Great church music is a transporting experience, but, William Trafka advises, you have to get moving in order to be moved. "Walk around during the recital and find the best spot -- most places will let you," says Trafka, the organist at Saint Bartholomew's. Churches aren't shaped like concert halls, and variations in sound from seat to seat can be dramatic. If you don't trust your ears, says one organist, "ask an usher where to sit."
One of New York's celestial pleasures is that top-flight organists play on world-class instruments almost every day. Most big churches in town work fervently to tend and restore these finicky, complicated pieces of machinery. And when everything's working, a church organ produces a sonic wallop like nothing else. The lowest notes rumble at about 8 Hertz -- quite a bit below the range of human ears. You don't hear those notes; you feel them, in your feet, in your chest, and in your soul. On top of that, most recitals are free, though it's nice to be an organ donor: Drop something in the collection box to help with the upkeep.
Begin with the biggest: Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church (Park Avenue at 51st Street; 378-0248) houses the largest musical instrument in New York. Five keyboards and more than 12,000 pipes make up a system so complex that it requires its own staff member, called curator of the organ. Adds Trafka: "At Saint Bart's, the best place is under the dome. It's where all the sounds come together, since the organ's divisions are in different places." It's the original stereo, I remark. "Quadraphonic, actually," he says.
Saint Bart's holds three Wednesday-night recitals each year, in the fall, winter, and spring. But music-filled regular services are Sundays at eleven (don't miss the postlude) and five (Evensong). Trafka's winter program is on New Year's Eve and ends at the stroke of midnight: "I always end it with my transcription of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man."
"If you had to ask me which the best organ in town is, I'd have to say it's the one at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin 145 West 46th Street; 869-5830," says Kyler Brown, a freelance organist and choir director. "But I'm prejudiced: I directed the restoration there." At "Smoky Mary's," which is just off Times Square, the organ sees heavy use. Recitals are mostly on Episcopal feast days, about once a month. "We probably have the best combination of organ and acoustics in the city," says Christopher Babcock, the church's music director. Besides organizing the recitals, "every Sunday, I dream up some sort of a musical theme," says Babcock. "It might be French music covering 500 years, or it might be Anglican music from between 1900 and 1925, or a biblical theme."
The organ at the Church of the Transfiguration (the famous "Little Church around the Corner"; 1 East 29th Street; 684-6770) was built by C.B. Fisk, probably the best in the business. Sunday services are at 11 a.m., and there's a free concert every Tuesday at 12:30.
The organ at Saint Patrick's Cathedral (Fifth Avenue at 50th Street; 753-2261) was for a long time pretty undistinguished: "People used to kind of joke about it," admits associate organist Stanley H. Cox. But a three-year rebuilding in the mid-nineties -- costing nearly $800,000 -- has improved its sound and reputation noticeably. On top of regular services (the 10:15 High Mass is the most musical), recitals are held most Sundays at 4:45 p.m., with visiting musicians at the keyboard. Though most churches take a summer break from recitals, Saint Patrick's (air-conditioned!) adds a Wednesday concert to its schedule, at 1:30 p.m.
Of the instrument she tends at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street; 316-7540), Dorothy Papadakos says, "The organ can do anything. You just have to try it and have the courage to do it on Sunday." Others agree: "It's a beautiful instrument," says Kyler Brown. "It's got the potential to be even more, too. They just need a lot of money toward restoration." Every Sunday at 7 p.m., Papadakos -- singled out for praise by a number of the other organists mentioned here -- runs an improv series, playing to a regular audience of 200 after the evening Gregorian-chant service. And by improvisation, she doesn't mean some kind of quasi-Bach fugal inversions: "Oh, no -- R&B. I'm a cool-jazz pianist. The cathedral organ just rocks."
Down the street, at Riverside Church (490 Riverside Drive, at 120th Street;870-6700; www.theriversidechurchny.org) concerts often take place on Sunday afternoons; check the Website's "Programs" page for listings.
At Saint Thomas Episcopal Church (Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street; 757-7013), every Sunday around 5:15 p.m., September through November and January through May, various players take turns at the keyboard after Evensong. The music director, Gerre Hancock, is a professor at the Eastman School of Music and at Juilliard. ("He's great to listen to, especially because he improvises," says Stanley Cox, who studied with him.) Hancock notes that the church uses two instruments regularly: a huge Aeolian Skinner organ and a smaller instrument that produces "a more resonant performance of certain kinds of music. It's patterned after the instruments that were built in Holland in the late 1600s -- at the time that New York was New Amsterdam. Bach would have felt very much at home on this instrument."
Bach, of course, is the composer most associated with organ music. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (Central Park West at 65th Street; 877-6815) is the place for Bachannalians: Every January, the church runs a series of the maestro's complete organ work.
In Brooklyn, don't miss Saint Ann and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (Montague Street at Clinton Street, Brooklyn Heights; 718-875-6960). According to music director Gregory Eaton, composer Dudley Buck is said to have started the first regular organ-recital series in America in this very room around 1892. Sunday services are at 11 a.m