Jason Neumann-Grable, 73, a one-man organ repair team from Hillsboro, has become one of Astoria's newest part-time residents.

When in Astoria, he stays with Denise Reed, director of the North Coast Chorale, who drew him into one last hurrah before his retirement from fixing pipe organs.

Neumann-Grable’s mission is clear: Make the ancient Estey Opus 1429, at Clatsop Community College’s Performing Arts Center (PAC), whole again.

“I said ‘What will it cost for you to come down and see if you can repair this?’” said Reed, adding that the organ hadn’t been played in a major production in about 35 years. “He charged us his lowest possible price, with room and board.”

He started working on the Estey just after the Bach ’n Rock Around the Clock benefit for the PAC in November, and first heard it in action during a March benefit organ performance of Oregon composer Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” to benefit the organ’s restoration.

“I was sweating bullets,” said Neumann-Grable, who has played, built and repaired organs for more than a half a century, about Robert Fishel, the accompanist on organ, starting it up for its first major concert in decades.

“What I said (to the audience) was, ‘You’re hearing about half the organ. If you want to hear the other half, there’s a basket outside.’”

The organ, he said, behaved; the North Coast Chorale and individual donations raised more than $1,700 that night; and his work continued.

Investing

“If you’re going to replace that organ, you’d spend a quarter of a million at today’s prices,” said Neumann-Grable about the Estey, estimated at $40,000 in 1939.

Director of Advancement Patricia Warren said, by comparison, the college’s foundation will have spent about $8,800 on Neumann-Grable’s repair project from several sources:

• The CCC Foundation’s Arts and Experience Auction, from which it was awarded $5,000;

• A $1,000 grant from the Bloomfield Family Trust, named after Marge Bloomfield;

• $1,767 generated from a North Coast Chorale benefit and other individual donations;

• $1,032 in additional fundraising from Partners for the PAC, the community arts coalition formed to help keep the PAC open to the public.

“This has really been a long-standing interest of the college,” said Warren, adding that in 2009 it solicited a professional estimate to fix the organ, waiting for money to do so.

Warren said Reed has been the main backer in the most recent effort to restore the organ.

“It’s to serve the community ... for people in the community,” said Reed, who originally paid Neumann-Grable $100 from her own pocket to come look at it for the first time.

“If the college can initiate a program of education on this, it will still be used.”

The organ repair project started, said Reed, after the Partners started paying the PAC’s operating costs and helping maintain it. And that includes the Opus 1429, which first played at the former Trinity Lutheran Church on Christmas morning of 1938.

“The choir would like to use it,” said Reed. “The orchestra will use it. An organ isn’t something that sits; it needs somebody to use it.”

Remaking the Estey

“I’m trying to make this into an instrument that will play music made to be played on an organ,” said Neumann-Grable.

The organ, which he said has a pitch range of 32 to 8,000 hertz, is powered by a blower in the bottom level of the PAC. The blower produces air, sending it to the wind chests below more than 1,000 pipes crowding two of the PAC’s upper chambers above the main stage. A series of wires connects the chambers with the console, where the organ is played.

“They’re pretty easy to play,” he said sarcastically. “You just have to divide your brain into three pieces.”

The pipes, he said, are of different designs and tonal qualities, divided into four main tonal families:

• The diapasons – foundational voice: big, warm and mellow;

• The tibias, or flute-like tones, of wood and metal;

• The reed tones of trumpets, oboes, clarinets and various horns;

• The string tones, reminiscent of violins and cellos.

The organ came with a player attachment, a mechanism that plays the organ autonomously, that is missing. Most of the pieces are there, but this Estey, he said, was meant to play more orchestral music and must be modified.

“They would like to make it more of a classical music piece. If you try to play Bach on this instrument, it doesn’t work, because the organ doesn’t have a bite to it.”

To do that, he said, involves customizing some of the pipes, adding higher tones that can better accommodate some of the baroque music he said people want played on it. He’s currently fixing the rotating blinds that open to let sound out of the chambers and into the PAC’s main hall.

He’s preparing the organ as much as possible for “Saints & Sinners: An Organ Concerta” at 2 p.m. Nov. 2 at the PAC. The program features himself playing and presenting on the organ, along with organists Paul Tegels of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and Christopher Wicks of Salem. The admission price is yet to be determined, and the proceeds support the CCC Foundation’s scholarships and Partners for the PAC.

From Portland to Astoria

Every one of the 3,200 or so Estey Opus pipe organs built by the Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, Vt., came delivered with their production number. Many went to churches, but some, such as 1429, went to private residences.

“It was meant to be put in the homes of rich people who couldn’t find Middle C,” said Neumann-Grable. “It was a status symbol.”

In the Sellwood Bee, reporter Eileen Fitzsimons explored the history of the the Estey Opus 1429. It was built in 1916 and shipped to and installed in the house of Dr. John Sellwood, owner of a local hospital and the nephew of Rev. James R.W. Sellwood, the namesake of the Sellwood district.

After his wife May died in 1938, John Sellwood sold his house, and either he or the homebuyer sold the organ to the Guenther Organ Company, which knew Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria needed a pipe organ.

It was disassembled, transported down the Columbia River and set up in the church, where it played until the congregation merged with another in 1974 and sold the building to the college.

CCC reopened it as the PAC in 1977. Since then, said Reed, the organ has remained largely silent. She hopes events like Saints & Sinners will become annual, drawing in professional organists from all over, and that the community will be able to take advantage of one amenity that even the Liberty Theater doesn’t have.

   

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