Church home to musical treasure

The oldest organ in Canada still in use at Toronto's Metropolitan United Church.

The largest and among the oldest organs in Canada is still in use at Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church.

Behind a ceiling to floor screen on either side of the altar at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto sits a unique piece of history. It’s 80 years old. It’s the largest artifact of its kind in Canada. And Dr. Patricia Wright knows it intimately.

“It sounds wonderfully well with English music,” she said. “It has orchestra soundings stops, solo stops, and strings and flutes.”

The Metropolitan United Church organ contains 7,840 pipes, delivering a tonal palette that ranks it among the world’s finest recital instruments.

The organ was rebuilt in 1930 after a fire destroyed the first organ two years before. It consists of five-manual, Casavant design organ pipes, with 500 miles of wire and a gallery of seven stops.

Dr. Wright, who stages “Noon at Met” free concerts at the church, said the organ is both a concert and a church instrument.

Stephanie Martin is a composer, conductor and associate professor in the Department of Music at York University. As an organist, she said performing on such an instrument requires commitment.

“If you play the organ you become part of the building. The building becomes part of your instrument, and the people associated with that, become and take a part of your performance,” Martin said. “It’s an instrument that involves your whole body and your whole brain. Because you’re playing with your hands and your feet and you are also orchestrating as you play.”

In Canada, the organ has been the centre of learning and music-making, not just in churches, but in the home too. Martin said that before music was even recorded, people had to make their own music, so pianos and organs in people’s homes were “real magnet for fellowship.”

What makes organs historically significant is that they survive and still function even after centuries of use.

“The organ is pretty resilient instrument,” Prof. Martin said. “They still function 400 years later. They are very long-lived, and they don’t tend to disintegrate like wind instruments that have a lot of wear and tear on them.”

That’s not to say the Met pipe organ plays exclusively serious music. The Metropolitan United Church, for example, has a popular event called Phantom of the Organ, which happens every October around Halloween.

“We play all kinds of spooky music,” Dr. Wright said. “Organists dress up in costumes. The audience dresses up in costumes. We have a smoke machine. We keep the lights down and we play … We get 600 people here.”

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By: Radina Vencheva
Posted: Feb 26 2013 5:29 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life Features