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Arts & Life

Kansas City's 5,548-Pipe Organ Needs Exercise Too

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Julie Denesha
Organist Jan Kraybill plays the custom-built Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts may be closed, but the complex organ must be played to keep it in good working order. Kraybill visits the instrument in Helzberg Hall every three weeks.

With concerts canceled at Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, Grammy-nominated organist Jan Kraybill stops by to play and inspect the monumental pipe organ at the heart of the venue.

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts has been mostly quiet after shutting its doors in mid-March. But every three weeks, Helzberg Hall comes alive when organist Jan Kraybill stops by to play and inspect the custom-built Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ.

“I miss these organs as much as they miss us," Kraybill says. "For any musical instrument it’s not good just to sit around and not be played, especially for a pipe organ."

Kraybill is the Organ Conservator at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and she maintains two more pipe organs in the Kansas City metro area -- one at Community of Christ in Independence, and Village on Antioch Presbyterian Church in Overland Park. Without regular performances, they’ve mostly sat silent.

And so Kraybill visits, not to perform, but to make sure everything stays in good working order.

“In normal times my focus would be mostly in making sure this instrument -- all five thousand, five hundred and forty eight pipes of it -- are in tune," Kraybill says.

There are no performances on the schedule, but if things change, she wants the instrument to be ready.

"There are parts that are made out of leather," continues Kraybill. "And other materials that are designed to be supple and not just designed to sit. So I’m trying to exercise every part of the instrument, and as I’m playing I’m listening for problems that I might be able to identify by ear.”

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Julie Denesha
The monumental organ in Helzberg Hall has four keyboards, 79 stops, 102 ranks and 5,548 pipes. When installed, each pipe of which had to be individually tuned.The biggest pipe is 32 feet tall and weighs approximately 960 pounds. The smallest pipe is about the size of a pencil.

The monumental organ in Helzberg Hall has four keyboards, 79 stops, 102 ranks and 5,548 pipes. When installed, each pipe of which had to be individually tuned.The biggest pipe is 32 feet tall and weighs approximately 960 pounds. The smallest pipe is about the size of a pencil.

Kraybill says works like Johann Sebastian Bach's "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir" (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29, a sacred cantata, help her pinpoint trouble spots since they use a wide range of the organ's four keyboards.

Just five months ago, Kraybill’s album “The Orchestral Organ,” was nominated for three Grammy Awards. It was recorded on the pipe organ in Helzberg Hall.

When she sits there, she’s 25-feet above the stage.

“I call it the best seat in the house, especially when this house is full of applause," Kraybill says. "But it’s also a wonderful place to make music. We’re sitting here in the midst of the lowest pipes of the organ. There are pipes that are felt as well as heard and that makes them thrilling.”

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Julie Denesha
Kraybill says she's trying to exercise every part of the instrument. As she plays she's listening for problems that she might be able to identify by ear.

Playing to an empty house doesn’t dispel the magic for her.

“It’s more fun to make music when people are here but it is beautiful practicing here," says Kraybill. "And the sounds of this instrument are just unforgettable.”

But of course, so much time spent without performing has been hard on all musicians.

“I genuinely miss just walking into the hall and seeing friends and just taking joy in making music in this gem of a hall," Kraybill says. "It’s caused me to really treasure those experiences that I’ve had here, and I will treasure it all the more just because we’ve had this time when it’s not been possible.”

This spring, Kraybill had a full schedule of concerts lined up. Since they’re all cancelled, she’s had time to practice and think about what to play next.

“One of the great things about being locked down is that I have designed in my head all sorts of future concerts that I can’t wait to play," Kraybill says. "I’ve been practicing more because I have to. It’s part of my soul. I have a need to make music. So I have all sorts of repertoire that’s at the ready for whenever we’re ready to hear them.”

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