KILGORE, Tex. — East Texas is about to be booming. Not from the fracking that is waking the small cities outside of Dallas, but from an arts revival that is tapping into another local resource — one of the country’s highest concentrations of mid-20th century Aeolian-Skinner organs.
The fourth annual East Texas Pipe Organ Festival puts the instruments on display this week in a six-day event that starts at the festival’s home in Kilgore and moves to Dallas, Longview and Palestine in Texas and nearby Shreveport, La.
The organs, built by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company during its heyday, are engineering masterpieces with thousands of pipes, organized in groupings that imitate choirs of flutes, strings and trumpets. In the hands of a master organist, they were designed to play the entire library of European and American historical and modern organ music, whether written for the church, the theater or the symphony hall.
The Aeolians owe their prevalence in the region to the East Texas oil field boom of the 1930s and 1940s, when land-rich timbering families suddenly had the money to build impressive churches and fill them with some of the best organs around. Most were constructed by T. J. Williams and his family in New Orleans (they held the regional franchise) in collaboration with the largely self-taught genius of organ building, Roy Perry, a Texan who lived in Kilgore from 1932 until his death in 1978. This week, the organs will once again take center stage, played by organists from across the country.
Over six days, buses will take participants to hear 20 concerts, mostly on Aeolian-Skinner organs, and numerous talks by resident organists. The concerts, which are free to the public, are drawing world-famous organ performers, scholars, teachers and builders from as far away as Washington and California.
John Weaver, retired head of the organ departments at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York and a 2005 International Performer of the Year honoree of the American Guild of Organists, looks forward to seeing several of his former students in the festival concerts.
“I’m also very fond of the organ in Kilgore at the First Presbyterian Church,” he said, referring to the organ that became the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company’s de facto demonstration instrument, featured on its advertising brochures nationwide from the early 1950s into the 1960s.
“Kilgore’s Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1173 is my favorite organ,” said Lorenz Maycher, the festival’s founding director. “When I’m playing it, I’m concentrating so much on technique that I only occasionally notice how grand it sounds. But when I hear someone else playing it, I’m just overwhelmed.”
Built in 1949, the organ was one of Perry and the Williams family’s first collaborations, and it was dedicated in a concert by the young Virgil Fox, then an organist at the Riverside Church in New York City. The organ was so successful that Perry and the Williams family went on to build dozens more.
Maycher had longed to play the organ at Kilgore’s First Presbyterian since he was a 10-year-old in Muskogee, Okla. He “fell in love with the sound,” he said, after hearing a recording, first lent and then given to him, by his first organ teacher, who was blind. After Maycher became the organist at First Presbyterian, a friend called lamenting the public’s fading memory of Perry, who had died in 1978, a decade after completing his last great undertaking, the renovation and expansion of the Aeolian-Skinner organ at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Maycher could not have agreed more and conceived of a festival to honor Perry’s work as well as that of the Williams family. Within a short time, local foundations, hotel tax funding from the City of Kilgore as well as donations from organ music lovers and members of the First Presbyterian Church made the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival possible.
Highlights from this year’s festival include a performance of patriotic music at First Presbyterian by Ray and Beth Chenault, duo organists known for commissioning pieces from more than 40 composers. The French master composer, Jean Guillou, will play the 1965 Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1438 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, and Walt Strony will accompany the silent movie “The General” starring Buster Keaton on Thursday. The festival closes on Friday with National Cathedral artist-in-residence Jeremy Filsell, at First Baptist Church in Longview, and Mark Dwyer, organist at Church of the Advent in Boston performing at First Presbyterian.
The festival will honor the organist emeritus of First Presbyterian Church, James Culp, who is known as Jimmy and retired in 2010 after 30 years of service. An event schedule can be found at easttexaspipeorganfestival.com. Michael Barone of American Public Media’s Pipedreams is recording the concerts for future programming.
“It is good to see the churches where these organs are played filled with people, including not just the local congregations but people driving from long distances,” Culp said. “Many organs are disappearing from churches across the country, but the audiences that the festival attracts show that there is strong support for both the instruments and the music.”