Pulling Out All The Stops: Details of the May Festival's Custom-Built Organ

by Kayla Moore and Teri McKibben


As audience members are seated in Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium for the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, they will notice a new addition on stage. The May Festival recently commissioned a custom-built continuo organ, and this glorious new instrument makes its debut on May 25. It will continue to add depth and authenticity to performances and rehearsals for years to come.

Craftsman John Schreiner has been working on this new organ since August of 2018. But his organ-building passion actually began during his college years, when he created a small instrument for his senior thesis—this original prototype was actually built to fit in the back of an old Honda Accord. He has been working on different versions of the instrument ever since.

In recent years, he created a three-stop organ that was used in rehearsals and performances for a men and boys chorus he sings with in Albany, New York. In his performance experiences with that organ, he was able to better contextualize the needs and specifics of what is necessary for a larger-scale instrument. This hands-on knowledge, alongside his work at C.B. Fisk Organ Builders, allowed him to custom-design a beautiful seven-stop organ for use in and outside of Music Hall. This instrument is not only beautiful to look at, but it is also versatile enough to accommodate May Festival, Cincinnati Symphony, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet performances.

The detailed façade, which is the first thing audiences will see, was designed after the building constructed for the May Festival—Music Hall—which makes this instrument an even more personal expression of the Festival itself. Up close you can see decorative elements inspired by the façade of Music Hall. A set of principal pipes (main voice of the organ) made from “curly” maple is featured prominently in the instrument’s design, creating a beautiful structure for the wave motif above.

Inside are more sets of pipes that produce the principal, flute and mutation (pipes that “sound” at pitch levels corresponding to the overtone scale) sounds. These pipes can be used in combination or alone, depending on the character of the music or desired volume.

Schreiner’s instrument is a direct mechanical action organ, or “tracker.” So when the organist draws a stop knob to activate a certain sound or set of sounds, slider chests (panels with holes in them) within the organ move into place under the pipes, allowing air from the organ’s wind chest to flow into the pipes. Then, when the organist presses a key, the pipes “speak” and sound is produced.

The pipes themselves are made of metal, for a “brighter” sound, and wood—like the curly maple for the façade pipes—which provides warmth and fullness.

This instrument is something unique to the May Festival—not only that it is modeled after its home, which has so much history in itself, but that it is a piece of art that will play an important musical role for years to come. Custom building an instrument to be a part of, and pay homage to, the cultural gemstone of the Festival is incredibly exciting, and audiences will look forward to seeing it on stage and in the rehearsal room now and in the future. n



The May Festival is grateful to the following for providing funds to purchase this beautiful instrument (previous continuo organs had been rented on a per-performance basis):

PNC Charitable Trusts—Josephine Schell Russell
    Charitable Trust, PNC Bank Trustee

Louise Taft Semple Foundation

Thomas J. Emery Memorial

Wohlgemuth Herschede Foundation

Ruth and Richard Wellinghoff Family Fund