PAB at Gethsemane Lutheran Church

Gethsemane Lutheran Church

Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Portland Oregon (USA) was built in 1968 and features rather avant-garde architecture. The washed aggregate concrete floor in the sanctuary is approximately 80’ square and the roof is a modified pyramid shape such that the afternoon sun pouring in through the stained glass bathes the rough sawn lumber ceiling on the North and East sides with warm tinted tones. Behind the elevated altar and pulpit is a free standing wooden structure upon which hangs a cross, seasonal banners and the Eternal Light Candle. It is built from knot free old growth conifer wood, probably Douglas Fir.

The original organ

When I began my 26 years and counting as organist, the existing 2 manual analog oscillator based organ was only 4 years old and so I knew it was going to be a long time before talk of a different organ could take place. Additionally, the church is of modest means so a pipe organ that could handle a wide range of literature with reasonable authenticity was out of the question. There are also issues with physical space, temperature and humidity control that would have to be addressed making a pipe organ even less feasible.

In 2003 a project was undertaken to move the existing organ down from the balcony to the main floor of the sanctuary. The console was moved to the front left corner of the room and the floor was cut to facilitate routing of power and audio signals. Part of the overall plan was to build infrastructure that would be useful for a new organ in the future. The speaker array, consisting of 51 speakers, was moved to a space that is on top of the sacristy which is mostly behind the aforementioned wooden structure. In the original installation, the speakers were located in chambers on the South and West walls where they fired sound into the room cannon style at 90° to each other, treating the congregation to a much different listening experience depending on where they sat. Also, the back rows were extremely close to the speakers so it helped to be hard of hearing should anyone choose to sit there.

These changes produced an unbelievable amount of improvement in the sound of the organ but it only bought some time while the speakers continued to deteriorate and eventually things reached a point where something needed to be done and so I began quietly campaigning for a new organ.

The new instrument

All commercially available turn-key solutions featuring 3 manuals and 50 or more stops were investigated and proved to be cost prohibitive in addition to having audio systems I feared would be inadequate. Nearing desperation, I managed to stumble into a software product called Hauptwerk and after 6 months of reading the forum, formalizing a system design and making an overnight trip to evaluate a used pipe organ console I approached the Church Council with a proposal in June of 2009. The proposal was approved and the console, some of the MIDI hardware and a license for Hauptwerk was purchased.

Next, I evaluated various sample sets from the different vendors whose products support the Hauptwerk standard and ended up being very impressed by the disposition and sound of the Pécsi-Mühleisen organ in the Béla Bartok National Concert Hall of the Palace of Arts in Budapest, Hungary, which has been sampled by Inspired Acoustics. It was also almost uncanny how the various divisions of this organ fit onto the 4 manual console we obtained for the project.

Fast forwarding 3.5 years, on December 27, 2012 the existing organ was decommissioned and moved to a storage location and the work to install the new instrument began in earnest. Early on we decided to not commit to a specific time for when the new organ would be finished but we were very determined to have it ready for Palm Sunday. We ended up missing our goal by one week but not for lack of effort.

We kept our progress a closely held secret on a strictly need to know basis – just the three of us doing the bulk of the work and spouses. The organ played for the first time late Wednesday night of Holy Week but we didn’t breathe a word of it outside the inner circle.

The first performance

After the Good Friday service the choir assembled in the front pews of the sanctuary to have a quick rehearsal for Easter. Since it wouldn’t be a good idea to have the choir singing with the new organ for the first time at the Easter services, I quietly turned on the organ and sat at the bench waiting for the choir director to start the rehearsal. A couple of minutes passed and then one lone voice from the choir quietly said “Well…..” with a tone that suggested impatience and eagerness. So I pressed a general with a large registration I intended to use for the end of the choir anthem and played through it to the thunderous final chord. When I released the final chord the choir began to applaud and when I could finally be heard I said, “you might be wondering if that was full organ, is that all it has? The answer is no”.

Just then the Pastor and his daughter entered the room. They had been outdoors walking to where his car was parked and upon hearing the organ, rushed back in and requested I play some more. So they sat down and I obliged, starting softly and building up to an even larger sound. When I stopped, the room was again filled with applause and when I could be heard, again I said, “you might be wondering if that was full organ, is that all it has? The answer is no”. What fun!

Colors of the new organ

You see, this is the beauty of the PAB instrument. It is so large and has such variety that infinite shades of color can be created. You aren’t ever stuck without a place to go in registering the instrument as there always seems to be another layer of interest you can employ because the 4 families of tone are well represented at multiple pitch and intensity levels. It isn’t necessary to resort to the Tutti because there’s just not anything more to use, as there are other equally thrilling ensembles that can be created. For example, during the dedication program that took place on October 20, 2013 I never used the Tutti. The program featured compositions by Bach, Franck, Rowley and Alain, 2 choir anthems and 3 hymns. At the end of the final hymn, which is arranged for choir, congregation and organ together, the last few measures were registered at a level beyond the Tutti and even then, it wasn’t actually full organ. There’s just no need to push to the absolute maximum but it’s nice to know there’s still something in reserve… just in case you want to go there.

I’m so grateful that Inspired Acoustics decided to record such a magnificent instrument. Early on I knew I wanted a large specification recorded in a dry manner and the PAB delivers everything I could have hoped for.

My 88 year old mother came across the country to hear the dedication program and when we had a few quiet moments together she said, “you know, you just really can’t tell it isn’t an actual pipe organ”. That’s high praise from an organist with 50+ years of experience.

On Christmas Eve, 2013 a couple from a church in a neighboring state was visiting. Their church had just installed a new pipe organ of modest size, spending in excess of 3X what we spent, and they were extremely impressed with what they heard, especially “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”.

Whenever I can steal a few minutes alone with the new organ I select single stops and improvise just to reassure myself it sounds as good as I thought it did the last time I played it and I’ve never been disappointed.

To any who read this I extend an invitation to you to visit Gethsemane Lutheran Church to hear and play the organ. It would be my honor to share this instrument with you.

Contributed by Brooke Benfield, Organist at;
Gethsemane Lutheran Church
11560 SE Market St.
Portland, OR 97216

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