Church pipe organs, organists produce the merriest of holiday sounds

Catholic community, Our Savor Lutheran still boast unique music of age-old pipe organs

Fresh off their jam-packed church concerts Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, organists Ira Stein for the two churches in the Catholic Community of Pleasanton and Nicholas Mourlam at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Livermore are continuing to play the very natural and beautiful music that only their pipe organs can provide.

The organs are among the few pipe organs in Northern California, providing their unique sounds through pipes driven by electro-pneumatic action that drives the bellows to produce the strong current of air to the pipes. The motor, hidden far away from hearing distance for church-goers, is the only electric component in these organs.

Stein plays on a pipe organ given to St. Augustine Catholic Church in 1940 when the church was downtown. It was moved to the new church on Bernal Avenue in the 1960s, but for some reason, the pipes were hidden behind a screen and aren't visible.

Mourlam plays on a much larger Martin Ott pipe organ, which was built in 1983. Our Savior Lutheran bought the organ in 2004 from Grace Lutheran Church in Aurora, Ill., and moved it into its new church on South Livermore Avenue, across from the Livermore Civic Center. The organ has 966 pipes.

Today, churches generally use electric organs, which cost well under the $200,000-$850,000 for a pipe organ. The electrics can reproduce a variety of sounds, more than can come from a pipe organ. Stein and Mourlam, who also play pianos at their church services, say the pipe organ is preferable in churches like theirs that have large acoustical environments. Also, with no moving parts except for the blower motor, a pipe organ can last forever. Some have survived the test of centuries, with 800-year-old pipe organs still in use in some European cathedrals.

Stein finds the pipe organ an essential part of the music at Catholic masses and special musical programs at St. Augustine because of its many varied sounds, ranging from marches to fanfares that would be played in a European royal court. The pipe organ can produce very soft music or a continuing string of acoustical sounds that sound flat, sharp and like trumpets all at the same time.

He should know. Learning the piano as a 10-year-old, he has now made eight records (look up his name on iTunes) and plays at six masses each week for the 5,000 families who attend St. Augustine and St. Elizabeth Seton churches.

Mourlam, 25, became music director at Our Savior Lutheran earlier this year after receiving his master's degree in sacred music and theology from Notre Dame University, where he also played the pipe organ. He compares the difference in music played on a pipe organ vs. an electric organ to fine wines in the Valley. "You can tell the difference."

Pleasanton Weekly staff.

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