Arts & Culture

Rare Fritts organ will star at Tacoma church fundraiser

VIDEO: A Renaissance organ in your living room

A Renaissance castle-style organ in your living room? Yes, if you happen to be Paul Fritts, a nationally-known organ builder who's opening his Tacoma home for a concert Aug. 14. The concert features Tacoma organists Jonathan Wohlers and Naomi Shig
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A Renaissance castle-style organ in your living room? Yes, if you happen to be Paul Fritts, a nationally-known organ builder who's opening his Tacoma home for a concert Aug. 14. The concert features Tacoma organists Jonathan Wohlers and Naomi Shig

Not very many Tacoma folks have a Renaissance castle organ in their living room. But Paul Fritts does — plus a restored 1925 Steinway grand piano — and he’s opening his house up Friday night (Aug. 14) for an intimate concert. It will benefit a brand new organ recital series, composition competition and kids day camp at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tacoma, home to a bigger Fritts organ. It’s a rare chance to hear not only husband and wife Jonathan Wohlers and Naomi Shiga perform together, but to hear a Fritts-made chamber organ with a fascinating celebrity story behind it.

“It’s a really unique organ in the whole country,” says Wohlers. “I don’t know of any house organs like this — usually they’re smaller, without reed stops. It’s quite luxurious.”

It also has a backstory.

Fritts, a nationally-known builder of mechanical organs modeled after 18th-century European instruments, was commissioned to make his opus 7 in 1988 by the late chef Jeff Smith, better known as the “Frugal Gourmet.” Smith was an amateur organist (“He hammered out some hymns, I think,” says Fritts) who had helped pay for the restoration of Fritts’ father’s organ in Kilworth Chapel at the University of Puget Sound, and he wanted an organ inside his test kitchen condo over Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Usually, home organs are simple affairs with one keyboard and no pedals. But Smith, a Tacoma native whose love of food won him both a huge following as TV show host and cook book author, wanted the whole shebang. At the time, Fritts had been studying the famous Compenius organ built in 1610 for Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark. Made to demonstrate just how expressive all-wood pipes could be, that organ is elaborately carved and rich with tone color, with two keyboards and a pedalboard.

So that’s what Fritts built for Smith, who even cooked the team a meal when they installed the $115,000 instrument. Before Smith’s death in 2004, Fritts bought it back, and leased it for five years to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, before bringing it back to his own home. It now sits, some 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, between two windows looking out onto Puget Sound, ornate carving on the front and split doors that control the volume and tone. It has 474 pipes and 10 stops, including sweet flute stops and the three reeds that sing as richly as a Renaissance band right there in the living room.

“It has such a sensitive touch,” says Naomi Shiga, the organist at St. Andrew’s. “I love the feeling (of the keys).”

Shiga’s organizing the house concert to raise funds for a series of organ events next year at the church, which just bought a larger Fritts organ from the former Grace Lutheran Church, and which will celebrate its 125th anniversary. As well as three recitals by Shiga and Wohlers, Oberlin professor James David Christie and Tokyo soloist Makiko Hayashima, Shiga’s planning an organ composition competition and an Organ Adventure day for kids. Piloted just last week, the one-day summer “camp” gave local children a chance to explore just how an organ is constructed, to try it out, to hear a mini-concert, play inside a cardboard organ-shaped playhouse and even create their own playable organ pipes out of PVC — activities that kept them spellbound.

“It’s to encourage a love of traditional music, and a way of having the pipe organ serve the community,” explains the Rev. Martin Yabroff, rector at St. Andrew’s. “Pipe organs are a mystery to most people. ... People think they’re just for boring churches, but that’s not only what they are.”

Shiga and Wohlers, who is the organist at Trinity Lutheran Church, have an added fondness for Fritts’ house organ, which the builder allowed them to practice on when they first moved to Tacoma in 2007.

For Friday night’s concert, they’ll be playing Bach and Renaissance dance music, as well as Mozart duets on the restored mahogany Steinway.

“I have to tune it first,” remarks Fritts drily.

IF YOU GO

What: Paul Fritts house concert on organ and piano to benefit St. Andrews’ organ series, competition and kids camp.

Program: Renaissance dance music, Bach and Mozart.

Who: Naomi Shiga and Jonathan Wohlers.

When: 6 p.m. Friday (Aug. 14).

Where: Fritts residence, Tacoma; address will be provided with RSVP.

Cost: Donations of any size welcome, donors over $100 will be listed in program.

Includes: Food and wine reception.

Information: To RSVP for tickets or to donate, email naomishiga@me.com.

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