By Carlton Russell
In 1993, a year after being appointed Director of Music and Organist of St. John’s Catholic Church, Kevin Birch established the St. John’s Organ Society, an organization committed to the preservation and appreciation of the church’s beautiful and historic E. & G. G. Hook pipe organ, Op. 288 (1860). This large instrument was described by John Fesperman, Curator Emeritus of Musical Instruments at the Smithsonian Institution, as “a musical monument of great importance”, and by Alan Laufman, Past President of the Organ Historical Society, as “a national treasure.”
Thanks to the groundwork laid by Tom Audet and recent major revision and design work by Monique Bouchard, this website serves as an up-to-date source of information about the Hook organ and events related to it, and about St. John’s Organ Society, which was established in 2006 as a nonprofit public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code, with a board of directors. Other organizational highlights, both from 2012, are the establishment of an annual newsletter and an annual giving program. The Society’s mission of stewardship and promotion of Op. 288 has included a summer series of recitals and concerts, starting in 1993 and running continuously to the present, with performances delighting weekly audiences and revealing again and again the broad stylistic scope and myriad tone colors of this magnificent instrument.
In addition to the summer series, there has been the annual international concert, of which early performers included Jean Boyer (France), Christa Rakich (USA), Carolyn Shuster Fournier (France) and Dana Robinson (USA). More recent international artists have been Gunter Kennel (Germany), Matthias Schmelmer (Germany), Matthias Jacob (Germany), Jacques Boucher (Canada), Mark Dwyer (USA), Pierre Bardon (France), Gemma Coebergh (Netherlands), Hatsumi Miura (Japan), and Loreto Aramendi (Spain).
A remarkable international connection resulted from the acquisition in 1991 of another Hook organ (Op. 553), similar to that of St. John’s, by the Holy Cross Church (Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche) in Berlin, Germany. Kevin Birch has lectured about and performed on the Berlin instrument, and Holy Cross Church organists Gunter Kennel and Matthias Schmelmer have played recitals on Hook organs in Bangor, Bucksport, and Augusta.
There have been two convention-type, three-day organ events, featuring several historic area organs in addition to the St. John’s instrument, and attracting organ enthusiasts from various parts of the United States to the Midcoast and Downeast regions. In the fall of 1994, the Downeast Organ Crawl featured performers Kevin Birch, George Bozeman, Delores Bruch, Dana Robinson, and Paul Tegels. A Hook Holiday (fall 2010), a gala event celebrating the 150th anniversary of Opus 288, also included the other historic organs in the area. Organist recitalists were Kevin Birch, George Bozeman, Gunter Kennel, Dana Robinson, Carlton and Lorna Russell, David Dahl, and Paul Tegels. Also featured were Kay Eames, conductor, Anatole Wieck, violinist, and three choral groups: the St. John’s Adult Choir, the All Souls Congregational Church Choir, and The Chamber Choir at St. John’s Catholic Church. Lecturers were George Bozeman, David Coco, Robert Newton, Barbara Owen, David Wallace, and Anne Marie Rigler; and a discussion panel was moderated by David Dahl.
The Society has given supportive encouragement to Dr. Birch’s many cooperative educational outreach projects, tours, and interactions, some of them including visiting artists: with All Saints Catholic School, the Bangor Public Library Summer Reading Program, the Bangor Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the Ellsworth Public Schools, Bangor High School, Brewer High School, and the University of Maine at Orono. Recently, as part of the Penobscot Valley Senior College curriculum, Kevin Birch taught a six-week course, “Introduction to the King of Instruments” (winter 2014-2015); this was centered at St. John’s Church, with field trips to the historic organs in Bucksport, Stockton Springs, and Belfast. On August 26, 2016, the Society presented a special festival concert by Blue Hill Bach at St. John’s Church.
To the delight of the board of directors, Dr. Birch has given several lecture demonstrations on notable E. & G. G. Hook organs in the Midcoast Region and beyond, including Bucksport (Op. 328/1863), Southwest Harbor (Op. 1261/1885), Attleboro, Massachusetts (Op. 1111/1882), Kennebunk (Op. 177/1854), and Berlin, Germany (Op. 553/1870).
The past and present directors of the St. John’s Organ Society are grateful for the ongoing, generous support of the many individuals and businesses that share their vision of the importance to the parish and the larger community of St. John’s beautiful and historic instrument.