The art of Making Music

Organ installation complete at Mount Carmel church

The signature stained glass window at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish can be seen as John Peragallo III tunes the new hybrid organ. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

In early spring, workers with Whitesel Church Organs and Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. dismantled the nearly 100-year-old organ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, 806 11th St., in preparation for the organ’s restoration.

Starting the week of July 20, the companies returned to Altoona to reinstall the organ in the choir loft high above the pews — a move much anticipated by those who attend services at the church and by the community at large.

Today, the organ is complete, though some fine-tuning will be an ongoing project, said church organist and music director James Dengler.

The project came together a bit earlier than expected, Dengler said, noting the organ has been in use for about a week.

Originally, the instrument wasn’t expected back until sometime this month due to the time it takes to rework the pipes and the fact that the console was being built in Italy. But the console arrived in the New York harbor in mid-July, a trip that took about a month, Dengler said.

A crew from New Jersey-based Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. arrived to begin the pipe installation while the console was en route to Altoona.

Then it was just a matter of placing all the pieces, installing the wiring and the often time-consuming task of tuning the instrument.

The new organ features a mix of pipes and digital technology, which takes awhile to “voice,” Dengler said. The instrument includes pipes from the church’s organ and those from a long-shuttered Philadelphia church. The pipes were made by the same company.

“We’re able to have real pipes by the same maker,” he said in the spring, noting that it’s uncommon to be able to find the right pieces at just the right time. The Mount Carmel pipes date from 1923, while the Philly pipes date from 1924, he said.

“Estey was one of the larger pipe organ makers of that era. … They were well-known,” said Josh Dove, adding that, although Estey is no longer in business, the name is still well-known.

“That era of time in the United States is like the Holy Grail of pipe organ making,” explained Dove, president and CEO of Whitesel Church Organs. “It led to hymn-singing and is the granddaddy of organ sound today.”

The finished organ has more than 1,000 pipes that, when coupled with the digital sounds, allows the organ to play any type of music, from classical on up, Dove said in the spring.

The work the two companies completed brought the organ back to its original state and added a compliment of digital sounds — creating in essence a hybrid pipe organ that utilizes wind pipes and digital sounds to work as one unit. Listeners will not know whether the sound is coming from the pipes or from the digital mix.

John Peragallo III tuned the pipe portion of the organ over the course of a week, joined by his son, John IV, and a crew of accomplished installers.

“This is an interesting instrument,” he said as his fingers flew across the keys testing the sound. “Mixing digital sounds and pipe sounds together gives you a lot of flexibility.”

Tuning — or adjusting the tone of the pipe — and voicing — the loud and soft part of the sound — isn’t for the faint of heart, John III said with a grin as he held down a key and listened intently as John IV tuned the pipe.

With about 1,200 pipes to tune and some notes being rather sour until the right pitch is hit, “everybody runs out the of church” when tuning begins, John III said with a laugh.

Although tuning is not a job he can do every day — he needs to give his ears a rest between jobs — playing the organ is in his blood. His grandfather, from Genoa, Italy, started the Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. 100 years ago.

And while Peragallo sticks mostly with the pipe-side of things, he was excited by the Mount Carmel project.

“This was a nice project to be able to take what was here, separate it into two chambers and reveal the window,” he said.

While the old organ was losing much of its functionality, Dengler said, another aspect of the project was to open up the choir loft and put the organ back to its original configuration, thus showing off the church’s signature stained glass window, which can now be viewed from inside — a first for more than 30 years.

“I had the opportunity to visit the parish a few weeks ago when the organ was being installed and tested. What an impressive sight,” said Tony DeGol, spokesman for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“It is an exciting time for the parish — especially for those who engage in music ministry. I was told that the features of the new organ will give the music director the ability to create the perfect sounds for all liturgical needs. That’s important because there is no question that music greatly enhances worship. We are very happy for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. It is our hope and prayer that this new instrument will enrich Masses and other celebrations there for years to come.”

Providing an instrument that can see a church through three generations or more is the goal of Whitesel Church Organs, Dove said, noting his company is celebrating 70 years this year.

“We treat our job as a ministry. … We ask, ‘How this can be an opportunity to spread God’s love?’ ‘How can we make this become a better tool for the ministry of the church?'” Dove said in the spring.

Designing an organ “is not just throwing some pipes together,” Dove said. It’s more like “a choir director mixing voices to make one sound. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s where our expertise lies.

“Before, the organ was limping along. Now, any piece of music from any period of time can be played. The ability is there to do anything,” said Dove, whose company was in charge of the digital voicing portion of the organ.

“The old organ, some of the pipes went out of tune,” said Joe Saclaro, a member of Mount Carmel and the electrician who was standing by to install some lighting while the organ was being put in place.

With a keen eye, Saclaro watched as workers installed the pipes, perhaps envisioning the finished product and maybe having the opportunity to “tickle the ivories.”

As it turns out, Saclaro knows a thing or two about playing the organ.

“I started playing the piano at age 10 and then was trained on the pipe organ,” he explained. “I used to play in a five-person rotation at church” while in school. The young players would be responsible for the organ music on their week, he explained, noting that meant playing for all of that week’s services, including funerals. Students often had to get out of class to play the organ, he said with a grin.

That training gave him a great appreciation for organs, he added.

“I was always, as a kid even, fascinated by how a pipe organ worked,” he said.

“This thing should be unbelievable,” he enthused. “It will be magnificent.”

Not only are Dengler and Saclaro ready to try out the new organ, but other organ players in the region are interested, as well.

“There has been a lot of interest,” Dengler admitted.

“That’s what’s great about having an instrument like this,” John III said. “Everybody is going to want to play it.”

Dengler and the Mount Carmel congregation hope to make church a venue for special concerts implementing the organ. To that end, several concerts are scheduled to show off the instrument’s capabilities.

The inaugural concert series for 2018-19, celebrating the 2018 custom hybrid Viscount Organ by Whitesel Church Organs and Peragallo Organ Company, is as follows:

– Sunday, Nov. 18. at 3 p.m.

“Organ Dedication and Blessing”

Recital presented by Dr. Peter Latona from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

– Sunday, Dec. 30 at 3 p.m.

“A Community Celebration of Christmas”

A relaxing concert with seasonal music and audience participation.

Presented by Leslie Thayer from the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and James Dengler from Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

– Sunday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m.

“Pipe Organ Potpourri”

Presented by Nicholas Schmelter, organist and recitalist from First Presbyterian Church of Caro, Mich.

– Saturday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m.

“A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein”

Presented by the Blair Concert Chorale under the direction of Dr. Ryan Beeken.

Including the “Chichester Psalms” – James Dengler, organist.