Piping up for the Curtis Organ

Nik Sizgorich (left) and Paul Marchesano with the Curtis Organ

Nik Sizgorich (left) and Paul Marchesano stand in the belly of the Curtis Organ, surrounded by some of the instrument’s 10,731 wooden and metal pipes.

The Curtis Organ is not your church’s organ. .

It’s a grand, lush instrument with 161 sets of pipes—10,731 pipes in all—that can mimic the swells of an orchestra, the blare of loud trumpets and yes, even the strains of a church organ.

The remarkable instrument is also, literally, inseparable from its home in the Irvine Auditorium. The Curtis pipes, which range in size from the width of a pencil to 32 feet across, are hidden behind large panels; the vents that carry air to the pipes run through and beneath the building. When it is played, the organ’s sound fills the vaulted ceiling and all of the nooks and crannies of the dramatic Gothic structure. “The building is ideal for the organ, even if it’s an odd layout for other things,” said Paul Marchesano, administrative assistant in the Department of Chemistry and a consultant in pipe organ restoration. “The organ just uses all the space. They’re never going to come apart.”

For this, Marchesano is grateful. Thanks to an extensive renovation of both Irvine and the organ in 1997, the Curtis Organ Restoration Society formed by fans of the instrument in 1973, no longer needs to exist. As Irvine’s ornately painted walls were being restored seven years ago, Marchesano, IT Support Specialist in the School of Medicine and organist Nikola Sizgorich and Associate Vice Provost Max King watched three truckloads of pipes leave for Hartford, Connecticut, for renovation, unsure if they would survive.

But they did, and with a donation from William Brown WhG’55 the organ was able to get a much-needed facelift: Brown paid for a new console—the part of the organ that sits onstage. The original console, which sits in the lobby of Irvine, had fallen into such bad repair that organists had stuck pieces of tape on many of the switches that controlled the pipes as a warning that they didn’t work properly.

Made of rich mahogany, with a crest pattern that is mirrored on Irvine’s walls, the new console begs to be played by world-class talent, such as Felix Hell who will perform at 7:30 p.m. on June 12. Marchesano, Sizgorich and King’s goal is to raise money to bring organists to campus and promote the organ’s use in campus ceremonies. “In the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a great renaissance in symphonic organ programs,” said Marchesano. “It’s all good for us here at Penn. This organ is a wonderful, romantic, symphonic instrument.”

It’s high-tech, too. Tucked in a drawer in the new console is a computerized touch screen with a hard drive that can record and save performances—almost like a deluxe player piano. When an organist pulls intricate combinations of knobs on the console that correspond to particular sets of pipes, he or she can save that combination in the system.

The second-largest organ in Philadelphia (the largest is Lord & Taylor’s Wanamaker Organ), the Curtis Organ will “vibrate your body,” said King. The historic gem, built in 1926, is one of about 300 cited in the past 350 years by the Organ Historic Society.

The organ has brought these enthusiasts in contact not only with each other, but with fans from other places, as well. “The organ has a way of doing that to you,” said Marchesano. “You either become a fan or you’re not moved. It’s not a wishy-washy instrument.”

For information and tickets for the Felix Hell show, contact the Annenberg Center at 215-898-3900. Donations to help promote the organ may be sent to: Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Max King, Office of the VPUL, 3611 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, 19104-6222.

Originally published on May 13, 2004