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Jonathan Ambrosino

Starting Blocks

2:43, 3rd July 2018

A new US organ builder under the age of 35? Jonathan Ambrosino reviews Ortloff Organ Company’s first instrument

The 1990s was the decade in which the old US dichotomy of large factories and small craft workshops gave way to a new type of shop altogether. Such outfits, typically ambitious regional firms, were large enough to handle big projects, yet trim enough for nimbleness in lean times. They took on plenty of service work to fill schedule gaps and bank accounts, while being sufficiently adaptable to tackle almost any project. All these firms, I think, understood that the future was likely to reward precisely such adaptability.


Mike Foley of Foley-Baker has often said, ‘We do not call ourselves organ builders.’ The distinction is apt, for his firm’s home terrain of electric action renovation – Duke and Harvard universities, Symphony Hall and The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston; the City Hall Auditorium at Portland, Maine – disinclines them from building windchests, consoles, pipes or cases. Still, their experience has led Foley-Baker into rebuilds such as that for Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis (2012), with a mostly new (supplied) chassis, a renovated pre-existing console, and an admixture of new and old pipework.


Nonetheless, Foley finds an honesty in steering clear of the term ‘builder’, and it begs the question of just what makes a builder in the first place. The term ‘assembler’ is sometimes pejoratively applied to those who call themselves ‘organ builder’ while procuring much if not all of an instrument from suppliers. Perhaps a chief dividing line might be to distinguish those firms that make their own consoles and soundboards from those that do not. But all such classifications are fraught with peril. After all, leaning heavily on supply-house materials, did not Walter Holtkamp become one of the most celebrated US builders of his time? Seen the other way around, are Lively-Fulcher organs somehow less of themselves if that same shop is building the chassis and cases for any number of other builders? Some customers are deeply invested that a builder makes as much as possible. Others care only for the artistic identity, however mechanically expressed.


These factors, and the intensity of the current market, may explain why we have seen almost no new names emerge on the North American scene since the 1990s. The market is slenderer, the customers more selective; the stakes rise higher while margins grow leaner. As has been the case in Britain for some time, the shop that builds new organs must also be proficient in restoration and maintenance work.


That description fits one of the newer US shops, Ortloff Organ Company. The product of a top-tier boarding school, Jonathan Ortloff went on to earn degrees both in organ performance and engineering from, respectively, the Eastman School of Music and its parent, the University of Rochester. Long interested in cinema organs, Ortloff spent his teen years organising volunteers in his hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, around the restoration of an eight-rank Wurlitzer. From the age of 16, Ortloff also spent summers working with Stephen Russell, a builder in Vermont who makes many of his own pipes and has some 50 projects to his name, both tracker and electric action. For Ortloff, these Vermont sojourns acted as a drawn-out apprenticeship, suffused with the Wurlitzer work at home and a conviction that he might be both player and builder.


After school, Ortloff returned to Russell for a time, then moved to Boston to join Spencer Organ Company, a restoration shop known for, among others, the Longwood Gardens Aeolian and Denver Kimball projects. While at Spencer, Ortloff was able to bring the Plattsburgh Wurlitzer restoration to the Spencer shop and see its completion. Moving in 2014 to rented premises at Nelson Barden’s shop, Ortloff joined a team (that included myself) in the restoration of a small Skinner for a Boston church, and then in 2014 secured the contract for the new organ discussed here, at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Penfield, a suburb of Rochester, New York. Now in his own premises, in Needham, Massachusetts, Ortloff is telegraphing an interest in restoration alongside new organs, all in an environment, and with the techniques of, a shop that builds new instruments. Here, personal interest aligns with commercial realities.


