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Passion for Pipes: Robert Carsner’s love of music — and pipe organs — led to the Organ Crawl

ROBERT CARSNER, organizer of the biennial Organ Crawl in The Dalles, poses March 19 with the visible pipes of the 1907 Kilgen Organ at St. Peter’s Landmark.

ROBERT CARSNER, organizer of the biennial Organ Crawl in The Dalles, poses March 19 with the visible pipes of the 1907 Kilgen Organ at St. Peter’s Landmark. Photo by Kathy Ursprung.

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ROBERT CARSNER, organizer of the biennial Organ Crawl in The Dalles, poses March 19 with the visible pipes of the 1907 Kilgen Organ at St. Peter’s Landmark.

Organ Crawl April 7

Residents of the Mid-Columbia will have an opportunity to experience the fourth biennial Organ Crawl, a series of five performances on the historic pipe organs of The Dalles on Sunday, April 7, from 2 to 5 p.m.

This year’s Crawl begins with a performance by Caroline Homer at St. Peter’s Landmark honoring the wedding of her son with selections from the ceremony. When this instrument was built, the Kilgen Organ Company had one of the best reputations for building organs in the country.

From St. Peter’s Landmark, attendees will proceed to the UCC Congregational Church to enjoy a performance by Cheryl Ortega, which will feature selections by Handel, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saens. Built in 1954, by the Wics Organ Company of Illinois, the instrument originally was housed in The First Church of Christ Scientist in Hood River. When the Hood River congregation moved, the organ was given to the UCC Congregational Church with installation the only expense. The organ was first used at its present location in late 2002.

The third performance will be at the First Church of Christ Scientist by E.J. Howe including pieces by Bach and Pachelbel. Put into place in 1933, the Reuter is a four-rank instrument with 21 stops. It is housed in a single chamber with swell shutters. Restoration work was done in 2002 and 2003 and more is planned.

The fourth stop on the Crawl is Zion Lutheran Church for a performance by Robert Tupper. Dedicated in February 1976, the organ built by Lawrence Phelps and Associates is a straight-rank organ boasting a total of 1,080 pipes. Phelps was a trained musician and engineer and was responsible for the design of over 650 organs while working with the Casavant Organ Company. One of the largest and most innovative of his organs is the 4 manual suspended organ in the chapel of Lewis and Clark college in Portland.

The Crawl will be completed with a performance by Susan Ticknor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and will include pieces by Near and Pethel. A special performance is also planned on the piano by Diana Beterbide. When a new St. Paul’s church was built, the organ was moved, rebuilt and expanded. The work was completed in time for the Service of Dedication in October 1962.

Following the performances, the event will conclude with a gathering in the fellowship hall for cookies provided by the Bakitchen.

The event is free to the public and will be followed by a reception in the fellowship hall of St. Pauls.

Robert Carsner has such a passion for music he decided to make a gift of it.

That’s how The Dalles’ Organ Crawl (see related story) came into existence.

“I love music and I knew there were at least three lovely organs in town,” he says. In 2007, he suggested “someone” in The Dalles should organize a progressive concert spotlighting the instruments similar to the Portland Opera’s annual pub crawl. The person he was talking to suggested he do the honors, and that’s what he has done every two years since.

Sitting in a pew at St. Peter’s Landmark, Carsner tilts his head as he listens to E.J. Howe practice for a wedding on the 1907 Kilgen Pipe Organ in the loft above.

“That’s why I love to volunteer here,” he says. “I can enjoy impromptu concerts like this one.”

The vintage organ is made of rare tigerwood from West Africa and has 26 visible pipes. Additional pipes concealed in a room behind the visible gilded ones bring the total to about 470 in all, providing the instrument with a wide range of voices. The Catholic church paid $5,000 for the organ, raised by a church women’s group. It was installed in 1925.

In preparation for the Organ Crawl, Carsner learned five pipe organs are actually housed in The Dalles churches, one each at the Landmark, the UCC Congregational Church, the First Church of Christ Scientist, Zion Lutheran and St. Paul’s Episcopal. He can discuss origins of each.

“The oldest organ is the St. Paul’s instrument,” he said. “It came to us from Seattle in 1900 as a used instrument. It was installed in December 1905 and several boys in the congregation pumped the instrument to provide air. The hand pump gave way to a crude water pump which gave endless trouble. It required extra water pressure from the reservoir at Union Street and the city cooperated each Sunday by turning up the pressure.

The voices of the organ mimic various instruments, including the crumhorn in the case of St. Paul’s, Carsner said.

“If you’ve got it tuned and it has all of its ranks working, you can have a full symphony orchestra on the pipe organ at St. Paul’s,” he said.

Carsner is a native of The Dalles and a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and his love of music dates back to childhood, when he sang in the church choir.

“I started singing very young,” he said. “I was a boy soprano. I told [U.S. Rep.] Greg Walden that when I was an acolyte I sat between his mother and another lady and we were all sopranos. Then my voice changed.”

Today, Carsner is a bass baritone with the Cascade Singers and continues to sing at church.

While Carsner has had a varied career, he spent most of his time working in education, including 18½ years as a speech pathologist at the local education service district.

He also served for 30 years as his church’s master of acolytes. When he retired from teaching, became a deacon and took orders at the church.

He combines his love of music with a passion for history (he is historian for the Episcopal Diocese), which led him to volunteer at St. Peter’s Landmark, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. And when he travels, either with the Cascade Singers or previously with his longtime friend the late Phillip Klindt, he enjoys indulging both interests.

He has seen and heard the oldest working pipe organ played at a church in Holland.

“When the Cascade Singers went to Holland, they actually went to the cheese market while I enjoyed a half-hour concert from the master organist, who played both organs,” Carsner said.

Carsner starts organizing the Organ Crawl late in the previous year. He lines up organists to play on each of the different instruments.

“The organists all have free choice [for their programs],” he said. “The only thing I’ve asked that they keep the program to 20 minutes.”

The task has become more difficult, he said. Fewer people are training to become organists and Carsner would like to see that change.

“My hope is to someday be able to find some kids who are interested,” he said. His friend Lloyd Walworth operates the Walworth Foundation with promotes youth education in music. “If we can find kids who are interested, he would be willing to include the organ. The idea is to get kids interested early.”

Carsner gets help in organizing the Organ Crawl from several different volunteers.

“Everyone who is involved has been really very, very helpful and it’s so much fun when you get people willing to jump in and help,” he said.

He plans to keep organizing the free Organ Crawls every year as long as health and finances allow.

“It’s just a passion for me,” he said. “It’s my gift to the community.”

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