by Jonathan Dimmock
Organist and musical director Jonathan Dimmock has decided to move his Robert Byrd portativ organ from Davies Symphony Hall to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and to make it available for rental to early music groups needing a continuo organ while performing in that space. Here’s the story and a description of this superb instrument.
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St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, in San Francisco, is perhaps the closest ambiance to a German baroque church that we have on the West coast. Acoustically and visually, it’s a gem. (And, often overlooked, it’s comfortable to sit in their pews!) In the back balcony, it houses one of the best baroque organs in the area, built by Taylor & Boody. When early music ensembles perform there, however, there’s always a need for a small, portativ organ up front, to play alongside the instrumentalists and singers. In the past, this has always involved an expensive rental, carting, and tuning.
Now St. Mark’s has a portativ organ which is available for rental and is semi-permanently in the church. There are no transportation fees associated with rental of the instrument! (This is sometimes a savings of $500.) The only fees are for tuning and rental itself ($175 per day for rental).
The instrument, owned by me, was built by Robert Byrd of Salem, MA in the 1990s. It’s a one-manual, three-rank, mechanical key- and stop-action organ and has a compass of 54 notes (C–f3). The organ can transpose from A=415 HZ to A=440 Hz. It’s also been tuned to A=430 Hz when John Elliott Gardiner wanted it for a Classical orchestra piece. The manual natural keys are of bone, with ebony sharps. The case is carved panels of oak. It has high quality wheels under it’s base so can be moved easily. It has three flute ranks: 8′, 4′, and 2′. The motor is basically silent and, unlike many other continuo instruments, does not change the pitch of the instrument when in use for long periods of time. Most importantly, it blends beautifully with choir and orchestra – not the hooty sound of many instruments that are sold cheaply. There is a very sturdy oak stand made for it so that it can be used without taking it off its wheels. (It’s played standing up.)
My work as a continuo player began, in earnest, after co-founding American Bach Soloists 30 years ago. As ABS’ initial General Director, Continuo Player, and Choir Director, I was responsible for finding a good portativ organ that blends beautifully with baroque instruments. The majority of the instruments in the Bay area do not! So I became fine-tuned for the nuances of good portativ organs. This one is truly a gem.
The instrument was the regular organ for the Boston Handel & Haydn Society and is heard on many of their recordings. Gustav Leonhardt once said that it was the best continuo organ in America. Daniel Pinkham has composed music specifically for the instrument.
To inquire about renting the organ for a performance in the space, you can inquire through the church office (as per all other rentals) or write to me directly about any questions: JEDimmock@comcast.net.