An accident in May 2012 put the Maurine Jackson Smith Memorial Pipe Organ out of commission for more than a year while major repairs and renovations were completed.
When the organ at the Doc Rando Recital Hall in the Beam Music Center at UNLV, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway, was dedicated on Oct. 4, 2004, it was the largest in the state. When it is rededicated during a ceremony set for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, it will be the second-largest, but organ instructor Paul Hesselink is proud to say he plays it.
“I’m the organist at Christ Church Episcopal (2000 S. Maryland Parkway), and I teach at UNLV,” Hesselink said. “I’m a very lucky man.”
The organ is still the largest mechanical one in the state.
Jonathan Good, chairman of the university’s music department, said the accident that destroyed much of the organ’s wooden structure was a fluke.
“A sprinkler head popped off around 11 at night,” Good said. “There was no one around to shut it off for 45 minutes.”
Normally, if one sprinkler head goes off, it sets the rest into operation, but in this case, it was only one, which deluged the right side of the organ.
The company that built the organ, Hamburg, Germany-based Rudolf von Beckerath Orgelbau, was called to fix it.
“Fortunately, they were already in America finishing up work on another organ,” Good said. “There are so many tiny wooden pieces. It was quite an undertaking.”
The pipes are operated with mechanical trackers mostly made of wood, which operate valves. The trackers include dozens of pieces smaller in width and breadth than a Popsicle stick and are between 1 and 20 feet long.
The damaged wood was painstakingly removed to avoid further damaging the instrument. New pieces were fashioned in Germany and then shipped by boat across the Atlantic, by train across the United States and by truck from Los Angeles.
The company was chosen to build and install the organ in 2001 by a committee that weighed the merits of several organ companies.
“They’re really renowned for the voice of their instruments,” Good said. “It isn’t just our organ students who like working with it. Our students doing voice recitals and our faculty love it. It’s such a powerful instrument.”
The organ was installed over several months in summer 2004. Edward Smith donated the funds to build the pipe organ in memory of his late wife, Maurine Jackson Smith, who was an organ aficionado. In 1995, at age 59, she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history from UNLV. She died of cancer on Oct. 1, 1999.
“She loved the organ and spent hours every week practicing,” Smith said. “I wanted to honor her in a way that would also help others. Any university that wants to produce fine organists needs a fine organ.”
Smith has remarried, and he and his three children still feel a special connection to the organ.
Melanie Smith, the daughter of the organ’s namesake, took lessons from Hesselink, beginning in the last months of her mother’s life.
“She asked if we could do the lessons at her parents’ home,” Hesselink said. “I don’t normally like to do that because you don’t have control over doorbells ringing and things like that, but I agreed to it. I found out later that her mother was already in hospice care in the home, so she heard her daughter learning the organ.”
Hesselink also taught the namesake’s niece, Carla Swift, and she and Melanie Smith performed at the original dedication program.
The repairs on the organ were completed July 4 and, the combined cost of the original installation and the repairs was $1.3 million. The repair expenses almost matched the cost of the installation. Students have been working with it this school year.
The rededication ceremony is set to include a free concert by Isabelle Demers, presented by the American Guild of Organists.
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.