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Cover Story - Posted August 25, 2017 10:25 a.m.
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Photos courtesy of Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024

Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024

Among the arts entities and opportunities in Amarillo, none may be more mysterious than one based at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Even dedicated music fans may be forgiven for asking Who are these “Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024”? Also: Who is Aeolian-Skinner anyway?

Aeolian-Skinner is not a who, but a what. An increasingly rare, internationally significant what.

The Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024 is the pipe organ that dominates the dramatic stone-and-glass interior of the nave at St. Andrew’s. It’s not just any pipe organ, either, but one of the most significant pipe organ installations in the 21st century.

Its story begins with a local tragedy. In 1996, the 50-year-old sanctuary and parish hall of St. Andrew’s burned to the ground in an accidental fire. The church community began the rebuilding process almost immediately, and the new nave was custom-designed to house a massive 6,173-pipe organ purchased from the University of Texas.

That organ had been produced by Boston’s renowned Aeolian-Skinner company. Designed by G. Donald Harrison – Aeolian-Skinner’s most famous designer – it was one of the largest organs built before World War II, and had once been considered the crown jewel of the music program at the University of Texas. But it had been retired by the university in 1981 and sat unplayed in an old recital hall on campus.

In the music world, the now-defunct Aeolian-Skinner company was known for having produced the “Rolls-Royce” of American organs. Upon examining the mothballed U.T. organ, an Aeolian-Skinner expert proclaimed it an exquisite piece of pipe organ history and one of the finest church organs in the nation.
With the help of a private donor, the church bought the organ at a pittance from U.T. It took several years to be transported, rebuilt and installed in the church’s new sanctuary. While the new sanctuary opened in 2002, the organ’s installation wasn’t finished until the summer of 2005. Today, the combination of the now-priceless vintage organ and the world-class acoustics of the nave have given St. Andrew’s and its Aeolian-Skinner a worldwide reputation.

“A lot of churches use carpet and deadening properties so the sound system works,” explains organist and composer Rick Land, who is the interim chairman of the Friends of Aeolian Skinner Opus 1024 board. These sacred spaces are designed to deaden “live” sound because they otherwise enhance audio using microphones, amplifiers and electrical instruments. But like the great cathedrals of Europe, St. Andrew’s was designed to naturally amplify live sound – especially the sound of its new organ. “It has live acoustics,” Land says. “The architect made it a live room, and organists love this room. An organ needs a good space. This is the spectacular sound of a pipe organ in a really, really good space.”

The thousands of pipes used to produce the organ’s tones allow the single instrument to approach the depth of a full-sized orchestra when played by a capable musician. That’s one reason Mozart once called the pipe organ – which is a wind instrument that also uses foot pedals and a keyboard – the “king of instruments.”

“It’s an individual art form,” says Land, who himself is a professional organist and, with Russ Tapp, is part of the organ and keyboard duo RnR Fusion. “Every organ is different. There are no two that sound alike on this planet.”

Immediately recognizing the unique quality of the Aeolian-Skinner in the new sanctuary, Margaret Lacy, the church’s now-retired director of music ministries, helped assemble the non-profit organization Friends of Aeolian-Skinner (FASO) to promote the organ. Since then, FASO has brought internationally known organists and other musicians to perform in the space, with the incomparable organ a central draw.

Before coming to Amarillo, Land lived for more than two decades in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He says the Metroplex may have only one organ that compares to this one. “There is an incredible concert organ at the Meyerson Symphony Center that is world-class,” he says. That organ is housed in a concert hall designed by world-famous architect I.M. Pei. “I can easily say this organ in Amarillo is on the same level, but our space is not as large.” That makes the experience of the Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Andrew’s a major attraction – not just for music fans but for some of the best organ players in the world.

Those musicians will be on display in the coming months during FASO’s four Sunday-evening concerts for the 2017-2018 season, its 12th overall.

A former child prodigy on the pipe organ, internationally acclaimed concert organist Hector Olivera will open the season on Sept. 10. Land says the maestro is known as much for his skills as an entertainer as for his prodigious talent on the organ. “He’s phenomenal, very diverse and plays everything,” says Land, who first encountered Olivera several years ago in Dallas. He says a performer like Olivera will provide an excellent introduction to the organ’s capabilities for those who have never heard it. “He’s a real crowd-pleaser.”

The next concert, on Oct. 15, features vocalist Eric Barry, a native of Sundown, Texas, and alumni of West Texas A&M University. The first tenor soloist who has ever performed in FASO’s history, Barry has been featured in his own PBS documentary and his recordings have aired on NPR and the BBC. The tenor will be accompanied by local pianist and organist Jim Gardner, the long-time director of music ministries at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church and music director of the Amarillo Little Theatre.

Other local musicians are featured during the season’s third concert, with Harrington String Quartet cellist Emmanuel Lopez and WT pianist Denise Parr-Scanlin performing. The final concert of the season features The Chenaults on April 22, 2018. This husband-and-wife duo debuted in Amarillo during the 2012-2013 FASO concert season, and even recorded their most recent album on the church’s Aeolian-Skinner. Elizabeth and Raymond Chenault are known around the world for their four-hands-and-four-feet organ duets. “They are very much in demand and were begging to come back,” says Land.

He says the diversity and quality of these artists reflect the growing international status of the St. Andrew’s pipe organ. “I don’t know of another concert series quite like this anywhere,” Land says. “We really have an international reputation. We have lots of artists who call us and want to perform in Amarillo. I can’t stress enough how unusual this is – it would be unusual even in a city the size of Dallas.”

Learn more about the Friends of Aeolian Skinner organization, the organ itself, and the upcoming concert series at fasoamarillo.org.

Amarillo Little Theatre and the ALT Academy

Amarillo Museum of Art

Saint Ann of Amarillo

Chamber Music Amarillo

Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024

Lone Star Ballet

Amarillo Opera

Amarillo Symphony

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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