The new practice organ installed at Hope earlier this fall has added even more variety to the distinctive and storied international roster of instruments that provide learning opportunities for students at the college.
Built for the college by Casavant Frères (Casavant Brothers) of Saint-Hyacinthe in Quebec, Canada, the organ joins compatriots from Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as another by Casavant.
Located in either Dimnent Memorial Chapel or the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts, the college’s six organs are all best understood as individuals with unique characteristics that suit them for specific roles even as they serve collectively to educate. One of the two instruments intended specifically for practice, the newest arrival has the ability to be two different kinds of organs. It came onto Hope’s radar through conversation in 2015, when Casavant Frères was installing the organ they’d custom-built for the Concert Hall in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts.
“They had designed a prototype practice instrument, which this is, in which you can vary the weight of the keys,” said Dr. Huw Lewis, who is a professor of music and chair of the department — and an internationally acclaimed organist. “So the instrument, which is small, can feel like you’re playing a small instrument or the mechanism can be adjusted so that it feels as if you’re playing a much larger instrument.”
The high quality of the organ in the Concert Hall left Lewis with no doubt that the practice instrument would be an outstanding addition to the program. “The organ in the Concert Hall is very fine, and everyone who comes to play it is extremely impressed by it and excited to play it,” he said.
The new organ has been contributed by Dr. David Van Dyke ’60 in memory of his wife, Janet Koopman ’62 Van Dyke. Janet, who died on Dec. 23, 2020, was an accomplished organist herself, and had served in that role at Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church and many other churches.
It has been, Lewis noted, an essential addition. Most students in the music program bring their instruments with them. Pianists and organists are exceptions to that generality, and while Hope has multiple practice pianos, the college’s several organ students (nine currently) have had to make do with one.
What of the other four? That’s where their specialized roles are both a blessing and a challenge. Because they’re all different and in different venues, they serve students well by providing a heady mix of performance experiences. Their particular locations, however, also mean that they’re often unavailable.
For example, Dimnent Memorial Chapel houses Hope’s historic U.S.-made E.M. Skinner chancel organ and Dutch Pels and van Leeuwen gallery organ, but the chapel hosts a variety of events including not least of all worship services, and the booming sound of organ practice is problematic when classes are meeting in the basement. Lewis has an outstanding, U.K.-built J.W. Walker and Sons organ in his studio as a teaching instrument — and students also practice with it — but the studio is also his office space. The Robert Cavanaugh Choral Room in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts contains the cherished instrument that was rebuilt by the late Roger E. Davis, a long-time music professor who’d originally had it in his home studio, but the choral room is used for, well, choral practice. The high demand for the Concert Hall likewise limits its esteemed Casavant organ as an option.
Until this fall, that left the venerable German practice organ that’s also in the music center.
“It’s impressive that a college of Hope’s size has instruments from so many different traditions, and while the high amount of activity here is also a positive quality of the college, it also means that they and the spaces they’re in are much in demand,” Lewis said. “To have as many students as we do and only one organ that they could depend on to practice has been quite a challenge, especially during peak periods like exam time. So we’re exceedingly grateful to David for his gift and what he has done for our students.”