Monday, June 18, 2007

Pipe Dreams -- Benicia Company Gives Life To Old Musical Craft

Pipe Dreams -- Benicia Company Gives Life To Old Musical Craft
By Amy Maginnis-Honey

BENICIA - Jack Bethards' love affair with the pipe organ began some 50-plus years ago when the instrument was repaired at the church he attended in Santa Rosa.

Thirty years ago, he purchased Schoenstein & Co., makers of that very instrument. Three years ago, he moved the operation to Benicia, where a handful of pipe organs are in various stages of construction at any given time. Most of the work is done by hand.

This month, the company held its first open house in Benicia and welcomed about 50 people, including organ players and craftsman. "It was the first time we had an organ we could play," Bethards said of the event.

That organ will be disassembled, placed into a 53-foot moving van and shipped to a church in New York.

A crew from Schoenstein will be on hand to meet the truck and spend about three weeks assembling it at the church. The job will probably take about three weeks.

It took a lot longer to put together the 42-foot high, 75-foot wide, 25-foot deep organ made for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City conference center which seats more than 20,000 people. "It was a huge, huge organ. It was the size of a reasonably good house," Bethards said.

Schoenstein employees spent a few years installing and fine tuning the Salt Lake City organ.

The company was started in 1877 by a German immigrant family of organ builders. It's the oldest and largest pipe organ company west of the Rockies.

For Bethards and his employees, no detail is too small. That's why it can take up to a year or more to build an instrument.

The Salt Lake City pipe organ took seven years from conception to completion.

No two organs are the same, as each is designed to fit the architecture and acoustics of its new home, albeit a church, symphony hall or even a home.

A few days before the open house, Schoenstein employee Bill Vaughan sat at the completed organ, testing the weight and evenness of the keys. "When you have direct contact with it (the keys), you want them in smooth working order," he said.

He was using a weight to make sure the keys all went down about the same depth. If one wasn't feeling or sounding right, Vaughan, who plays pipe organ, adjusted it.

He just recently returned from nine weeks in Dallas helping to install an organ.

For the time being, his play is limited to testing the pipe organ at work or playing one at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Pleasant Hill. "I want one so much," he said. "It's such fine quality."

Prices range from about $100,000 up to $3.5 million. "Church committees often have a businessman on them. They want to know why they (pipe organs) are so expensive. Then, when they come to our shop they wonder how we can build them so cheap," Bethards said.

"All of this is handmade," Vaughan said. "People think it's just the console and pipes." But a look inside reveals a system that works together to bring just the right notes to life.

Fairfield resident Chris Hansford, who is the console shop foreman, spent a recent morning wiring the bottom boards of a pipe organ in for repair.

"It's like trying to reinvent the wheel," he said standing before a wooden board with several wires attached. "Each of these represents a note," he said, connecting the wires to circuits. "Then you connect it to the other end and it connects to a sophisticated relay system."

While he played drums and clarinet at Armijo High School, Hansford prefers to build things more than play with them. He spent almost three years in Salt Lake City helping install that organ.

Attending the open house was organist and harpist Dotty Schenk, who's hoping Fairfield's Grace Episcopal Church will have a Schoenstein of their own in the future. She plays the organ on Mare Island and is a substitute for Grace Episcopal.

"They are 3,000 times better than an electronic organ. You take them (the electronic organ) out of the shop and they lose their value.

"The technology (of making pipe organs) hasn't really changed in 200 years," she said.

She was able to sit down at the completed organ and play some Bach. "It's great, it has a nice touch," she said. "And the sound is very good."

Listening to her was Grace Episcopal member Rick Lucke. He and Schenk were both fascinated by what they saw and heard. "Basically this is a medieval shop brought into the 21st century," he said (The company doesn't offer public tours).

Schenk complimented Bethards on the instrument. "Who's that playing on the piano?" he asked during their conversation.

Bethards answered the question himself. It was Jim Welch, a prominent pipe organist from the Bay Area, who has played around the world.

Bethards' passion for what he does still burns strong. "It was the complex of the machinery. It was mysteries I'd never seen before. It was intriguing to see how it worked," he recalled of his first pipe organ encounter.

That enthusiasm has made Schoenstein so popular, the company has commitments through 2009. Since its inception, Schoenstein has made about 160 pipe organs.

In addition to being Schoenstein's chief financial officer, Bethards is also its tonal director, playing each and every note. Defects are corrected by reshaping individual pipes. "The whole point is to custom match it to the church acoustically," he said.

Bethards has nothing but praise for the company's new location. "We love being here," he said. "In San Francisco, the crowded conditions were difficult. Now were are close to where people live and parking is available. This is a wonderful work atmosphere. In San Francisco, it was push, push, push. Here's it's more pleasant and easier to enjoy work."

The company has about 25 employees, some of them part-time. All, in one way or another, touches each pipe organ built there.

"Unlike other businesses, we're not dealing with hundreds of people a day. We have a large handful of clients at any given time," said Cindy Smith, the company's controller. "Our customer service department will never be in India."

The Benicia building, she noted, had to raise its roof to 42 feet to accommodate the size of the Salt Lake City instrument.

Approximately 90 percent of Schoenstein's business comes from churches. The remaining 10 percent from conference halls, residences and symphony halls.

"The parts last for 40 to 50 years," Smith said. "So, a pipe organ going into a church is there for generations, theoretically."

While the pipe organ may be considered a classical musical instrument, Bethards feels it has a place in today's music world.

He cited increased interest from concert halls and universities. "I think the church organ is just as popular as ever. I just wish they (pipe organs) got a little more exposure.

"From our perspective we see a lot of interest. There's a tremendous amount of great music for pipe organs," he said.

But don't look for much Beethoven for the instrument. "He hated the way it was played in church," Vaughan said.

Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey 427-6957 or

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