When the morning light sneaks between midtown’s skyscrapers, the gilded mosaics of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue seem to catch the sunshine and toss it indoors, making the recesses and woodwork gleam. Organ pipes shoot toward the ceiling, suggesting a structure held up by columns of air. But I’m here to look beneath the church’s resplendent surface to its respiratory system, the network of wires, ducts, switches, levers, and membranes that makes the building sing. Led by organist Paolo Bordignon, I ride an elevator to the top of the nave, skirt a rooftop playground, crouch beneath a stone arch, squeeze down a dark and curving passageway, climb an iron ladder, cross a catwalk five stories above the church floor, and duck into a domed chamber crammed with pipes. The smallest tubes would fit in a fist; the largest are long wooden boxes that lie on the floor and double back on themselves. We’re standing in what’s called the “celestial division.” Hidden by a wooden latticework in the dome and controlled by a console near the altar, it pumps out the music that flutters down to the pews from on high like a seraphic choir.
The celestial division is just one section of a massive apparatus — New York’s largest, with more than 12,000 pipes — threaded through the church’s architecture. Bordignon plays it most Sundays, but on May 24, the most sonorous of all unamplified instruments joins the Philadelphia Orchestra in a gala concert to raise money for the church’s restoration. None of New York’s major concert halls has a pipe organ anymore, so this is the rare opportunity to hear a major organ and a topflight symphonic ensemble together live, a full-body experience at the limits of human perception. One of the works on the program is the finale of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, which supercharges the orchestra with blasts of stentorian wonder.
When you take a pew at St. Bart’s, you are sitting inside the instrument. It’s a masterpiece of electrical, mechanical, and structural engineering, metalsmithing, leathercraft, carpentry, and musicianship. Five blowers, including a pair of turbines the size of jet engines lodged in the basement, shoot pressurized air into ducts. A leather diaphragm seals off one end of each pipe until the organist presses a key. At that instant, a command zips down a wire, activates a magnet, and opens a valve, sending a controlled wind along the length of a metal tube to emerge as a note. The principle is simple, but the effect is one of almost infinite nuance and overpowering drama. The sound issues from all directions and ricochets off stone. It swirls around the woodwork, arches, and recessed windows, an acoustical spume that mixes in the vaults, and flows through the bodies in the pews. The lowest notes sit below the range of human hearing, but their rumble can be felt in walls and bones.
It was that vastness and complexity that first thrilled a 12-year-old Bordignon as a student at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. “There were a million things to marvel at,” he recalls. Choirmaster and organist, separated by the full length of the cathedral nave, communicated by telephone. The console was as intricate as a jet plane’s cockpit. And once he was tall enough for his feet to reach the pedals, what power that gave him! Pressing one key triggered a foundation-shaking vibration; pressing several set the whole atmosphere in motion.
Today, Bordignon plays an aging regal instrument that draws envious colleagues from all over the world. It’s not the largest in the country — that one was built not for a church but for a cathedral of shopping, Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) in Philadelphia — but it is an extraordinarily versatile musical tool. The organ is the original synthesizer, designed to simulate flutes, clarinets, horns, and trumpets. “I can’t explain the excitement and the thrill of coming to an instrument with so many stops and such endless tonal variety,” Bordignon says.
His baby is really a disparate collection of machines built up over decades. Its oldest elements were designed for the church’s earlier incarnation, on Madison Avenue at 44th Street, in the late 1800s. When St. Bart’s moved to Park Avenue and 51st Street in 1918, the Skinner Organ Company salvaged what it could from the old building and incorporated it into a new and much larger machine. The thing continued to grow in sync with the church’s changing tastes and spiritual ambitions. In 1930 came the celestial division. In the 1950s, a new bundle of exposed pipes, the “positive division,” provided the light and modern tone required both by the revival of Renaissance music and the astringent aesthetic of contemporary music like Stravinsky’s. By then, amplification was making it possible for a lone guitarist to outgun the biggest and loudest musical force on earth, but the organ fought back; a couple of years after Woodstock, the church added the Trompette en Chamade, an array of trumpetlike pipes that poke out horizontally from the back of the nave and turn the brassiest fanfares up to 11.
This expansionism was in keeping with the social function of St. Bartholomew’s, which served as a crucial node for New York’s Episcopalian elite in the early 20th century. The Vanderbilts were members, which meant that the city’s other distinguished families had to be seen there too. And yet despite that pedigree, the church also distills a quintessentially American story of patched-together grandeur and creative mythmaking. Stanford White designed the triple portal facing Park Avenue — but it was for that earlier St. Bartholomew’s, facing the opposite direction on Madison Avenue, where its medieval aesthetic served to obscure the congregation’s new-wealth smell. (In 1918, the portal was moved to its new location and affixed to the front of a design by Bertram Goodhue.)
Authenticity was negotiable in the musical sphere, too. Leopold Stokowski, who had Bordignon’s job from 1905 to 1908, was a London-born cabinetmaker’s son who passed himself off as (and adopted the vaguely foreign inflections of) a Polish aristocrat. It worked: He married three wealthy women (culminating with Gloria Vanderbilt) and became a legendary maestro. In 1919, while he was the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he and the band performed at Wanamaker’s with the store’s giganto-organ, drawing an audience of (purportedly) 15,000. The upcoming St. Bart’s gala could be mistaken for a Stokowski tribute concert: His old ensemble in his old church, performing his famously romantic orchestral arrangement of a Bach fugue.
The architecture and the organ endure, however, not as relics or throwbacks but as the machinery of New York’s musical and spiritual life. “My responsibilities include leading people who raise their voices together and sing at important moments — at the beginning of a life, at a marriage, at the end of a life,” Bordignon says. “That’s a very different kind of music-making from a performance. You’re helping people express what they need to in that moment.”
Time and decay make that hard. As organs get old, they fall silent or else wheeze and moan. When Bordignon flips on the power to the blowers these days, a steady hiss emanates from leaking leather reservoirs like air escaping a giant bicycle tire. Occasionally, a pipe will keep whistling uninterruptedly even after it’s been released — a cipher in organspeak. Part of the organist’s job is to compensate for those failings by finding alternative stops and avoiding dead notes, but there’s a limit to those work-arounds. “You’re probably experiencing 75 percent of the instrument right now,” says Michael McKeever, one of the conservators from the Foley-Baker organ-maintenance company who visits St. Bart’s every two weeks and fusses over the instrument like a car enthusiast tinkering with a vintage Corvette.
Start talking to organ people and you enter a world of ancient crafts, specialized knowledge, arcane terminology, and extremely long-term investment. “It’s hard to find someone who knows how to re-leather a reservoir,” McKeever says. Pipes must be tuned, brass reeds repositioned, moving parts tightened. When the leather diaphragms that seal off the pipes at one end get dried out or crack, they have to be replaced. Once a generation or so, all these temporary fixes pile up and then it’s time for a multimillion-dollar overhaul, when technicians untangle the whole shebang from the walls and floors, clean and fix every tiny component, reinstall it all, and then spend weeks tweaking — voicing is the term of art — each pipe to ensure that it takes its place in the grand and glittering choir. The last time that happened at St. Bart’s was in 1971.