When he signed the Penfield contract, Ortloff had only one employee, and thought it wise to collaborate with his old mentor Stephen Russell, in this way using the Penfield organ as the conclusion of his apprenticeship. Russell built the console and all the new pipes, and assisted with installation and some voicing. Ortloff designed the organ, made offset soundboards, engaged suppliers to provide the main ones, and built and voiced everything else. Ortloff’s brother Chris, an architect, helped to conceive the façade, which carries the Great 8ft Diapason and Pedal 16ft Principal from CCC (the lowest two of Haskell construction). At first glance, these flamed copper pipes form what seems like another pipe fence; yet they have been cleverly worked to form a part of the building: both as a backdrop to the altar and as an arcade separating altar from rear corridor, concealing those reaching sacristy and Sacrament chapel.


By its nature, any Opus One is a tightrope of ambition and expectation. The spotlight may shine brighter for Ortloff, who early on gained a reputation through writing, recording, and playing. Here he was, now placing an unabashed church organ within earshot of his alma mater, the performance practicebased Eastman School. And: what sort of church organ would come from the same person who, when giving the first-ever cinema organ performance at a national convention of the American Guild of Organists, managed to work the opening of the ‘Great’ Bruhns E minor Praeludium into a rendition of Tico Tico?


Ortloff Opus 1 does have a point of view, even as its milder elements tally with an evolving consensus about what an 18-stop church organ of the early 21st century should contain. Unification is present, extensively in the pedal and modestly in the manuals. Accompanimental voices hew to smoothness. The Great Harmonic Flute has moderate treble ascendancy with firm colour, but (reminiscent of Glück’s latest in New York) it remembers that it’s in suburban Rochester and not Issy-les-Moulineaux. The Swell flutes are more about fullness than perk. The Chimney Flute abandons its chimneys early on and switches to open, tapered pipes, fairly similar to the open, though cylindrical, hollow-toned 4ft Flute. The (alas, tenor c) mutations match up logically; the upward extension of the Flute to 2ft is plausibly handled. The assertive strings here are older Aeolian pipes emboldened to vibrant character, and the 4ft Principal works predictably with Viola and Chimney to form the division’s foundation. The reeds exude mild warmth rather than any overt power – quite a bit milder, in fact, than other new organs recently covered here. The plump Pedal foundations are undoubtedly helped by the church’s bass-friendly acoustics.


Thus far, the colour palette (save the mild reeds) falls in line with the thinking of many current-day electric-action builders, at a power sensible for accompaniment. Where the organ strikes a more individual note is in its approach to chorus work. The pipes, of 94 per cent lead, employ broad scales at the unison level that narrow considerably into the treble, executed with a certain articulation and real clang in the mixtures. While hardly a revolutionary approach, it’s interesting to hear this kind of chorus work set amid the relative calm of the other tonal content. One comparison might be the groundbreaking 1996 Schoenstein at Saint Paul’s (K Street) in Washington, D.C., a purportedly high neo-romantic organ that, nevertheless, had a good degree of articulate neo-classicism baked into its enchambered Great Diapason chorus. But there, as in other Schoenstein work, the chorus reed power becomes a major dramatic feature, whereas in Ortloff’s organ, the reeds colour the ensemble without covering anything. Even the Swell mixture, which breaks back to 8ft at c2, has a lean, intense brilliance for its low pitch; both it and the Great Mixture hearken to the neo-classical in its sweeter and more agreeable phases.


Moreover, in an instrument divided left and right, the strength of the Swell upperwork helps keep the sides in fairly equal balance, particularly where roughly half the pews are in the transepts, and people seated there hear one side of the organ to the near exclusion of the other.


This tonal approach, coupled to the tight façade, keeps the organ’s energy in check. Those seeking a powerhouse or extroverted colour might look elsewhere, although there is a certain intelligence in providing an instrument where organists can indulge without fear of overwhelming the typically timid US Catholic congregation and its singing wont. All in all, this is an engaging initial essay – more subtle than it first appears, and a promising start.

Boston-based pipe organ technician and adviser Jonathan Ambrosino has contributed to Choir & Organ since 1998.

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