2015-03-13 / People

Organist makes gospel sing

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

David Brandes, who recently retired to Kennebunk following a 43-year career as a professor of music at New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University, sits by the giant Noack pipe organ at Kennebunkport’s South Congregational Church, where he became the organist and choir director effective Jan. 15. (Duke Harrington photo) David Brandes, who recently retired to Kennebunk following a 43-year career as a professor of music at New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University, sits by the giant Noack pipe organ at Kennebunkport’s South Congregational Church, where he became the organist and choir director effective Jan. 15. (Duke Harrington photo) As he sits at the giant Noack pipe organ that dominates the front dais of the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport, David Brandes works all four limbs into bringing Bach back to life.

His fingers dance across the electric keyboard, elbows akimbo, as he pulls at manual stop levers to alter the tone of the song, while below his feet dance across pedals and push at knobs, raising an ethereal sound from the 11,000 pounds of silver and gold tubing that looms overhead.

As he finishes, the last few notes seem to hang in the air like the holy spirit, and Brandes, 71, lets loose with a broad, beaming smile.

“My hands are busy, I’m busy, my feet are busy,” he said. “The only thing this beautiful organ doesn’t have is a seat belt, and it probably should.”

Brandes took over as the new organist and choir director at South Congregational on Jan. 15, capping an eight-month-long search by the church.

According to the Rev. Charles Whiston, a search committee reviewed nine applicants from across New England to replace the church’s departed organist. It had worked the field down to two by September when both announced they’d found positions elsewhere.

“We got a little discouraged at that point,” said Whiston, “but then we thought, we just haven’t found the right person yet. We had to believe the right person would come along at the right time.”

That person was Brandes. At about the time the two prospective organists were bowing out, Brandes and his wife Kathleen were moving into a Kennebunk condo. The couple knew they wanted to retire to somewhere along the Maine coast, having vacationed often in Ogunquit, and Kennebunk called to them, he said.

But though they had keys in hand, the couple only came up on weekends while Brandes focused on finishing out the last semester of a 43-year career as professor of music at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. As luck, or perhaps divine intervention would have it, Brandes and South Congregational went looking for each other at the same time.

“I knew I couldn’t retire totally because I would be lost. I like to work. I wanted to at least keep a church position,” Brandes said, noting that he’s led various church choirs across New Hampshire and Massachusetts over the years.

Brandes had expected to find choral work in Portland, or maybe Biddeford. When he said the Kennebunkport position flash across his computer screen at Franklin Pierce, he applied, he said, “almost on a lark.”

That’s because Brandes wasn’t expecting much from a village church, with a congregation of about 335 members. The Noack pipe organ, he says, almost literally blew him away.

“I was so pleasantly surprised, because you don’t often find a small town church with such a good instrument, and such a good choir,” he recalled. “I took one look at the organ and I just said, wow.”

For the search committee, Whiston says, the hunt was over as soon as Brandes took his seat and played a bit from a few pages of sheet music handed to him cold.

“To find a gifted pipe organist, warm in personality and skilled in working with people, with references that were just above and beyond, it was very, very clear, he was the guy,” Whiston said.

After that November interview, the Brandes made the transition to living in Kennebunk full-time on Jan. 1, once David had wrapped up his teaching career. He started as South Church’s organist and choral director Jan. 15.

“We love the area. It’s spectacular. The whole area is beautiful,” Brandes said. “And I must say this, the people here have been the most welcoming and warm of any church I have ever been in. Not that the others haven’t been wonderful, but this has been exceptional. The people have just been so warm and receptive, I can’t begin to tell you. And I wasn’t even sure I’d get the job, because of my age.”

Befitting his maturity, Brandes has a wealth of experience, having conducted full orchestras and choirs as large as 300 all around the world, from Boston to Bejing. Still, he says, he was nervous when, just days into his new position, he sat down at the Noack organ for his first performance, at a funeral.

“This is a pretty good organ for a church this size. This is really more of a concert instrument,” he said. “But I don’t feel I should be showing off. There’s a difference between church work and performing. It’s not about me. This is about worship and about God, and about people being able to come here and have some spiritual fulfillment.”

That can be easier through music. Brandes grew up in New Jersey with church music in the home — his mother played the organ in her church — and he developed an affinity for the form, preferring scared music in some cases even over the classical works of his beloved Bach, and Bethoven.

“I always sensed a greater depth, really, in some of that music than in the classical music even,” he said.

South Church’s Noack organ, installed in 2005, helps add to the depth of feeling in that music.

“There’s just an incredible number of sounds,” explains Noack. “Given 22 ranks on this organ, that comes to several thousand pipes. In fact, it has 1,235 individual pipes.”

The organ was made possible when an anonymous donor stepped forward in 2001 with an offer to install a genuine pipe organ, to replace the outmoded electric model that had served South Church since 1956. The church’s original pipe organ, installed in 1854, now resides in Kennebunkport’s First Congregational Church, from which South Church broke. In 1838, 70 members, 52 of them women, decided the 1.5 mile walk from the village to the First Church had become too much of a burden.

“I always say, our founding father were mostly mothers,” Whiston jokes.

But he doesn’t joke about the Noack organ. He won’t reveal the name of the donor, or the cost — in fact, he doesn’t even know how much Fritz Noack of Georgetown, Mass., was paid to build his 146th “Opus” model pipe organ, since he never saw the bill. However, the congregation did raise $196,000 to enlarge the nearly 200-year-old building to accommodate the metal behemoth.

At first, Whiston admits, he wondered if the effort was worth it.

“I didn’t think I’d notice the difference,” he said. “I thought at the time, all this money, all this effort, why are we doing this? Let’s just get another good electric organ. But it’s different. It’s has a breath to it. It’s not a reproduction of a sound. It’s the actual sound. It has a more, dare I use word, ethereal, even spiritual sound to it. It’s that sense of God’s spirit. It’s the wind. It’s that gift of life that moves and directs us.”

Now Brandes is in charge of that wind, and Whiston notes from watching him work with the choir that he’s lost nothing of his professorial demeanor.

“He doesn’t conduct a lecture during rehearsal, but it’s obvious that he’s a teacher, and that he loves sharing his passion for sacred music,” said Whiston.

And, by all accounts, the South Church congregation is happy with its choice.

“It was right after one of his first performances that a longtime member came up to me afterward,” Whiston recalled. “He said, now that’s how that organ should be played.”

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