A New Prairie Village Pipe Organ Finds Its Voice

Aug 23, 2017

Getting the pipe organ Opus 22 installed and settled in its new Prairie Village home at Village Presbyterian Church was no small task.

It's a massive instrument. Standing 24 feet tall, it takes up the whole back wall of the church. It weighs 17 tons, and has 3,600 pipes inside. Some of the pipes are as tall as 16 feet, while others are just a few inches. And each pipe has been carefully voiced so it sounds just right, a process that took 40,000 hours of labor.

"I mean you can't just throw them in there," says  musician Elisa Bickers. "It's got to be measured, and the weight correct and the wind correct. So it's really a fascinating meld of art and science to get it just right."

Bickers is the principal organist at the church. She plays a lot of different instruments, but the organ is her favorite. She's been playing since she was 12.

"It can create such gentleness or such power," she says. Organs offer an endless variety of sounds, and no two organs are the same. And Bickers couldn't be more excited about playing this new organ. It's a major improvement from the old one.

She used to call that one 'old wheezy' because of the way wind would escape from some of the pipes. Ten years ago the congregation created a pipe organ committee to address what to do with 'old wheezy.'

They brought in consultants, considered the acoustics of the room and eventually hired organ builders Richards Fowkes and Co., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to build Opus 22. The cost: two million dollars.

Bickers calls her Opus for short, and yes, Bickers considers the organ a "she."

Inside the pipe organ Opus 22, organist Elisa Bickers shows off the pipes inside. Some are as tall as 16 feet, and some are as small as a few centimeters.
Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3 FM

Opus arrived in boxes last September and for the past year they've been assembling and voicing her.

"The voicing process is taking those pipes and adjusting them at various points," says Bickers. "I mean there's parts to each pipe. So once they get in the room, they put it in the organ and they make it sound just right."

And it sounds amazing.

Now that the installation and voicing is complete, Bickers says the really fun part can begin: sharing Opus 22 with the community. Village Presbyterian Church has scheduled a series of public concerts throughout the year, there are organ lessons planned, and, of course, Opus 22 will be used during regular worship services.

One year after the wood and pipes have settled into their new Prairie Village home, the organ builders will come back for another voicing session, just to make sure Opus 22 sounds the absolute best that she can.

Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, announcer and producer for KCUR 89.3.