Restored, historic electric organ brings new sounds to growing OU music program

A forest of hulking metal pipes fills a room behind the stage of Paul F. Sharp Hall at the University of Oklahoma.


The pipes are part of the newly restored M.P. Möler Opus 5819 organ, or "Mini Mo," as the department likes to call it. Partially assembled during its installation, the organ already consumed a hefty amount of the music center's real estate.

OU purchased the organ from the University of Pennsylvania for $1 in 2006, said John Riester, American Organ Institute's shop manager.

"They had to move the instrument or get rid of it, and we were happy to get it out," he said. "It did cost a little more than a dollar to get it here."

Four semitrailers and about 1,400 miles later, the organ left its home at the Philadelphia Municipal Auditorium and arrived at AOI's Norman shop in the fall of 2006, Riester said. A crew of professors, students and organ enthusiasts set to work on the instrument, working with leather, metal, wood and electrical wiring, said John D. Schwandt, associate professor of organ and director of AOI.

"The majority of work has been done by students," he said. "The quality of the work on the organ is on par with any (professional)."

The Mini Mo is an electric organ, which differs in style from traditional pipe organs used to play church hymns, fugues and other styles of classical music, Schwandt said. Although the instrument is capable of playing traditional organ arrangements, it can also be used for jazz, gospel and contemporary music and can create kooky sound effects to accompany silent films.

The restoration was part of the university's ongoing plan to make OU's organ program the best in the country, Schwandt said. The program is the first of its kind, incorporating restoration and building with performance training. Undergraduate and graduate degrees require a certain amount of hours in the AOI shop, studio classes and lessons. The school of music also hopes to expand organ use to other music majors in the future, Schwandt said.

"My feeling is that it's time for the organ. It's a vibrant and exciting instrument," he said. "We have a whole new generation of organ."

But this isn't the first time the university's organ program has made noise, Riester said. From the late 1930s to the mid 1970s, Professor Mildred Andrew Boggess helped turn OU into a hotspot for organ performance. During her time at the university, Boggess had several students who were Fulbright Scholars and national organ competition winners, making the university one of the top organ schools in the country.

Schwandt said OU president David L. Boren wants the stature of that era to return to campus. A buzz about the program among music academics and educators around the country has increased student enrollment, Reister said. When he arrived in Norman in 2006, there were two organ students, but the program now has 13 organ majors and is expected to grow, he said.

Rachel Foster, a first-year graduate student from Minnesota, said she enrolled at OU because her teacher highly recommended the organ program and Schwandt. Foster hopes to one day work as a church worship director and said she's eager to start practicing on the new organ.

"I'm excited about it. I have had no experience with theater organ, but it will be nice to have been exposed to it," she said. "I got here early just to work in the shop."

The new organ will be featured in an 8 p.m. Thursday "preview" concert with the OU Wind Symphony and Symphony Band in the Catlett Music Center's Paul F. Sharp Hall, 500 W. Boyd. The dedication will continue this weekend with a three-day "Old Wine, New Bottles" gala and concert event.

A 2:30 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday open house will be held at AOI's organ shop, 2101 W. Tecumseh Road, Suite C. Peter Richard Conte will lead the 8 p.m. Friday "Kaleidoscope" concert, and the organ will bellow Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" at a free concert for kids 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Sharp Concert Hall. Silent-film organist Clark Wilson will use the Mini Mo to accompany a live screening of the 1927 sci-fi classic "Metropolis" at 8 p.m. Saturday. Wilson will return for the 3 p.m. Sunday "All-Star Blockbuster Concert" with organists R. Jelani Eddington; OU professors John Schwandt, organ, and Jeongwon Ham, piano; and members of the OU Jazz Ensemble.

"There will be various musical styles, Riester said. "People are going to lose their preconceived notions of the organ."

Schwandt hopes people recognize the importance of the restoration and that support for the program continues.

"What OU has is a national treasure," he said. "There are materials we have you can't have anymore. It's the only one in the world."

Thursday's concert is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors. Evening concerts Friday to Sunday are $20 for adults, $10 for seniors. For more information, call 325-7829.  "Jamie Birdwell

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