Organ tuner, builder and performer to play P.A. recital

Submitted photo.

Warren Mack playing refurbished St. Alban’s organ Friday

When he was 15 years old, Warren Mack was invited to an organ recital at All Saints Cathedral in Edmonton.

Mack had no musical training, but he came out of that recital knowing something he didn’t know before – he was going to play the organ.

“I cam out of that recital knowing that I was supposed to play the organ and that I was also supposed to build it,” he said.

“It was like a revelation.”

Starting from scratch at age 15, Mack worked hard, getting himself into university for music in just four years. He’s been playing, building and tuning organs since.

This week, Mack is in Prince Albert to tune the pipe organ at St. Alban’s Cathedral. He’ll start work Wednesday, and take two days to tune each of the pipes to make the instrument sound like it should.

Friday, he’ll show off what the instrument sounds like, playing a pipe organ recital exploring organ music over the last 300 or so years.

Tuning an organ is nothing like tuning a piano. A piano can have as many as 236 strings for its 88 keys (treble notes have three strings each). A pipe organ can have about 1,500 pipes, each of which needs to be tuned by adjusting a collar up or down to make the pipe longer or shorter, adjusting the pitch down or up, respectively.

“I spend quite a long time… going through every single pipe, listening to each one in conjunction with the others and adjusting them up and down until they all agree,” Mack said.

“They’re physical things, they’re affected by temperature, and they don’t go much out of tune, but they just go enough that you want to bring them back.”

Mack’s offer of performing a concert came out of St. Alban approaching him to tune their organ.

According to Fred Payton, they had used the organ for a funeral last weekend when the North Battleford organist remarked that it was out of tune.

“Warren said he would come and do the organ tuning, and just for a matter of fun, he said he would do an organ concert, a recital on the Friday night,” Payton said.

“It was his offer to perform the recital.”

Mack has tuned the organ before, about three years ago.

“It’s a wonderful little cathedral,” he said.

“It’s not huge, but it’s beautiful, and it does have really nice acoustics for a pipe organ, where you (get) a little bit of a mysterious echo. It’s a wonderful building.”

People with the skillset to tune and play a pipe organ aren’t as common. As church attendance falls and churches close, pipe organs become less and less common.

The 1909-built organ at St. Alban’s is one of the few in Prince Albert that still sees regular use, Payton said.

“It’s harder and harder to find pipe organs,” Mack said. “There are a million of them on the market right now. You can buy a pipe organ for a song, but you have to have a place to put it. There are fewer organists and fewer organs. I’m not quite the last of the Mohicans, but I’m certainly part of a fading breed.”

While organs and organists are less and less common, the instrument enjoys a wealth of compositions written for it over hundreds of years. In his recitals, Mack tries to show a snippet of what’s available.

“When I do a concert, I do sort of a whistle-stop tour of organ music through the centuries, because the organ has a history that goes back a long, long time,” Mack said.

“My earliest piece is probably from 300 years ago, and I work all the way up to a toccata I wrote myself on ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’ It’s like a fast little tour of organ music through the ages.”

Mack’s program includes two works by J.S. Bch, a concerto by J.G. Walther, works by Alfred Hollins and Piertro Yon, and more modern pieces by Herbert Murrill and Samuel Barber, the latter being an arrangement of the composer’s famous Adagio for Strings.

For Payton, getting a chance to hear that repertoire will be a rare chance to hear what the organ is capable of doing.

“I always enjoy hearing it played in a recital because you tend to get a little bit more of the diversity of sound than you would get playing sacred music,” he said.

“It’s so fitting in sacred worship to have the pipe organ, but when you get it in concert, it has such a variety of sound you can’t get when it’s accompanying hymns on a Sunday morning.”

Mack’s recital gets going at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Proceeds from a goodwill offering will go towards the organ fund.