Delaware News

OWU organ ready to debut new sound

University will show off organ's $525K, nearly year-long refurbishment with pair of free concerts

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

The instrument that in 1980 served as the catalyst for the renovation of Ohio Wesleyan University's Gray Chapel recently underwent its own refurbishment.

This year, the Rexford Memorial pipe organ housed in the chapel received $525,000 worth of improvements, which included an additional 125 pipes. The upgrade was completed in May, and at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 and 26, the organ will make its first major public appearances during the free concerts featuring internationally known organist Alan Morrison.

Deservedly, the first person to play the organ privately was Robert Griffith, who has been instructing OWU students on the organ since 1969.

"I was here when the original organ arrived, and so in many ways it was my baby, and of course I never could have imagined I would still be around here and could oversee the renovation of the instrument," he said.

"I know it like the back of my hand. I know it inside out and I knew exactly what needed to be done with it to make it an even better instrument, so for me, it's so thrilling because the organ is just more vibrant than it was and capable of producing much more power."

Although he officially retired in 2008, Griffith still teaches organ and oversaw the two to six German technicians who visited the chapel daily from January to May to reassemble the instrument and voice the pipes. During the process, the experts removed and replaced all 4,644 of the organ's pipes.

Work began in Bonn, Germany, as early as last November to custom-build the new pieces of the organ. The Orgelbau Klais company then shipped those pieces and their workers to Delaware to complete the overhaul.

Griffith said it was significant to have the original organ builder, Klais, complete the custom refurbishment. The founder of the company built the organ 33 years ago and the refurbishment was completed under the direction of the original builder's son.

OWU's Klais-built organ is one of just 12 in the United States, but one of two in the city of Delaware. It is the largest Klais pipe organ with mechanical track action in the country, Griffith said. The other local organ is owned by Asbury United Methodist Church.

Griffith said he first noticed the organ needed renovations about a decade ago because of a faulty heating valve, but university funds weren't available.

In 2008, OWU Vice President Mark Shipps approached Griffith with a fundraising plan for the renovation, and it took the two just six months to gather funds for the entire price of the project that was as expensive as it was extensive.

"The organ has a replacement value of about $2 million, so that puts it into perspective," said Griffith, who targeted local organ enthusiasts during fundraising, five of whom contributed a majority of the donation total.

"The renovation cost just about the same amount that the organ cost in 1980, but when you consider its replacement value and the fact that it's ready to go for the next 40 to 50 years, we thought it was a very wise investment."

The organ serves as the backdrop for OWU lectures, concerts and other events throughout the year. Now that it has been refurbished, Griffith said the college intends to host annual concerts such as the ones planned for the end of the month.

During each free concert, Morrison will play different repertoires that consist of classic French- and American-composed pieces.

"He will be playing pieces that have never been played on the Gray Chapel organ," Griffith said. "We hope the people will come out both nights to hear the instrument because of the changing programs and because the organ sounds and shines perhaps even better than it did when it was new."

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