William Partridge brings Christ Church Cathedral's 5,000-pipe organ to magnificent life

William Partridge ascends the stairs to the balcony on which the organ's keyboards, controls and most of its pipes are located. He pauses to unlock a closet and turn on the surprisingly modest waist-high turbine that blows air through the pipes. He then proceeds to the keyboards, flicks a few switches and leans into Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," swaying as his hands roam across four keyboards and his feet play across a generous spread of pedals. The mighty 5,000-pipe 1965 Aeolian-Skinner fills stately Christ Church Cathedral with the mournful bellow of the spooky piece, bringing to mind Vincent Price or some other madman coaxing evil from an organ as a thunderstorm rages without a creepy castle.

Partridge is indulging the curious by playing what he calls the most familiar organ piece ever written. He is one of the city's underappreciated gems, a virtuoso organist who performs several free weekly concerts on a truly awesome instrument, the cathedral's organ.

The pipes of the organ surround Partridge's keyboards, growing in a metal forest ranging from barely an inch in length to the 32 feet of the lowest C-note. Some of the pipe groupings are meant to simulate the sounds of other instruments, such as flutes, English horns and trumpets. "It's like having an orchestra at your fingertips," he says. The awesome size of many of the pipes anticipates the skin-vibrating power of the louder passages. (This occurs when the organist literally "pulls out all the stops.") After 50 years of playing church organs, Partridge says, he has become accustomed to the bowel-shaking force that the instrument is capable of transmitting. Of course the organ can also purr with deceptive quiet for songs that require more subtlety. It is fantastic to watch as the organist slowly depresses a volume pedal and wooden slats fronting a large group of pipes turn to allow more sound to escape.

Back when organs were powered by hand, one or more men would pump a manual bellows the size of a living room. Pipes were wood, as opposed to today's tin/lead alloy. Wooden pipes are considered warmer, Partridge explains, but they may not blow you down the way metal ones can.

The pipes never require cleaning; the blasts of air take care of that. This did not help, however, when a bird found its way into the church and decided to make its home in one of the organ's larger curved pipes. During a recent Sunday- morning service, the bird's nest caused the dreaded "cipher" -- a continual sounding of a note that cannot be stopped unless one turns off the organ, which Partridge (the man, not the bird) was forced to do. The pipe currently sits apart from the organ, awaiting a good reaming. The bird has left the building.

The imposing keyboard, with its four terraces of keys, 70 stops, 36 pedals and many assorted switches, welcomes the novice like the cockpit of the Concorde. When Partridge is performing, all four of his limbs are fully engaged. He calls his work aerobic exercise for good reason.

Several facts make it apparent that this organ is a cut above most. Organs built for new churches these days are usually outfitted with 2,000-3,000 pipes. Five thousand is a lot, and a lot is exciting, Partridge says. (It takes two men two 10-hour days to tune the whole thing.) The church plans to add about 2,000 more pipes to "complete" the instrument. Also, Partridge adds, "No two organs sound alike, because of the buildings they're in. The height, the breadth and the composition of the walls are important. A porous wall absorbs and makes a "dead room.' The acoustics of this building are exceptionally fine."

The stone walls of Christ Church Cathedral help the massive organ sound especially commanding and memorable. It doesn't hurt that the 1867 building is lofty, vaulted, buttressed and beautiful to step into as well.

But let us not forget the organist himself. The neat, bespectacled, white-haired 63-year-old has been "playing since he was old enough to reach the pedals," as he tells it. The native of Chase City, Va., has studied and later taught at various music schools and programs, including a stint as a resident at the District of Columbia's elegant Washington National Cathedral. He assumed his duties in St. Louis in 1981 and currently also serves as the church's choirmaster, as the organist at Washington University's Graham Chapel (where he often performs at weddings) and as a professor at Webster University. Asked whether he suffers job burnout after so many years at the organ, he replies, "I have no desire to stop."

As part of the church's Shepley Program of Music and Art, Partridge is joined by a wide variety of musical groups and soloists for a concert each Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Guest performers have included such ensembles as the Collegium Vocale period singers, the Truman State University Brass Choir and the modern musicians of Synchronia. He and his guests have collaborated on music written by composers ranging from Scott Joplin to Miles Davis and Astor Piazzola, as well as more traditional classical composers. Partridge once provided the score as the Gash/Voigt dance troupe danced in the church's nave. The cathedral has hosted the free Sunday-afternoon series since 1888.

Another free concert series is geared toward the working professional who might like to experience the marvels of the church, the organ and the organist during the lunch hour. Every Thursday at 12:30 p.m., Partridge performs works by five or so different composers. He favors such artists as Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, Widor, Vierne and 20th-century organist Leo Sowerby. Partridge says that 15-75 people generally show up for these efforts, including a smattering of homeless folks, who often rest in the pews during the winter.

"We turn up the heat for them," Partridge says of the homeless concertgoers. "Some sit here all day long and fall asleep; once I was playing a recital, and when I finished, all I could hear was two men snoring" -- surely a form of deep gratitude to the church and its resident virtuoso.

William Partridge performs the works of Bach, Purvis, Sowerby and others in a free organ concert at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 23. He performs at several services on Christmas Eve and Day, as well as the morning of Sunday, Dec. 26, and again as part of the First Night festivities on Dec. 31 ($10 includes all downtown events), all at Christ Church Cathedral, 13th and Locust. Call 231-5454 for information.

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