Speaking to God

Master organist to perform in PT

Posted 10/16/19

When conversing with the Almighty, master organist Gary Rutherford’s medium of choice is a pipe organ.

“It is the voice of the people,” Rutherford said. “For me, the organ’s primary purpose in church, especially, is for accompanying hymns. Anything else that happens after that is wonderful, but its number-one purpose is to accompany the voice of the congregation. I am really trying to reflect their voices.”

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Speaking to God

Master organist to perform in PT


When conversing with the Almighty, master organist Gary Rutherford’s medium of choice is a pipe organ.

“It is the voice of the people,” Rutherford said. “For me, the organ’s primary purpose in church, especially, is for accompanying hymns. Anything else that happens after that is wonderful, but its number-one purpose is to accompany the voice of the congregation. I am really trying to reflect their voices.”

The sound of an acoustic organ is powerful, akin to a wall of sound, Rutherford said.

“It just rolls through the building and envelopes you. There is just no sound like that. I have been to rock concerts where the music is up. It is plenty loud, but it is pure electronic. There is no sensation that surrounds you like a pipe organ.”

Pipe organs also can run the full gamut of human emotion, Rutherford said.

“In all of the art that is physical artwork, some of the most emotionally grabbing pieces are sacred art works because they absolutely contain pain, anger, suffering and elation. All of those things can be shown. In how many areas of life do we have an understanding of the Deity and stuff like that as you do there? Organ music is exactly the same way. For me those reflect the greatest amount, the largest palette of human emotion I can think of.”

When Rutherford performs on organ, which requires all four appendages, he runs through the gamut of emotions, he said.

“A lot of it is just through the sound and chord structure. Some organists are very mechanical and focus on totally playing every note correctly and everything according to what the composer does or has prescribed to do. From the classical and baroque periods, that is sort of an appropriate way to proceed.”

From the perspective of an organist performing pieces from the Romantic period, however, it is the player’s emotions which are channeled through the pipes.

“People like Franz Liszt was from the anti-classical movement which was meant to involve emotion. Every chord is meant to grab a little bit more emotion from you.”

Perhaps that is the reason why Rutherford’s favorite pieces were written during the Romantic period, he said. “For me, it is the emotional rush.”

Organ vs. violin

Some may argue the violin more closely matches the human voice. Rutherford disagrees.

“There is a similarity to violin in that the string is vibrating as the vocal cords vibrate. But wind is producing the sound in your voice just as in a pipe organ. So, you have to draw your own conclusion. It is a matter for debate.”

With a violin, every single note is under the control of the bow which allows for manipulation of volume control, Rutherford said.

“You can make it loud or soft just like we can our voices. A pipe only plays one volume, that’s it. If I turn that stop on and play that note it is one volume. I can’t make it any softer.”

The only way in which a pipe organ can be muffled is with swell shades that open and close, Rutherford said.

“It is the equivalent of opening or closing a door to somebody practicing piano in the other room.”

During his upcoming performance this week at Trinity United Methodist Church, Rutherford will play on a Romantic style 1902 Mudler Tracker pipe organ, which includes swell shades, as well as an emulation of an 18th century Gottfried Silbermann Baroque style pipe organ, which does not.

The Silbermann emits sounds through large pipes on the southeastern wall of the church, which fills the small church hall with massive sound, Rutherford said.

“Most European churches that would have had something like this are large.”

At Trinity, the sheer power of the pipe organ can be felt resonating through the pews, Rutherford said.

“That is the thing about a pipe organ, you can actually feel the wind. It is very subtle for a lot of people, but for the organist it is crystal clear.”

The Silbermann organ is designed for baroque music by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Lucio Vivaldi. Such music requires the use of several different types of pipes, some of which use reeds, Rutherford said. This includes trumpets, oboes and brass.

The sound range is broad, deep and authoritative, Rutherford said, but it can also be soft when needed.

During his concert, “Organ Connections,” Rutherford will perform music selections from composers whose careers span four centuries, beginning with “Prelude in G Major BWV 572- Pièce d’Orgue” by Bach circa 1708 and culminating with a contemporary piece by George Akerley, “A Sweet for Mother Goose,” which will be narrated by Terry Reitz, organist emeritus of Trinity United Methodist Church.

“Trinity’s music staff is proud to welcome an organist of Gary’s stature and look forward to experiencing his tonal expertise in this concert,” Reitz said. “The ‘Mother Goose Sweet’ alone is sure to be a delightful trip through the organ’s capabilities. We are proud to be able to present a Romantic and neo-Baroque instruments to our community of music lovers.”

Rutherford said he opted to open the concert with Bach’s “Prelude in G Major” because it doesn’t sound like a prelude at all.

“It sounds like a toccata. It could be called a fantasy, a prelude or a toccata.”

The original manuscript by Bach does not exist, Rutherford said.

“Somebody had to hand-copy it. That was one of your jobs as a student for your teacher, to copy manuscripts so you could have a copy. Usually that came at a cost of an additional copy or two for Bach’s friends.”

While Bach was celebrated during his lifetime, it wouldn’t be until after his death when his music started receiving credit for the spectacular work it was, Rutherford said.

“He wasn’t realized a the master he is today back in his own time.”

