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Mem Church Recital Benefits Ashmont Skinner


Ernest M. Skinner, organ  builder.
Ernest M. Skinner, organ builder.

Renowned organist William Porter’s recital at Harvard’s Memorial Church on September 21st at 4 pm will help meet a challenge grant to fund restoration of a recently relocated 1929 E.M. Skinner organ at the Parish of All Saints, Ashmont, in Dorchester.

In the midst of the final stages of restoring its historic building—the first church designed by Ralph Adams Cram—the Parish of All Saints represented an opportunity to acquire a vintage Skinner from a closed church. Ideal in size, sound and pedigree, the Skinner Organ Co.’s Opus 708 was a welcome and timely replacement to the church’s failing chancel organ. Thanks to a generous gift and with the help of church volunteers, All Saints was able to acquire and store the instrument, arranged through organ consultant and parishioner Jonathan Ambrosino and restorer Joe Sloane.

Skinner organs excel at choral accompaniment, a requirement at All Saints, where the chancel organ’s primary use is accompanying the Parish’s rare Choir of Men and Boys. Founded in 1888, the choir is one of fewer than 20 such left in America today. In addition to helping to lead the liturgy at All Saints, the choir provides structured afterschool, weekend, and summer programming for urban boys and teenagers.

At All Saints, the Skinner will join the Centennial Organ, C.B. Fisk’s Opus 103 of 1995, which leads congregational singing and provides a thrilling instrument for solo literature. This two-organ arrangement matches that at Harvard’s Memorial Church, whose 1930 Skinner (Opus 793) serves Appleton Chapel for weekday worship, while the 2012 Fisk organ (Opus 139) in the gallery leads Sunday mornings and offers superb recital possibilities. Porter will use both for his recital.

Recently retired professor of organ and harpsichord at the Eastman School of Music, William Porter also teaches at McGill University in Montreal, where he lives. From 1985 to 2002 he taught at NEC and from 2001 until 2005 he taught improvisation at Yale. He holds degrees from Oberlin, where he also taught from 1974 to 1986, and from Yale University, where from 1971 to 1973 he was director of music at the Divinity School.

BMInt had several question for Porter.

BMInt: What is it about the current vogue for Skinners in light of their dismissal as tubby and inarticulate as recently as a decade ago?

WP: Now that is a complex question, and I will try to answer it without becoming too longwinded. It is important to remember that the criticism of organs by Skinner and his contemporaries as being tubby and inarticulate goes back many years; in fact, it goes back to a time when the Skinner organs of the 1920s were still relatively new. Those who made such criticisms then, and in the years following, were moreover often fine musicians whose experience of the organ as musical instrument was rather cosmopolitan; these people tended to be aware, for instance, of the particular beauties found in historic European organs, and at the same time they were rediscovering how extensive the breadth of the historic organ repertoire is, and so it is no wonder that they found much to criticize in Skinner’s organs. But it is just as important to remember that these criticisms come from a time when it was pretty much assumed that one style of organ could serve to play everything that you might want to play on it. As people’s interest and love especially for the some of the earlier repertoire grew, so did the dissatisfaction with instruments from Skinner’s period also grow, because they realized that much of this music didn’t sound so well on these organs. What happened in the later 20th century then was that more and more organs were built to accommodate this breadth of organ repertoire. One result of this development has been the growing consciousness that a healthy American organ culture is one which supports a true diversity of styles in organ building, that the presence of many styles of organ is necessary to respond to our passion for many styles of music. This phenomenon, in turn, has produced another happy result: now that we have more instruments to play music that a Skinner organ was never designed to do, perhaps we are freer to discover again how wonderful they were—and are—at what they were designed to do. So it might even be true to say that the “historic” organ revival made possible a Skinner revival as well. An interesting, but nice, paradox.

One thing was never in doubt, though, as far as I can see, and that is the high quality of Skinner’s workmanship. They were built well, voiced well, and they represent a consistent aesthetic concept. Many, myself included, consider them to represent the highest state of the art of the organ for their time. Because of this, the obligation to preserve them, to care for them lovingly, and to learn from them is a serious one. They are part of the richness of our heritage.

So for me, the important thing to ask, as an organist, when encountering any instrument, is not, “How will it play the music I want to play?” More important is to ask, “How can I hear and draw forth from this instrument its inherent beauty? How can I approach it in such a way that people will love the way it sounds?”

Carrying a bass pipe toward the sanctuary.
Carrying a bass pipe toward the sanctuary.

I’m surprised to find that you are an advocate for Skinner organs as service instruments. On what sort of literature will this one thrive?

