Holidays a busy time for Powell River organists

Sound of classic carols fill the festive season

For some organists in Powell River, the holidays are a favourite time of year, to a point, while for others, it is the best time of year, period.

“You get through the favourite few concerts that you really like and then you’ve pretty much had it,” said Don James, organist and co-founder of Powell River Academy of Music.

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Christmas is fellow organist Richard Olfert’s favourite time of year, and carols are his favourite type of church music, he said. The organist and choirmaster at the United Church said carols can be more athletic to play on the complicated instrument and that there is more of a demand on an organist’s abilities when playing the centuries-old German, French and English carols that are so familiar to people.

“Christmas is when you hear the most organ music, traditional music that goes back centuries, and it is certainly a busy time of year for the people who play the instrument in Powell River,” said Olfert.

For many years, Jim Dickson has sat in the organ pit at the Patricia Theatre for an annual Christmas event featuring carolling and Santa Claus. He takes his shoes off, he said, to better feel the pedals on a new organ that has replaced the previous one damaged beyond repair in the 2014 flood at the theatre.

“The organ they did have at the Patricia Theatre was great,” said Dickson. “It was an electric organ with a great pipe sound to it. It was fun to play.”

While there are no true pipe organs in Powell River and all are electronic or hybrids, James, Olfert and Dickson said it is the former that creates the thrill for the player and audience. There is nothing like the huge sound when all the stops are pulled.

“When you have a particularly fine organ that was built by the masters,” said James, “with all of these wooden, metal, small and huge pipes that are actually built into the architectural structure of the building, then it’s utterly amazing when you’re playing them.”

Dickson said he “sadly” misses the great pipe organs.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “When I go back to Toronto, I usually end up playing one of the pipe organs in a Catholic or Anglican church.”

James said he became fascinated by the organ when he was attending university, and playing it helped pay for his studies.

“You had several levels of keyboards,” said James. “You had a foot pedal that was full width and you learned to play with your heel and toe, your fingers and hands often on different keyboards, simultaneously. It was a great challenge.”

Dickson said Christmas was his favourite time of year when he was playing regularly, but it was also exhausting. For most organists, playing is not their only responsibility.

“When I lived in Toronto, I’d just be going from place to place,” said Dickson. “When I moved to Calgary, it was basically the same. I had the Catholic church, the Anglican and United church and their choirs, and everything else as well.”

When Dickson and his family moved here, he said he was done.

“That lasted, I think, six months,” he said. “Then the person who was playing organ at the Anglican Church moved off and they were stuck, so I filled in and that went on for some time, and then from there I went to the United Church.”

From all of the carols to play on the organ at Christmas, it is difficult to pick one, according to James, Olmert and Dickson.

James said “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” For Dickson, it is “O Holy Night” and Olfert said he likes them all.

Copyright © 2018 Powell River Peak

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