Sun | Apr 21, 2019

Operation save the pipe organ - Kgn Parish Church targets $1.7 million to repair musical instrument

Published:Wednesday | March 14, 2018 | 12:09 AMMel Cooke
Dwight McBean plays the pipe organ at the Kingston Parish Church, South Parade, Kingston.
Dwight McBean, pipe organist, tuner and service provider, at the Kingston Parish Church.
Dwight McBean
Dwight McBean plays the pipe organ at the Kingston Parish Church, South Parade, Kingston.

As the State pushes to restore the old city from the waterfront northwards, where King Street meets South Parade, a church operation has begun to extend the life of an instrument which in part symbolises another renewal of the capital - its rebuilding after the devastating 1907 earthquake.

The Henry Wills & Sons pipe organ was built in 1910, replacing the one built by Samuel Green, which was destroyed by the earthquake.

Dwight McBean, who tunes and services the pipe organ at the Kingston Parish Church, told The Gleaner that “the mechanism inside the organ is now old. It needs upgrading and replacement with the new technology that is available for pipe organs today.”

Operating below best

One of the issues is that some of the stops utilised to modulate the organ’s sound are stuck open and others can’t open at all, leaving the instrument at the church, which hosts many official functions, not only operating well below its musical best, but teetering on the edge of terminal decline.

Another problem he identifies is caused by the church’s location in the bustling business district and transportation hub.

“The exhaust from the motor vehicles clogs the organ’s airways,” McBean said. 

Although the certified organ tuner and service provider pulls out and cleans the worst affected pipes there are thousands of them, well beyond what he is able to do.

The total cost for repairs, about £10,000 (approximately J$1.7 million), is also far beyond the Kingston Parish Church’s capabilities and so McBean has arranged the first of a series of fundraisers towards the organ’s restoration at the church on Good Friday, March 30.

The event features the Kingston Parish Church’s organist, Archie Dunkley, The Ecumenical Chorale, pianists Mickel Gordon and Stephen Shaw-Naar, the Mona Campus Male Chorus, Musical Apostles Steel Band, soloists June Thompson Lawson, and Carole Reid and violinist Steven Woodham. Ironically, the church’s excellent acoustics helped make it easier for the performers to agree to participate but the organ’s limitations led to not only a single organist on the line-up, but Dunkley’s playing being restricted to what it can handle. “The organ chose for us, we did not choose for the organ,” McBean quipped.

So although the organ still functions for congregations to sing along to, played as it is intended for solo performances it is woefully inadequate and, if left unattended, will eventually grind to a halt like pipe organs at other churches McBean, who is certified and the maker’s representative for the Caribbean after five years of training in England, has seen. He envisions three stages of repairs one each on the console’s two keyboards and the pipes, with fundraising geared towards each and the organ enjoying continued (if reduced), functionality as the restoration is done.

While the estimated repair bill is high, it is only 10 per cent of the estimated cost of custom-building a new one for the space, as all pipe organs are done individually. There is also the option of putting in an electronic organ, however, McBean said, not only does it not sound the same, but the service life is only 15 years before problems arise. “It is 108 years old and, with care, can last another 108 years,” McBean said about the pipe organ at the Kingston Parish Church.