Northborough’s Historical Society organ restoration completed in time for concert series
By Alexandra Molnar, Contributing Writer
Northborough – A stream of afternoon sun gleams on the smooth wood of the organ. Deep chords resonate throughout the hall, passing from the player’s fingers tapping the keys to each historical artifact on the shelves. Llanda Richardson is getting her first chance to play a piece on the tracker organ at the Northborough Historical Society after its major restoration. The George Stevens organ works nearly as well as it did back in 1874 when it was built—just in time for the Organ Concert Series at the Northborough Historical Society.
Llanda Richardson, a longtime Northborough resident and chair of the Museum Trustees Committee, learned how to play the organ at age 3 from her mother, the well-known organist Harriette Slack Richardson. Richardson now considers herself a “pianist who can play the organ” because she does not know how to play with the pedals, and she plays as a hobby.
The organ was built in Cambridge by George Stevens. It belonged to the former Baptist Church in Northborough, the building which has been the Historical Society since 1960. It is a tracker organ, which means that the console (the keyboard) and pipes are mechanically connected. Leaks in the air reservoir and bending and crumbling pipes called for a major restoration done this year by the Andover Organ Company of Waltham. The George Stevens organ is a rare specimen, as fewer than 20 exist today in an unaltered state.
This year the concert series will take place Sunday afternoons from Sept. 15to Oct. 6, with an opportunity to play a song on the organ for a donation on Saturday, Sept. 21, during Northborough’s Applefest celebration. All concerts are held at the Historical Society, 50 Main St., at 2 p.m. and are free. The series will feature professional organists and professional musicians who enjoy playing the organ.
Permelia Sears, of Dunstable, will perform in the first concert in the series. Sears began to play the organ in the 11th grade and enjoys a career as a professional organist.
Before performing, Sears visits each organ in order to select her program, as no two organs are built exactly alike.
“[I] pick pieces that the organ likes best. They all have personalities,” Sears said.
For the Northborough organ, repertoire is somewhat limited because the pedal board only extends a little more than one octave, and the 16-foot pipes only play one octave. This means that the bass notes are limited.
Sears will play with her husband, David, who is a pianist and also plays organ, and her daughter, a violinist.
Allyn Phelps III, who will play the Sept. 29 concert, began playing the organ at the Trinity Church in Northborough when he was in high school because “[he] liked how loud it was.” He received formal training on the piano while at college and now is in his fifth year teaching music at Zeh Elementary School in Northborough.
Phelps has played at the Historical Society many times—at least once a year for the past eight or nine years—for formal concerts or for visitors viewing the collection. He explained that one difficulty of playing the George Stevens organ is that the pedals do not line up with where the feet normally go.
Glen Campbell, the organist at the Church of the Nativity in Northborough, will perform the final concert Oct. 6. Despite the limitations of this organ, Campbell said, “the instrument possesses some wonderful strengths that I will try to draw out—some nice bright sounds, some quiet ones, some loud ones.” He enjoys playing the organ as a hobby.
The Sept. 22 concert will be performed by Mike Westberry and will include a student musicians’ recital.
The concert series is being held in memory of Robert Kennerly, a longtime active member of the Historical Society, who had a fondness for the organ. Funding was provided by the Community Preservation Act, an act designated to protect open spaces, preserve historic resources, create affordable housing, and initiate outdoor recreation projects.
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