Kansas City’s Pipe Organs in the Limelight

American Guild of Organists Convention Will Showcase Quality and Range of the Area’s Instruments

If Kansas City remains a too-little-known gem among American cities, the same may be true of its organ and church-music scenes. If not quite matching the profiles of, say, Boston, New York and Seattle — even, increasingly, Houston — the area has been accumulating newer pipe organs of national interest to go along with notable older instruments.

The range of Kansas City’s organs will be on display July 2 – 6, as more than 1,000 members of the American Guild of Organists converge here for one of the national organization’s biennial conventions. In venues from the Community of Christ Auditorium and Temple in Independence to Bales Recital Hall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, from Gano Chapel at William Jewell College in Liberty to Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, they will hear a wide range of organ recitals and choral concerts.

Programs at the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall will include prominent organists and members of the Kansas City Symphony. Even the 1927 Robert Morton theater organ in the Music Hall will rumble and shimmer to life. The week will also include prize-awarding national competitions in organ performance and improvisation, and premieres of newly commissioned compositions.

Seventy-six workshops will cover subjects as varied as historic performance practices and handbells, techniques for organ practice and choral rehearsal, exercise and health habits and financial planning. Displays at the convention’s headquarters hotel, the Sheraton at Crown Center, will include music publishers and organ builders. And organists from around the country — a far more convivial group that most people probably imagine — will gather at nightly cash bars to share gossip and laughter.

The AGO, its 14,000 members making it the world’s largest such organization, holds national conventions in different cities on even-numbered years and smaller regional conventions in between. The Greater Kansas City Chapter hosted a regional back in the 1990s, but this is the chapter’s first national.

“What made us think that we could do this was the fact that the Kauffman Center was open,” says convention coordinator Lynn Bratney. “Once we heard the organ, we were excited beyond belief to go ahead with this. We have a tremendous music scene going on here — the symphony, the ballet and the opera — but the organ world is also very much alive and well here.”

Large organs in concert halls are natural draws, so performances featuring the large organ in Helzberg Hall, with its façade pipes angled this way and that, will bookend the Kansas City convention. Built and installed in 2002 by the Canadian firm Casavant Frères, it was inspired by French organs of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it has the versatility to play most organ repertory — and collaborate with choirs and orchestras.

A newer large instrument, at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, represents a very different and earthier aesthetic. Inspired by North German and Dutch organs of the 17th and 18th centuries, with additional stops for later music, it’s the work of the Tennessee firm Richards, Fowkes & Co. Organs being heavily dependent on acoustics — the more “live,” the better — the church prepared for the organ by rebuilding its sanctuary to improve sound as well as accessibility.

Another new but much smaller instrument, by the Washington State builder Martin Pasi, favors similar baroque manners. It’s installed in the new sanctuary Westport Presbyterian Church built in the shell of its former building, which was destroyed in a catastrophic 2011 fire. It, too, benefits from careful acoustical design. There’s also a 2012 Pasi organ in Hope Lutheran Church in Shawnee.

Two of the area’s largest organs are in Independence, diagonally across an intersection, at the world headquarters of the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). One of them, the 1959 Aeolian-Skinner in the vast oval-shaped Auditorium, was heard in national radio broadcasts for 25 years, on the syndicated “Auditorium Organ” program featuring the late John Obetz as both performer and host.

Obetz, a beloved figure who also concertized widely and taught organ for many years at the UMKC Conservatory of Music, guided the church in the selection and design of the 1993 Casavant organ at the spiraling Temple across the intersection. As the Temple was being designed, he also insisted on involving an acoustical consultant who could calculate the lively acoustics that help make this one of the most sonically satisfying organ installations in the U.S.

Obetz was also the driving force behind getting an organ for Helzberg Hall. Fittingly, his memory will be honored in the convention’s July 2 opening celebration at the hall — an occasion also marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

At the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, the Canadian organ building firm of the late Helmuth Wolff had the rare luxury of a hall specifically designed for its glorious French-influenced instrument. Although seating only 200, Bales Recital Hall has the reverberant “ring” more common in large European churches. Organ music sounds fabulous there.

“It’s been amazing, what’s happened as far as new organ installations,” says Jan Kraybill, organist-in-residence at the Community of Christ headquarters, organ conservator at the Kauffman Center and executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. “But new and old, big and small, we have all sorts of instruments in great spaces. And there’s been an artistic renaissance that was spurred on by the Kauffman Center, but it has taken on a life of its own. I can’t wait to show my colleagues in the AGO that this is not a city to be ignored, but to be celebrated.”

For information on the convention, and events open to the public, go to www.agokc2018.com.

About The Author: Scott Cantrell

Scott Cantrell

After 10 years at “The Kansas City Star,” Scott Cantrell has covered classical music for “The Dallas Morning News” since 1999. Also an organist and choirmaster in earlier years, he has written about organs, organ music and performances since his grad-school days.

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