Recording Preserves Signature Sound of Famed Organ

October 09, 2018

Quick Facts

bullet point Ramsay was awarded First Prize at the Amsterdam International Organ Competition in 2014.
bullet point At 17 years old, he was awarded the organ scholarship at King's College, Cambridge, where he served under the direction of Stephen Cleobury.
bullet point In March 2018, he led the University of Louisville Harp Project, premiering nine new works written for solo harp.

D.B. Johnson Memorial Organ

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA — With renovations underway at Winthrop University's Byrnes Auditorium, home of the famed D.B. Johnson Memorial Organ, enthusiasts of the historic organ can still revel in its signature sound captured in a recent recording on the Raven Label, until the organ is once again available for performances.

Earlier this year, internationally renowned musician Parker Ramsay visited Winthrop to record a CD of George Whitefield Chadwick's organ music. The CD is the last recording on the D.B. Johnson Memorial Organ, which is named after Winthrop's first president and founder, until renovations to Byrnes Auditorium are completed.

Winthrop commissioned the organ's construction in 1952 by the Aeolian-Skinner company. The large four-manual instrument with 3,788 pipes, the last instrument of famed tonal designer G. Donald Harrison, makes the organ to this day one of the largest in the Carolinas. During its 50th anniversary in 2005, the treasured instrument underwent extensive restoration efforts thanks to generous supporters and Winthrop alumni.

Given the Byrnes makeover, admirers said now it is even more critical to preserve both the sound of the instrument and the building, equally highlighted on Ramsay's recording of George Whitefield Chadwick's music.

"It's a uniquely American artifact, and this recoding preserves that signature sound it's a national treasure in so many ways," said Murray Somerville, who helped establish the Friends of the D.B. Johnson Memorial Organ Performance Fund along with his wife, Hazel, a Winthrop alumna from the Class of 1969. Hazel served on the faculty of Vanderbilt University as artistic director of the children's choruses at the Blair School of Music.

Somerville, artistic director emeritus of Nashville's Music City Baroque period instrument ensemble, and former Harvard University organist and choirmaster, performed a recital on the classic organ in 2016 and was instrumental in coordinating the production of Ramsay's CD.

Music lovers can purchase the CD in the Winthrop Bookstore during the Nov. 16-17 Homecoming & Reunion Weekend or buy directly from Raven.

The recording — featured recently on Michael Barone's Pipedreams radio program — is a debut for Ramsay, a young musician already regarded for his accomplishments and blossoming career on three instruments: organ, harp and harpsichord. The CD features Ramsay on organ playing compositions of George Whitefield Chadwick, who was president of the New England Conservatory in the early 1900s and a noted composer of symphonies and orchestral tone poems. Some of the pieces on this CD are first recordings, enhanced by Byrnes' acclaimed acoustics.

"We have this wonderful memento of [the organ] and its acoustic setting, in all its tonal splendor," Somerville said.

Other world-famous musicians have visited Byrnes solely to perform on the famous organ, including: Princeton University Organist Eric Plutz, who spent the summer of 2012 recording his "French Trilogy" CD, Juilliard-trained Organist Christopher Houlihan, Westminster Abbey Organist James O'Donnell, German musicians Christoph Wolff and Stefan Engels, and Canadian Organ Virtuoso Maxine Thevenot.

For more information about how to give to the Friends of the D.B. Johnson Memorial Organ Performance Fund, contact University Advancement at 803/323-2275.

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