Crawling Through New York

-by Ron Coons

On the morning of January 19, Martin Luther King
Day, some 40 organ enthusiasts gathered at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in West Hartford for coffee and donuts prior to setting off on an organ crawl to hear and play instruments at three churches in New York City: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Grace Church in Lower Manhattan, and St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue. After we had had an opportunity to meet up with old friends and make new ones, Treasurer John Coghill, our master of ceremonies for the day, gently summoned us to our waiting DATTCO motor coach, which efficiently whisked us to the cathedral on Amsterdam Avenue. Here John gathered his flock for a few moments of orientation and gave instructions to reassemble precisely at 12:55 p.m.; our presentation would begin at 1:00 p.m. in the chancel. He then sent us on our way so that we could eat at one of a number of suggested nearby restaurants. After lunch, many of us returned early to the cathedral to wander through its vast interior and to gaze in awe at the exhibit “Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral,” which offered two massive bird constructions suspended from the ceiling of the nave.

Our host at St. John the Divine was the cathedral’s associate organist, Ray Nagem. After giving a history of the organ, he played two works from different periods to demonstrate the instrument’s diversity. His deft rendition of Bach’s “Pastorale” proved that it was possible to perform baroque music well even on this large organ housed in a huge space. To reveal the organ’s full potential, he then played Maurice Duruflé’s “Prélude, adagio et choral varié sur le theme du ‘Veni Creator,’” earning admiring applause. Ray concluded the program by answering questions and wishing our group well as we organ-crawled further through the city.

And crawl we did, as our coach slowly inched its way through heavy traffic to Grace Church at Broadway and 10th Street. Standing in the portal of this neo-Gothic structure awaiting our arrival were the church’s organist, Patrick Allen, and our own former Dean, Jason Roberts, whose defection to St. Bartholomew’s last May had in fact inspired the day’s excursion. (Erik Eickhoff, formerly of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, had earlier joined us at the cathedral.) A number of hugs preceded our entry into the church, where Patrick gave an informative history of the church and an account of the purchase of its new Taylor and Boody organ. (An interesting feature of this mechanical-action instrument is that pipes are located on both sides of the chancel, with long track- ers running underneath the floor between the two cases.) Then, to demonstrate the organ’s rich sound, he accompanied the group in a stately rendition of the hymn Let Every Voice. As we indeed raised our voices in song, we proved that organists can not only play but can also sing. And to prove that they can indeed play, a number of participants then tested the Taylor and Boody’s tonal resources.

When our time at Grace Church was up, Treasurer Coghill summoned us back to our bus for the ride across town to St. Bart’s. Here Jason unlocked doors and led us through passageways to the nave of this impressive building that had, he explained, been largely financed by Vanderbilt money. Like Patrick and Ray before him, Jason spoke about the history of the building and of the organ, the largest in the city, and after demonstrating its tonal possibilities he urged participants to play the instrument for themselves. Finally, before time ran out, Jason was coaxed into offering two improvisations on familiar hymn tunes: Let Every Voice and Sine Nomine. Both earned appreciative applause.

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As our departure from New York neared, Treasurer Coghill once again herded us into our waiting motor coach. On the way home we stopped at the Darien rest area on I-95 to catch a bite of fast food and to do what one often does at rest areas. Before too long we were back at St. Mark the Evangelist, in time for some of us, at least, to catch the 10 o’clock news. Before leaving our bus, we expressed our appreciation to our driver Paul for safely getting us to our destinations, and to John Coghill and Dean Kari Magg for having so successfully organizing the crawl.