Well, I suppose I am first of all an advocate for preserving our heritage. Many different kinds of organs can serve well as service instruments, and I would resist a too narrow view of what a service instrument is. Likewise, although I am sure that those who will play the Skinner organ at All Saints will learn from it what kind of repertoire it likes, I’m not primarily concerned about the organ repertoire question. The Fisk organ at the other end of the room has already proven itself to play beautifully a great deal of the repertoire. But the ways in which the Skinner organ accompanies the choral music of a particular part of the Anglican heritage is truly something special, and All Saints is an ideal place for such an instrument. But look, beyond that, here is a chance to acquire and preserve intact an instrument of surpassing quality and to bring it to a new home where it will be lovingly restored, lovingly used, and where its beauty will be appreciated. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come along very often.

All Saint’s Skinner is rather less developed in the orchestral vein than the Skinner at Mem Church. Will it impress us or be retiring?

I suppose the safe answer is to say that we shall have to wait and see. But I will say this: the first two organs that I had lessons on were both Skinner organs. The second one was about the same size as the All Saints’ organ, and it was anything but retiring. Moreover the orchestral quality of the organ was not dependent on how many imitative stops it had, but was something that pervaded the sound of every stop on the organ, a kind of basic quality of its behavior. It’s more a question of voicing, balance, and the overall tonal concept. It’s important not to try to draw too many conclusions from looking at the stoplistp.

The press release doesn’t tell us what pieces you’re playing on the Harvard Fisk. (For his Harvard recital, Porter will play Saint-Saëns, Tournemire, and Dupré on the Skinner, and Widor’s Symphonie Romane on the Fisk.) Please enlighten us and let us know why you chose what you did.

The Saint-Saens will be the Fantaisie in E-flat Major, in two movements. The Tournemire will be the “Suite for Epiphany” (from L’Orgue Mystique), and the Dupré will be the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor. I first played all of these pieces on Skinner organs. None of these pieces sound on a Skinner organ as their composers intended; there are other organs that will do that, but I do think that each of these pieces helps the Skinner to sound well. That’s primarily why I chose them. I chose the Widor Romane Symphony because I know that the Fisk organ will also sound very well with this music, and because I love the Romane Symphony intensely. This piece, for me, is one of the greatest monuments of French Romantic organ music, a piece for a lifetime

Are there any current performance taboos in the organ world?

Yes. But I think it is best just to get on with your work and to do what you find meaningful.

Why does All Saints choose to have the choir in the chancel instead of the gallery, where the Fisk could accompany it?

For quite a number of happy years, I directed the music at the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street. There, the organ and choir were in the rear gallery, which worked very well, although the choir had formerly been in the front. When the choir stalls were removed and the front of the church was opened up, which Cram did c.1930, the visual aspect was actually improved. But to do something like that at All Saints would be a disaster, and would be a desecration of Cram’s wonderful architectural concept. So it is a question instead either of looking at empty choir stalls or of using them. My feeling is that the sense of corporate worship is stronger at All Saints when the choir stalls are full. It’s a complicated issue, to be sure.

Parish organist Andrew P. Sheranian: The fact that the choir is now 32 voices, and the organ gallery at the rear of the church, which houses the Fisk, was not designed to accommodate so many singers. In addition, the choir’s role in leading congregational responses (both spoken and sung) is aided by having the choir seated in quire, and not in a gallery. Choir galleries make much more sense in the old Tridentine (Latin) mass, where the ceremonies at the altar were less strictly connected to the music that was being made (i.e. the canon of the mass being recited at the altar while the choir sang an extended setting of the Benedictus).

All Saints, Ashmont chancel organ case
All Saints, Ashmont chancel organ case

Sheranian continues: In order to help us close the $110,000 gap needed to fully fund the Skinner project, the Bradley Foundation issued All Saints a $55,000 challenge grant. Going into this recital, we had raised $20,000 toward that challenge, leaving $35,000 left to raise. Just this week we have been issued an additional challenge from an anonymous donor: this new donor will match all gifts up to $17,500 to raise the remaining $35,000 needed to meet the Bradley challenge. So, the new goal to fully fund the project is to raise $17,500 as soon as possible to meet both the Bradley and the anonymous challenge. This also means that any new gifts up to the total of $17,500 will be *tripled* and not simply doubled, as before.

Tax-deductible contributions to the Skinner project can be brought to the recital or mailed to The Parish of All Saints, 209 Ashmont Street, Dorchester, MA, 02124. (Please make checks payable to “The Parish of All Saints” and write “Skinner organ project” in the memo line.) For more information on the recital or on the Skinner project, visit here.

For more information about this event, please call or email Andrew Sheranian or Jeffrey Gonyeau, or visit the Facebook event page “A Recital to Benefit the Skinner Organ Restoration at All Saints, Ashmont” or the Parish website

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