An internationally-renowned and historic pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore is nearly completely repaired, and the church has scheduled a rededication service Jan. 30 to celebrate the completion of the extensive work project.
Last January, the 1949 Aeolian-Skinner, Opus 1173 organ at First Presbyterian Church, which is the flagship organ of the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, was removed for long overdue restoration and re-leathering work, with the plan that the organ would be returned in early summer and playable for the festival in November.
Then, in the middle of February, a record-breaking winter storm smashed into the southern U.S., dumping inches of snow and ice across Texas. As the clean-up work progressed, it was discovered the storm had caused extensive damage to the organ, in addition to damage sustained over many decade of continuous use.
Gala Strunk, organist and choirmaster at First Presbyterian, said she, the congregation and others in Kilgore are very excited about the upcoming rededication ceremony.
“This is going to be a pretty big deal on Jan. 30. We’re very excited about it. We’re very excited about getting the organ back. It’s been out for about 11 months.”
Strunk said a group of specially-trained pipe organ repair technicians will arrive Tuesday of next week and begin working by Wednesday morning. Additional technicians will arrive next Friday to reinforce the crew and complete the repair project. Over the months-long project, highly trained workers have come to Kilgore from across the country to repair and replace the many thousands of individual pipes and pieces of the organ. Much of the work and fashioning and repairing of individual components was completed by specialists in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
Many of its parts were originally fashioned in the 1930s and installed in the 1940s. The installation and finishing work was overseen by Roy Perry, former organist and choirmaster at First Presbyterian.
The rededication ceremony will feature performance by concert organist Dr. Bradley Hunter Welch.
Strunk said Welch was the ideal musician for the ceremony rededicating the historic instrument.
“People from out of town, people who are organ enthusiasts and people who know of Dr. Welch and know how good he is, we all feel like he is the obvious choice to do this. He knows the organ well and will certainly do a great job for us. He has performed at the pipe organ festival before. I have heard him play several times at other events, other than the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival. He plays with the Dallas Symphony and he takes care of the large Fisk pipe organ at the Meyerson Symphony Hall.”
She believes the concert and performance will go ahead and is not anticipating problems related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hopefully, the COVID thing will not keep us from having it. We’re going to go ahead and move forward and have a positive outlook. I think most of us are a little weary of canceling things and not knowing what’s in the future. Of course, we’re going to be smart about it but we’re going to have it and I think we’ll have a pretty good crowd. That’s my hope,” she said.
In addition to Dr. Welch, the concert will see three different church choirs joining their voices together in song.
“We will have a choir that is composed of members of the First Presbyterian Choir, the First Baptist Choir and the St. Luke’s Methodist Choir. We’re going to combine them because we want this to be a city-wide event in welcoming the organ back and renewing our faith in God and showing that through the music ministries.”
Strunk added those who have heard the repaired organ have noticed the improvement in its tone and sound.
“So many of them said it sounds wonderful as it is. They didn’t know what was occurring with some of the pipes. Some of the leather was turning loose because it’s been up there for 50 years. Some of them just love it no matter what. The first Sunday I used it when they came back, everyone went ‘Ohhh!’”
There are still a few minor issues to work out with the massive, complex instrument but, over the next week, technicians will work out the last few kinks.
“When you have new parts, things can just go wrong with it,” Strunk said.
“The pipes sit down against the leather, well, the leather may be too stiff right now. The pipe doesn’t like it so it’s going to honk on its own or not talk at all. You have to be very patient with getting it happy. I think she’s getting happy. There’s a few things that I have found, like some dead notes, but they will be fixed. When they get here next week, they’ll be working on it and taking care of it. The organ is just a little bit older than me. When we get to a certain age, we have to replace some parts! So that’s what we did. It’s like we had a major knee replacement for the organ! But she’ll be ready to go in just a couple of weeks.”
Once the repairs are finally complete, Strunk hopes many future generations of Kilgoreites and church members will be able to enjoy its impressive and unique sound and tones.
“Our hope is that these parts will last for another 50 years. Who knows what the future holds? I’m hoping that there will still be people coming to marvel at the sound.”
With decade of experience as an organist, Strunk knows that this particular instrument is very special and it holds a very special place for her, personally.
“I grew up in Kilgore and this is the organ that inspired me to be an organist as a little child. I came to hear it and I thought ‘oh, I want to play one of those!’ I played a digital organ for 40 years before I came here and they do well, but the presence of the sound is not the same as a pipe organ. I can’t explain it or put it into words other than that the presence of the sound is different.”
The rededication ceremony, “A Festival of Hymns”, will be held Sunday, Jan. 30 at 5 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church at 815 E. Main St. It will include performances by Dr. Bradley Hunter Welch, the First Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, the First Baptist Sanctuary Choir and the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church Chancel Choir.