Other selections include Franz Liszt’s “Prelude and Fugue on the “Name of B-A-C-H,” Marcel Dupré’s “Cortège et Litanie,” César Franck’s “Pièce Héroïque,” and “Toccata” from “24 Piéces de Fantaisie, Opus 53 No. 6,” by Louis Vierne.

The concert will be loud, dark and brooding — a nod to All Hallows Eve — yet will include softer pieces too, to give the ears of the audience a rest, Rutherford said.

Although separated over the span of four centuries, each piece can be connected musically with the others Rutherford has chosen, he said.

“This is similar to the notion of ‘six degrees of separation.’ The continuity of our musical evolution follows a series of related yet often insignificant relationships. Through a small number of well-known organ compositions, we’ll consider a few examples of connections that have influenced the direction of organ repertoire.”

The primary purpose is to highlight the connections between the songs, Rutherford said.

“I didn’t find just any six pieces and find how they are related. They are connected through a period of time and I’m showing you how they are connected.”

Lifelong passion

Rutherford, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, began his musical journey with four years in the Phoenix Boys Choir, touring throughout the United States and Europe.

Born in 1958, Rutherford grew up during the days of the British Invasion and 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. But it wasn’t modern pop music which attracted his attention.

“It sort of seems like a dying art and a lot of churches are getting rid of organs as opposed to adding them, but there are many big organs being added to many churches,” Rutherford said.

For Rutherford, the pipe organ drew him with its siren song the first time he heard it.

“It is a calling,” he said. “Something speaks to me about the music. I had heard Hendrix, The Carpenters. But, when I was in Europe with the Phoenix Boys Choir for the first time, we were sitting in a cathedral and all of a sudden there was this magnificent sound I had never heard before.”

That was all it took, he said.

Rutherford later studied organ under David N. Johnson at Arizona State University and completed degrees in music, biology and computer science.

After a 33-year career in information technology, Rutherford retired from Salt River Project (a power and water utility) in 2013.

Simultaneously, he held various organist and choirmaster positions at churches throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.

During his last position at Faith Lutheran Church of Phoenix, Rutherford oversaw the refurbishment and installation of a 57-rank Möller pipe organ originally built for Ohio University. He now divides his time equally between residences in Phoenix and Poulsbo, performing concerts and serving as a substitute organist, pianist and choir director.

Revisiting the classics

Rutherford tends to shy away from composing his own works, focusing on the masterpieces already refined by his musical forefathers, he said.

“I play only what is written. I am not much of an improviser or composer.”

Most composers began by improvising, Rutherford said.

“Bach did it. All of the French Romantic composers still do it. If you go to the cathedral in Paris, you will find the postlude is largely improvised and sometimes it will be written out on a little scrap of paper and the organist will see it. They just start playing and for maybe 15 or 20 minutes they will improvise and will come up with a fugue and exposition of the sound.”

Rutherford cannot imagine doing such a thing himself, he said.

“I am sure it is scary. I just fall apart when something happens and I have to improvise. I am not a jazz player at all.”

Rutherford does sit in on piano, though.

“I play piano in jazz quartets, but I usually have a lead sheet or something like that to tell me where to go. It is not like you are the person in charge. You are just laying down the rhythm.”

Pianos and organs are very different animals, Rutherford said.

While pianos are generally uniform in their layout, each organ is unique.

“You have to arrange ahead of time what sounds you are going to use, which is one of the reasons why organists use music in concert and pianists do not,” Rutherford said. “We, more or less, have the notes all memorized. But knowing which stops to push at what time starts to complicate the matter. It becomes more mechanical and is different on every organ.”

As such, organists often arrive ahead of a performance to learn the peculiarities of the instrument they play.

“You have to come ahead of time to practice and set up all the stops,” Rutherford said. “The memory of which stops you pushed are stored on one of these pistons and then I can just recall it instantly.”

Perhaps the most difficult task is orienting physically to each organ, Rurtherford said.

“You are involving your entire body because both hands are more or less symmetrically on the keyboards and your feet are playing the pedalboard as well.”

Even at Trinity, the two organs are completely different, Rutherford said.

“This pedalboard and that pedal board are entirely different. When I switch over I have to get my body used to that again. That is the complicated part. The other difficult piece is because you are really lifting your legs up to play, you are balanced on your butt. It is a matter of balancing yourself on these three things.”

These shoes are made for organing

Rutherford and most organists wear special shoes when performing.

“They are specifically designed so you can feel the organ pedals through the soles of the feet. They are super thin,” he said.

It would be a bad idea to hike in such shoes, Rutherford said.

“In fact you are not even supposed to walk away from the organ wearing these shoes. You will rip through the bottom of them in no time.”

Some opt to play in their socks, but that also is not a good idea, Rutherford said.

“I know there are a lot of amatuer organists who do because they are only going to play one or two notes and are sort of feeling around. But, if you are trying to do stuff like multiple chords and multiple notes, really you need the stiffness of a shoe to be able to do it.”

The shoes also allow for easy sliding on the pedalboard, Rutherford said.

“Occasionally, I will show up and realize I just brought tennis shoes. They just don’t slide. It is like wearing army boots.”

Rutherford is a member of the Peninsula Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO).

The AGO, is a national organization of academic, church, and concert organists in the U.S., headquartered in The Interchurch Center in New York City. The Guild seeks to set and maintain high musical standards and to promote understanding and appreciation of all aspects of organ and choral music.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment