of fact, Grace Lutheran’s pipe organ was in need of rebuilding.
“We just look at that as being God’s hand saying, ‘well, you need these people right now, and here you go, and they’re just up the street,’” Bitter said.
Although Grace Lutheran was built in 1964, the congregation has been here 107 years, and the organ has old roots.
Much of it came from the church’s previous location at Northeast 25th Avenue and Broadway. Parts of it predate even that location.
The age of the instrument had become evident in the sound that filled the modernist timber-and- stained-glass sanctuary. Cracked wooden pipes and failing gaskets allowed a rush of wind to be heard escaping from the labyrinthine workings of the old instrument. Fortunately, the church had recently acquired a gift from the estate of Katherine Weir, once a member of the church, to beautify and restore the sanctuary.
So it was serendipitous that two organ builders with a shop located at 2813 N.E. 58th Ave. came calling at just that time. Bitter and Dave Krueger, Grace Lutheran’s ministries coordinator, solicited bids from other organ builders in town, but they chose Rose City because “of everything just syncing in a way that their proposal met all of our requirements,” said Krueger.
Those requirements were complex and involved difficult choices. The church had always had a pipe organ, but those massive instruments are large and incredibly expensive, nearly $500,000 to build one of this size new, and there are logistical and staffing limitations – there are fewer organists than there once were.
“Pipe organs, especially ones with that much history, have a lot of sentimental value in the congregation,” said Bitter. “And in the congregation there were a lot of people who just thought, ‘well maybe it’s time to just go to all digital,’ and there were other people that wanted to hang on to the pipes.”
Rose City Organ Builders proposed a hybrid organ. It plays some notes by blowing wind through pipes and some digitally by playing back samples recorded from some of the world’s best pipe organs. In a sense, the hybrid concept allows the church to fit a much larger organ, one capable of producing a greater range of sound, in a smaller space. And although there is a slight difference in sound between real pipes and digital samples, with modern electronics it is very difficult for all but the most well-trained ears to tell the difference between the two.
“It’s very complex, because an organ note has an attack and a sustain. It can reproduce that as well. In the past 20 years, digital has come far. So now you can make it speak differently,” said Ruppert.
Still, some notes sound noticeably stronger and richer when played with wind, especially in a space as “live” as Grace Lutheran’s, and many of those sounds will be produced by the new organ’s 349 pipes of both wood and metal. Many of those pipes have been reclaimed from the old organ, repaired of cracks and water damage and painted with a fresh coat of shellac.
To come up with the design for the new organ, Nordwall looked at pictures of the organ from Grace Lutheran’s old location on Broadway. It featured an organ with a front row of pipes shaped like an arch divided into thirds by two columns. Pastor Bitter knew of some organ pipes from the old location that had been in storage at the church since the move.
Those old pipes have been worked into the design as a facade of “non-speaking” pipes that hides the ranks of playing pipes, valves, electronics and regulators. Two more rows of “non-speaking” pipes will cover speakers in the front that play an antiphonal division. According to Ruppert, it would be inaccurate to think that because the pipe facades are non-speaking, they are non-functional.
“The ear hears what the eye sees,” he said.
For Pastor Bitter’s part, he says that things could hardly have worked out better. “I cannot tell you how happy we are with them. Fantastic couple of guys,” he said.
Krueger praised how tightly Rose City has stuck to the original agreement. “To this day we’re down to the quarter of an inch,” he said, “holding on to the handshake that we made” at the outset of the project.
Nordwall, the son of renowned organist Jonas Nordwall, will play a concert demonstration of the new organ sometime in September.
By Mike Allen
For the Hollywood Star News