Pat Newton lightly touched the keys and took a deep breath.
Introducing Louis Vierne’s “Berceuse” to an audience of about 55, she said: “I chose it because it’s perfect for this organ. It’s got exactly what this organ has,” she said, drawing laughs. She described the song as a lullaby, the translation of the French “berceuse.” She imagined a child being pushed lightly in a hammock, drifting off to sleep.
The room containing the organ, in fact, is a visible lullaby, with its low lighting and wood tones; and its centerpiece — a 754-pipe organ made by the Canadian company Létourneau — is a rarity in Columbus and even for the company. In addition to the instrument in Legacy Hall, and one being installed by Létourneau at Trinity Episcopal Church, Newton’s organ is the only such residential one in the area. It has 14 ranks of pipes, meaning 14 different types.
Last Sunday, the Rev. Rich Martindale of Trinity officially blessed the new organ and the music room, an addition to the Newton home that took about 18 months to create, then about as long to complete.
“This room was empty and they spread everything on the floor. The parts that came whole were the two keyboards and the pedal board,” Newton said a couple of days after the recital. “Everything else was in pieces.” Workers took about a week to assemble the organ, including the blower in a back closet that gives the organ its power, and cabinets containing additional pipes not seen from the front.
For acoustics, the room was fashioned with the organ in mind. Designed by architect Jack Jenkins and built by John Teeples Construction, the room was extended from its original size by 24 feet. The pointed ceiling is 19 feet high. The spacing between boards in the walls is half of what’s normal — 8 inches instead of 16. The music room walls have three layers of sheetrock and six layers of paint. The floor is marble.
“It’s a very live room,” said Newton, clapping her hands with a two-second reverberation.
For the health of the organ, the temperature is kept around 70 degrees, with 50 percent humidity.
“It’s California in here,” she joked.
The full name of the company that built her instrument is Orgues Létourneau Limitée. Founded in 1979, its headquarters is about 30 miles from Montreal.
Fernand Létourneau was the recipient of a grant from the Canadian Council of the Arts to study historic pipe organs in Europe where he researched the voicing techniques of the builders Arp Schnitger, Gottfried Silbermann and François-Henri Clicquot. (Voicing is similar to tuning a piano.)
The company’s first instrument was a small two-manual instrument built for the Conservatoire de Musique in Hull, Québec.
Newton knows of just two homes in the U.S. that contain Létourneau organs: one in Connecticut and one in New Jersey.
Newton was introduced to organ playing as a teenager in her hometown of Wilmington, N.C., on the coast. She first took piano, then organ, from the music director at that city’s St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.
“The minute I sat down at the organ, a light went on,” she recalled. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I loved the instrument.”
Coincidentally, her home congregation got a new organ while she was there and it was installed by Fernand Létourneau. He worked then for Casavant. He’d become acquainted with Columbus about 40 years later with his own company, with the project at Legacy Hall.
After high school, Newton went to Salem College — graduating in 1966 — and received a master’s in organ and sacred music from Indiana University in 1993. She also studied in Paris from 1983-84. While there, she met Martin Souter, to whom her home instrument is dedicated. Souter was born in Durham, England, and was an organ scholar at Magdalen College in Oxford — where the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis taught — and currently owns his own recording company called The Gift of Music.
Music as prayer
In her younger years, Newton played the organ as if at prayer, or a form of worship.
“It puts me in touch with the Spirit, in some sense,” she said. “Maybe I needed it more then. I don’t feel like I need it as much (for that purpose) as I used to. Now, I love that I can think of the music the way the composer thought of it — especially J.S. Bach or Olivier Messiaen.”
She had the idea of purchasing her own organ while in college. Newton bid on a Dutch organ, but someone else got it. In the early ’90s, she took a train trip through Canada with family and visited the Létourneau headquarters. She thought about it again.
Then, damage from the March 2008 tornado persuaded her and her husband to expand an existing back room into a music room. Their chimney had come off in the storm, and some pine trees fell on the house.
In addition to the organ, a grand piano helps fill Newton’s music room. She teaches 11 students privately, two of whom played at Sunday’s recital. Only two of the 11 students are interested in the organ. One comes 15 minutes before his weekly piano lesson to play it.
Like her long-ago teacher at her home church, Newton hopes to be a person to introduce young people to organ playing. As she did last year, Newton will host the local chapter meeting of the American Guild of Organists later this month. Also, her piano students perform recitals in the room twice yearly.
“I’d love for more people to see the organ,” she said. “It’s not just for me. I don’t want to let organ playing die.”
Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237.