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AT WORK: Organist keeps music alive at Meriden church

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MERIDEN — For over a decade, Barbara Mase has maintained and played the original organ installed at Meriden’s First Congregational Church in 1929.

“It’s been an interesting journey here,” said Mase, minister of music and organist at the church. “I’ve played many organs in my life, throughout the world and throughout various states, and this has got to be one of the finest instruments I’ve ever played.”

Originally from Pennsylvania, Mase grew up with music. She started with the violin at age five and then the piano at seven. At age 10, she took up the organ and became the organist for her local church.

After high school, Mase received her music education degree from the Boston Conservatory of Music. Later she received her master’s from the University of Hartford and the Hartford Seminary.

Before becoming the church music director and organist, the New Britain resident worked in Nashville’s music industry as a concert manager. She also performed with several Christian recording artists including, Tom Netherton (best known for his tenure on the  Lawrence Welk Show).

Despite a variety of musical experiences, the organ has remained her instrument of choice.

“This is the instrument of the ages,” she said during a recent practice for a church concert set for Sunday, June 10. “This is the king and you’re seeing royalty.”

The organ is also a rare sight since many churches have converted to digital and electronic music systems, Mase said.

“You do have instruments like this at big places,” she said, referencing the organ at Hartford’s Bushnell Center. “As far as the future of organists, I know when I was in college there were five of us studying the organ. That was way back when, I don’t really know how many people now are studying the organ.”

Organs like the one in Meriden are rare hard to maintain, said Mase.

Made in 1928 by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, the church organ continues to be maintained and serviced twice a year. Last year, significant work was done on the organ to keep it functioning.

Only one other organ preceded the current one in the church’s nearly 300-year history.

“It’s always fascinated me,” said Marcus Hamilton, historian for First Congregational Church. “It’s one of the first things you hear when you walk into the church.”

Hamilton recently researched the history of the organ. He plans to show his findings at the summer concert directed by Mase later this month.

“We explored it from top to bottom,” Hamilton said. 

The various components that make the organ work are housed within three floors of the church. The organs’s pipes and corresponding blower are located in a hidden space in the boiler room. Upstairs consists of a pressurized air box that holds hundreds of small pipes. Only a few upgrades have been made since 1929. The overall system has remained unchanged.

“To me, it is just an honor and a joy to be minister of music here and to have the opportunity to play such a magnificent instrument as this,” Mase said.

One of her favorite pieces to play is “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” The song will be played at the end of the June concert in memory of two parishioners.

“It’s kind of like making a recipe,” she said of her musical process. “There are many great master works that you know the certain combinations that the composer was looking for and you try to mimic that, but it’s also up to you as the organist if what you hear sounds good.”

In the case of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Mase said she was playing around with the notes one day and came across a drum sound that she decided to use in the beginning of the piece.

“You’re a composer in your own right as well as a performer,” she said. “I kind of do my own thing.”

Mase said she has no plans to leave the organ or her position at the church anytime soon. 

“That’s why it’s called king of the instruments,” she said, “because it can be as quiet as a whisper and it can roar like a lion.”

More information on First Congregational Church can be found at http://www.fccmeriden.org/

Twitter: @KusReporter


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