New organ console is key upgrade

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When you think of a church organ, majestic pipes likely come to mind. But the sound that fills the sanctuary begins not with the pipes but at the hands of the organist at the console - an area that looks like a multitiered piano and contains keyboards, foot pedals and stops.

After more than a half-century as the starting point for beautiful music, the console at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington was replaced in January as part of cathedral renovations. The new console, built by Schantz Organ Co. of Ohio, will be blessed by Father Robert J. Rippy, cathedral rector, May 1 at 7:30 p.m. The evening includes a concert featuring the Cathedral Choir and guest organist Russell Weismann, an accomplished musician who's performed at the Kennedy Center and serves as music director at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda.

As the principal instrument of the "mother church" of the diocese, the console was "in nearly constant use and showing signs of wear," said Richard Gibala, cathedral music director and music coordinator for the Arlington Diocese. The old keys had become uneven and some were harder to press.

The new console is computer generated, so it's "more efficient," Gibala said. It also has four instead of the previous three manuals, or keyboards, along with extra stops. Stops are small knobs that correspond to a set of pipes, each representing a unique sound.

There is now "more flexibility while playing," said Gibala, adding that the music also is enhanced by the new acoustics in the cathedral. During renovations wood paneling on the walls was replaced with granite.

The original cathedral console was installed with the pipes when the current church was built in 1961. After the diocese was established in 1974 and the church became a cathedral, additional pipes were added and the console was "tweaked a bit," said Gibala. Over the years the organ has received regular maintenance and care, but the new console "is by far the biggest improvement" he said.

The decision to replace the console rather than the entire organ was partially financial. An organ would cost more than $2 million; the console was $175,000.

Gibala compared the organ to an old mansion: "You can tear it down and start over, neglect it or you can maintain it," he said. Father Rippy and Gibala have opted for the third route.

"I believe it is a magnificent instrument," Gibala said, "and it can serve the cathedral for years to come."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016