Basilica event gives people chance to sit ‘At the Console’

| November 26, 2014 | 0 Comments
Christopher Stroh, organist at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, demonstrates how the instrument works during a tour after the 5 p.m. Mass Nov. 22 called "At the Console." The tour was scheduled to coincide with the Nov. 22 feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Christopher Stroh, organist at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, demonstrates how the instrument works during a tour after the 5 p.m. Mass Nov. 22 called “At the Console.” The tour was scheduled to coincide with the Nov. 22 feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians.
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Four-year-old Oskar Cologne was all smiles as he sat at the huge organ console at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis on Nov. 22.

He had been patiently waiting for his chance. Joined by his mother, Amy, he stayed after the 5 p.m. Mass to attend a special event in the church sanctuary called “At the Console.”

It took place on the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. Basilica organist Christopher Stroh came up with idea and had the first “At the Console” event a year ago. This time around, 60 to 70 people came to learn the ins and outs of the massive instrument.

“We love the organ; we come here for concerts all the time,” said Amy Cologne, who belongs to nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church but is a frequent visitor to the basilica. “When we heard that [Stroh] was going to give a tour of the console, we made a special trip to let Oskar see the organ. He wants to play the organ so much.”

He, along with several others, both children and adults, got their chance after Stroh’s 45-minute presentation, in which he demonstrated how the organ works and gave people a look at not only the console, but also the pipes situated behind the sanctuary.

Stroh, who practices 20 to 30 hours a week, said he came up with the idea for “At the Console” after many impromptu conversations with basilica visitors during his practice sessions.

The idea of this event was “to create an environment for people of all ages and musical interests to truly encounter the organ up close and personal,” said Stroh, who has been the basilica organist since 2006. “I treasure the opportunity of getting a sense of what people experience in hearing the organ as well as learning about their musical interests. There is a wonderfully exciting and contagious energy in watching people’s reactions to the different sounds and effects the organ can produce. It’s even more rewarding to see people’s reactions when they see how those sounds are made through navigating the organ’s numerous stops, keyboards and buttons.”

Elise and Matt Sepic, basilica parishioners, came to both Mass and the tour with children Elizabeth and Andrew. The children huddled in close to the organ during Stroh’s presentation and eventually got their chance to sit at the console and try it out.

“I actually took organ lessons as a kid, and I enjoy the music,” Elise said. “It’s not every day you get invited to view the organ, and I thought it would be a good idea for these guys to see it up close. . . . I’m very happy that the church is able to preserve an instrument like this, and I feel very fortunate to be able to hear it every week.”

Though not the largest pipe organ in the Twin Cities, it is in the top five, Stroh said. Built in 1949, it contains 82 rows of pipes ranging in size from more than 32 feet down to just slightly smaller than a pencil. If built from scratch today, Stroh estimates the cost would be well into the millions of dollars.

But, as much as he loves playing it, he is especially delighted to give others a chance to appreciate its beauty and richness.

“I was completely thrilled by the number of people in attendance,” he said. “What moved me the most was to see a truly diverse age range — from preschool and elementary-school aged children and their families to teenagers, 20- and 30-somethings, adults, and seniors. That said a lot to me.

“There is a sense of stewardship in all of this as well. Perhaps, the next generation of people will emerge who want to study to play the organ. In all areas of music — whether it be the organ, piano, choral, or orchestral — I believe it is so important for us to cherish what we have inherited, to cultivate our own musical gifts, and pass on the sum of these treasures with great care to the next generation so they can ever evolve and glorify God through the offering of their unique musical gifts.”

Basilica organ facts

The following information about the organ at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis was provided by organist Christopher Stroh.

• It was built in 1949 and dedicated on Oct. 15, 1950

• It is nicknamed the “Centennial” organ because its dedication coincided with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

• It contains 82 ranks (rows) of pipes, with a total of nearly 5,000 pipes, ranging in size from more than 32 feet down to the size of a pencil

• The organ console has four keyboards (61 notes each) played by the hands, a pedalboard of 32 notes played by the feet, and 120 stop knobs

• The cost of building a similar organ from scratch today would be several million dollars

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