What’s that sound?

Chico State’s oft-forgotten pipe organ to shine at Bach Fest

Retired Chico State music professor David Rothe with his baby, the Centennial Pipe Organ.

Retired Chico State music professor David Rothe with his baby, the Centennial Pipe Organ.

photos by ken smith

Bach live:
Chico Bach Fest, March 15-16.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.: German Organ Mass on Centennial Pipe Organ.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: The Glorious Baroque, works by various composers performed by chamber singers and more.
Tickets: $6-$15 for each night.

Harlen Adams Theatre
Chico State

Since antiquity, the halls of acade-mia have served as more than just places to learn, but also depositories for some of our greatest artifacts. Chico State is no exception; its various departments are each entrusted with preserving and protecting items of great cultural and material value, from rare books and artwork to high-tech tools.

If you were to ask retired music professor David Rothe his opinion on what is the university’s greatest treasure, he’d likely tell you about the Centennial Pipe Organ, an assessment with which many of his music-minded colleagues agree.

“If you think about the university and all its holdings, the organ is one of the most amazing things it possesses,” said one of those colleagues, current music professor and choral director David Scholz. “It is utterly irreplaceable and one of the most unique tools owned by Chico State, a fantastic piece of equipment.”

The irony is that alarmingly few people know about the organ at all. The 24-foot-tall, 20-feet-wide instrument with a gleaming polished façade trimmed in gold leaf rests just out of plain sight backstage at the Harlen Adams Theatre, and in recent years makes only two annual public appearances—during the department’s holiday show in December, and at the annual Chico Bach Festival, which is happening this weekend. The event will kick off Friday, March 15, with a performance of Bach’s German Organ Mass on the Centennial.

“This was the lesser of many evils in terms of places on campus we could put it,” said Rothe, explaining that other proposed locations—Laxson Auditorium or center stage at Harlen Adams—proved too costly or otherwise problematic.

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Rothe pulled off some miraculous magic tricks to have the organ built in the first place. When he came to Chico State to teach in 1968, Rothe—who started playing piano at age 4 and organ in his early teens—saw a need for a great organ in town, and began a decade-plus campaign to get one.

“I went over several years to talk to the university presidents, and they were all very nice, patted me on the head, gave me an orange and sent me away,” he explained.

The story of the organ’s creation is as spectacular as the instrument itself, and an inspired example of out-of-the-box thinking. Rothe and his fellow organ crusaders eventually convinced the university to put an organ builder on staff, hiring Munetaka Yokota in 1984. Over the next several years, Yokota and Rothe organized a volunteer workforce of faculty and students to build the organ themselves in what would be the first attempt to build an organ onsite since the Middle Ages. Whenever possible, local materials were used.

As Rothe is a Bach devotee, he decided to model the organ after one in Dresden, Germany, built in the great composer’s era, with some changes made to incorporate other styles. The 2,400 tin-and-lead-alloy pipes for the organ’s 32 stops were handmade by volunteers in the university’s Art Department, and much of the work was centered in a shop at the University Farm. Weights were cast with lead from bullets collected at the old Bidwell Park shooting range. The keys were made from carved shin bones of university-raised cows, and the organ’s bench and pedal board were carved from wood from the Hooker Oak tree. Altogether, the cost of materials was well under $100,000; Rothe estimates it’s worth 10 times that today.

It’s fitting the organ, partly inspired by Bach’s work, remains an integral part of the annual festival. This year, guest organist Angela Craft Cross will play one of the maestro’s most intricate compositions—a group of pieces collectively called Clavier-Übung III and more commonly known as the German Organ Mass.

Scholz—who took over as Bach Festival Director when Rothe retired—explained the piece’s original name translates to “Keyboard Practice” and is the only one of four Clavier-Übungs Bach wrote for organ, with the rest composed for harpsichord.

“Bach would write in various styles and compositional techniques that were very good for practice,” Scholz said. “So it’s basically him giving a set of practice pieces that also worked in terms of parts of the mass.

“Bach was pooh-poohed by his contemporaries for writing music that was way too difficult and not useable,” he said, explaining that one fugue in the work requires the organist to simultaneously play six different melodies, two with each hand and two with the feet. “Well, it’s not necessarily meant to be usable; it’s him showing off a little bit.”