As a boy fascinated by music, Chris Engel was particularly drawn to the pipe organ.
“I was attracted to the technical difficulty, the challenge of playing the organ, of trying to coordinate my hands with my feet,” said Engel, 28.
“It’s powerful — much more powerful than the other instruments,” he added.
He was 17 years old at the time, already skilled on the guitar and taking jazz piano lessons from an instructor who had two organs in his living room.
“I actually said, ‘You ought to teach me how to play that,’” he remembered.
Today Engel is the organist and the music director at Kanawha United Presbyterian Church and the youngest board member of the Kanawha Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
Chances are, you’ve heard their works — even if you’ve never heard of them.
The group was formed and formally chartered exactly 75 years ago, on Dec, 22, 1944. Since that time it has been responsible for bringing a long list of nationally and internationally renowned organists to the Greater Kanawha Valley, including Virgil Fox, a child prodigy known for wildly popular and flamboyant performances that some said resembled rock concerts; and Marilyn Keiser, once said to be the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis of the organ world.
The AGO also organized and hosted the long-running Youth Festival and the Summer Orgelfest, a series of high-profile, free organ concerts that recently resumed as a small-but-growing annual event under the umbrella of FestivALL, Charleston’s citywide celebration of the arts.
They’ve also overseen the installation of a number of pipe organs in and around southern West Virginia.
“The one at Canaan [United Methodist Church] is from 1925, and the one in our chapel here is from 1908,” said the Rev. David Donathan, an AGO board member and the minister of music/organist at Christ Church United Methodist.
It was an Andrew Carnegie pipe organ transplanted from Lewisburg.
“They called me and said, ‘Do you know of a church that wants a small pipe organ?’ I said, ‘Well let me come take a look at it.’”
It was a perfect fit.
“It’s neat it has that connection, that Andrew Carnegie was a philanthropist that funded the purchase of pipe organs all across the country. This was one that he purchased for the Greenbrier School for Women, which is now called Carnegie Hall,” he said.
A lot has happened for the AGO since that December day in 1944.
“I’m thrilled that it’s still around,” said board member Marilyn Henstock.
“We are really trying now to think about the future,” said another board member, Julie Janisch.
Their concern is well founded.
An article that ran in the Charleston Gazette back in 1944 listed 25 officers for the newly formed group — more than the total number of members today. It’s not only the decline in population in West Virginia, but the nationwide decline in church attendance in general — where organ music is most often heard — that bears some of the blame, said several members.
By the mid-1990s, the shortage of organists in the Kanawha Valley was so significant that one musician told the Charleston Gazette in 1991, “You’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul to find a church organist.”
Many of the churches that are growing, said the members, are focused on more modern, nontraditional music that appeals to a younger audience. But tradition still has its place, they said.
The strains of an organ, both reverent and majestic, are heard in countless weddings through pieces like “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desirings,” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
They’re heard through “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” used in the 1962 film adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
And they’re heard over and over again this time of year through classic hymns like “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
“What if you go into church here during the Christmas season and there’s no organs? No organs to play the carols, to hear those familiar tunes? What would that be like?” asked board member Pam Johnson.
“Since 1944, fortunately, there have been people in the Valley and that have felt a call to do this.”
The Kanawha Chapter of the American Guild of Organists is open to organists, choir directors, anyone with a passion for promoting music. For more information, follow them on Facebook or contact Pam Johnson at email@example.com.
Where to hear live pipe organ music:
All of the following locations have pipe organs, and most will have services over the holidays. Call for specific times and more information.
Christ Church United Methodist, 1221 Quarrier St., Charleston, WV 25301 304-342-0192 www.ccumwv.org
First Presbyterian, 16 Leon Sullivan Way, Charleston, WV 25301 304-343-8961 www.firstpresby.com
Kanawha Presbyterian, 1009 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301 304-343-8961 www.firstpresby.com
St. Marks United Methodist, 900 Washington St. E., Charleston, WV 25301 304-343-2115 www.stmarkswv.org
Baptist Temple, 209 Morris St., Charleston, WV 25301 304-346-9627 www.chasbt.org
Sacred Heart (Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart), 1114 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301 304-342-8175 sacredheartcocathedral.com
St. John’s Episcopal, 1105 Quarrier St. Charleston, WV 25301 304-346-0359 www.stjohnswv.org
St. Matthew’s Episcopal, 36 Norwood Road, Charleston, WV 25314 304-343-3837 www.stmattswv.org
St. Paul Presbyterian, 1423 Lee St., E Charleston, WV 25301 304-345-3711 stpaulpresby.org
St. Christopher Episcopal, 821 Edgewood Drive, 304-342-3272 stchristopherwv.com
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, 1600 Kanawha Blvd E Charleston, WV 25311 304-342-5212 www.trinitywv.org
Bream Memorial Presbyterian, 317 Washington St. W Charleston, WV 25302-2230 304-346-0426 www.breamchurch.com
Canaan United Methodist, 401 Roane St. Charleston, WV 25302 304-342-6553
Village Chapel Presbyterian (Kanawha City), 3818 Venable Ave. 304-925-7265 vcpresby.org
First United Methodist, 905 Glendale Ave South Charleston, WV 25303 304-744-3211 southcharlestonfirstumc.org
St. Andrew United Methodist, 815 Kanawha Terrace, St. Albans, WV 25177 304-727-7114 www.sasaumc.org
St. Mark’s Episcopal, 405 B St., St. Albans, WV 25177 304-722-4284
First Baptist Church, 523 2nd St. St. Albans, WV 25177 304-727-4661
Forrest Burdette United Methodist, 2848 Putnam Ave. Hurricane, WV 25526 304-562-5903 www.forrestburdette.com
Reach Maria Young at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5115 or follow @mariapyoung on Twitter.