Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Goosebumps at Winthrop University

It took seven years, but Winthrop University finally finished its fund drive for preserving one of the area's cultural gems.

A $50,000 gift from an anonymous donor tops off the $400,000 renovation fund for the Byrnes Auditorium pipe organ, whose sumptuous tones supply some of the best sonic thrills in the Piedmont. The instrument, installed in 1955, is the work of a venerable name in American organ-building: the Boston firm Aeolian-Skinner, which was then in its heyday.

It's not a minute to soon for the recent donor to swing into action: After launching the fund drive in 2005, Winthrop moved into action without waiting for the money to come in.

The instrument was carted off to Quebec in 2007 for the restoration. )The firm that did the work, the Letourneau Organ Company, around the same time built an instrument for St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte.) After two years of refurbishing, the instrument made its second debut in 2009, when Winthrop put on a festival featuring 13 organists associated with the school over the decades. I still remember the goosebumps I got when Rock Hill native Robert Ridgell, now music director for a cathedral in St. Paul, Minn., put the pedal(s) to the metal.

In Charlotte, Myers Park Baptist Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church both have Aeolian-Skinners of about the same vintage. For all their richness, though, I think Byrnes has them beat. While I've never been able to ask an acoustician about it, my hunch is that the difference may be the buildings more than the instruments. At Byrnes, the pipes speak straight out into the auditorium; at the churches, the organs primarily aim crossways at the altars, so the sound has to reflect around before it goes out to the congregations. I suspect that takes away some of the punch.

Winthrop says there are no more concerts scheduled for the Byrnes instrument this spring. But it usually goes into action a time or two each summer, when the American Guild of Organists puts on its annual Sunday-night concert series. If it shows up on this year's schedule, I'll sound the alarm.