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SharonRose Pfeiffer on the amazing E.M. Skinner organ

Dr. SharonRose Pfeiffer, the artist in residence at the Church of the Transfiguration on Rock Harbor in Orleans, gives walk-in demonstrations on Friday afternoons on the church’s stunning, one-of-a-kind E.M. Skinner organ.

Q. Tell me how you came to the church.

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A. My husband and I moved to the Community of Jesus back in 1997, when my daughter was born. When the new church was built in 2000, the organ was started right away under Nelson Barden. Nelson is the number-one expert on E.M. Skinner organs. He does restoration work. This organ is comprised of components from 17 different instruments built by E.M. Skinner. He has collected these pipes over the years because this is his life. He restores them at his shop in Boston, and they’re installed here bit by bit.

Q. There must be nothing comparable in the world.

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A. There isn’t. I’ll tell you what’s completely unique about the design: its “surround sound.” With the pipes lining the aisles in these mahogany chambers, there is no other organ in the world like this. It encompasses the entire room.

Q. How powerful does it feel to play that?

A. Well, it is powerful, but I’ll tell you, the organ is in charge. It overwhelms me as a player. It really does, every single time. It will be, when it’s finished, 12,500 pipes. That will make it one of the six largest organs in the country, and one of the 10 largest in the world. Our sincere hope is that it will be finished in 2017. We need a new console. The current one, although absolutely beautiful, doesn’t have enough real estate, if you will, to hold all the stops we need for all the pipes.

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Q. Was the console new when the church was built?

A. No. It has an awesome little story. Underneath each one of the keys is a little stereo needle, it looks like. It’s one of Skinner’s unique and unusual consoles because it gives you a tracker-type feel for the player. So it really gives you the sense that you have direct contact with the opening of the pipes. It’s awesome to play. We’ll never get rid of it. This console will move to the back of the church, and the grand console will be up here. There’s a builder in California that will start working on it as soon as we have the funds.

Q. So is Nelson here a few weeks at a time, or every week, or what?

A. We’re on his mind and on his heart pretty much all the time. He’s a phenomenal human being. He will come here at any time on a moment’s notice, if there’s any problem, which there hardly are. He’s very youthful: 80, going on 60. And this he calls his magnum opus, the final project of his career. He is often up here working in the chambers. The louvers that don’t open; they’re really workshops. There are pipes back there, tools. He’ll work up there, I’d say, on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.

Q. Are you from the Cape originally?

A. No, I’m from New Jersey. Eastman School of Music is where I got my doctorate in organ. I was a Fulbright scholar in France. A couple at the church I was playing at in Scottsdale, Arizona sent me here for a church music conference. They said, “We want to fly you out there. We think you’d enjoy it.” And I really, really enjoyed it, the whole setting of this place.

Q. The room itself must be acoustically designed for the instrument.

A. It’s awesome. The interesting truth is the acoustics were designed to work for the spoken word, the sung word, and the organ. It’s phenomenal to me that it works for all of the above. It’s about three and a half seconds reverberation this time of year, more or less depending on the humidity and so forth. Nelson has trained a couple of our religious brothers in the art of organ restoration. When you have an instrument like this, the question is, how are you going to maintain it? We have a brother who is excellent. He spends weeks at a time with Nelson. And my student, a younger brother in his late 20s, is learning fast and well, both playing and the organ itself. So we have a future as this art gets passed down.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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