A brief history of Old West Organ Society
by Lois Regestein
Charles Brenton Fisk’s Opus 55 in Boston’s Old West Church was dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1971 in recital by Max Miller, Boston University Organist. The organ, tonally modeled, in part, on the Andreas Silbermann instrument in Marmoutier (Alsace region of France), was immediately recognized as a landmark instrument. Fisk’s keen ear for the sound of the French Classic instruments and the acoustical properties of Old West Church culminated in an instrument that fits the building with remarkable success. Within a short time, Opus 55 proved to be not only perfect for French Classic repertoire but also surprisingly versatile for a wide range of music of differing periods and styles. The mahogany case is, in part, constructed of recycled sections of an organ case by 19th-century Boston builder Thomas Appleton. The four-tower case design reflects 18th-century Silbermann organs in Alsace.
The Old West Organ Society, informally gathered in 1974 to protect and promote the organ, was formally organized in 1982 when By-Laws for the OWOS were registered with the state. Yuko Hayashi served as Executive Director for the first 35 years of the Society and Margaret Angelini for the subsequent five years. Since 2014, Lois Regestein served as Chairman pro tem for two years and currently David Eaton holds this position. An active and dedicated Board of Directors stands behind the organization.
The Fisk organ was the major recital and teaching instrument for New England Conservatory for more than thirty years. Numerous student degree recitals took place at Old West during these years and generations of students practiced and took their lessons at Old West. With the financial support of the Conservatory, the organ received regular maintenance and the church had a sequence of organists drawn from conservatory organ majors. Under the NEC Organ Department chairmanship of Yuko Hayashi, the Fisk organ was the instrument of choice for masterclasses taught by leading organists. Numerous organists of international renown came to Boston to give recitals at Old West, which were regularly coupled with a masterclass the following day for organ students and Boston area organists. Week-long organ academies, taught by Hayashi and other organists were occasionally featured. The fruitful collaboration with NEC ended with the dissolution of NEC’s Organ Department c. 2004, an event that was much protested by NEC alumni and many others.
The Fisk organ was also featured in an extensive “Bach Marathon” of recitals in the 300th anniversary year of Bach’s birth, 1985, as well as a “Buxtehude Marathon” in 1987. It was one of three Boston instruments chosen for a Franck Festival in 2005 and Messiaen Festival in 2008, both featuring organist Jon Gillock. The organ has been played by leading organists at national and regional conventions of the American Guild of Organists, in programs sponsored by the Boston chapter AGO, in programs of the biennial Boston Early Music Festival, and in benefit recitals in conjunction with Old West Church.
Spearheaded by the Old West Organ Society during the 1990s, a renovation of the organ updated the combination action to solid-state, replaced the bench with an easily adjustable mechanized bench, and redistributed the ivory-covered keys on the keyboard to remedy extreme wear on the central part of the keyboards.
In recent years, the Old West Organ Society has assumed a more central role in the organization of organ events at Old West. Currently, the Society foresees more emphasis on masterclasses and other educational ventures as we seek to expand our role and ensure our presence in the greater Boston arts community.