University Church, Fordham University New York City Schoenstein & Co

By Alexander, Richard | The American Organist, May 2013 | Go to article overview

University Church, Fordham University New York City Schoenstein & Co


Alexander, Richard, The American Organist


The Consultant Speaks Out

St. John's Church, now known as the University Church, was completed in 1 846 to serve the seminary that had recently been opened at Rose Hill in the Bronx. Farmlands surrounded what is now a great urban campus. The neo-Gothic structure was gready enlarged in 1929 by a crossing (with lantern tower above) and a sanctuary; it now seats 1 ,200. The University Church is of great historical significance, and has been designated as such by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. Fordham's Web site includes a full description, including die church's connection with such diverse people as Eleanor Roosevelt, Edgar Allan Poe, and Louis, King of France. A history of the organs there may be found at the New York City AGO Chapter's Web site (Nycago. org). Click on its endlessly fascinating NYC Organ Project.

Robert Minotti was appointed director of music at the University Church in 1990 and immediately set out to resuscitate the moribund music program. Under his leadership, the choirs, the occasional concerts, and, most importandy, the music in the liturgies have flourished. But, oh, the gallery organ he inherited: Two cornets, an independent Pedal with a useless mixture (are they ever not?), and only a narrow-scale Viole and an Oboe Schalmei in the Récit. Other than continuo and smaller-scale early music, very litde could be played effectively on it. A lovely sounding small organ had been placed in the sanctuary behind an ineffably ugly fauxportatif facade with an attached console that also controlled the gallery organ via blind pistons. Although well maintained, the instruments began to deteriorate mechanically. Clearly, something had to be done.

I had seen and played these organs on several occasions before Minotti formally contacted me about the situation in 2008. Following preliminary discussions with him, I was engaged by Fordham University as its consultant. Central to our conversations was Minotti's vision for the music in the University Church. It had to have a sanctuary organ, given the smaller liturgies and big concerts happening in that area. Having been thwarted for years by that gallery organ, he was determined to have an instrument more suited for accompanying choir and congregation, and for a broader spectrum of organ literature. A retrospective/historical organ was not considered - form needed to follow function, not the reverse. Finally, it seemed appropriate that a new instrument for one of the premier educational institutions in the United States be built by an American firm. To that end, Schoenstein & Co. was chosen without competition. We felt the company was simply the best for this situation. I am personally so grateful for the happy and vigorous collaboration that ensued with Robert Minotti, Jack Bethards and Louis Patterson of Schoenstein, and myself.

The brief for this job was simple but challenging: The space in the gallery was limited, and the only space available in the sanctuary was in an odd-shaped area near the central altar. And, of course, the project had to be funded. Happily, the enlightened leadership of the university and its church were supportive; generous donors appeared, and contracts were signed. Specifications were developed, changed, amended, and finalized over many months of consideration.

The University Church has three main functions: the principal liturgies, with both an excellent gallery choir and hearty congregational participation; ceremonial occasions, such as weddings, funerals, university events, and ordinations; and concerts and smaller liturgies, with their focus in the sanctuary area. The tonal scheme, in the end, was inspired by its Roman Catholic roots in 19th-century French cathedrals. Put another way, it is a thoroughly American organ with a French accent.

The two-manual, 1 4-rank sanctuary organ is reminiscent of its French counterparts, adapted for multipurpose use as a complete organ for small liturgies in the crossing, cantorial accompaniments, and as a supplement for orchestral/choral works. …

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