Vermont's most prolific 19th-century organ builder was Randolph Center native William Nutting Jr. According to Marilyn Polson of Chelsea, planning chair of the Organ Historical Society's 58th annual convention, held last year in Vermont, four of the organs Nutting built for churches and other venues around the state remain playable today. These are found in Williamstown, Grafton, Royalton and East Poultney.
The East Poultney Nutting is a pre-Civil War organ in St. John's Episcopal Church. This summer it will be played in a series of concerts organized by Ida Mae Johnson, chair of the church's newly formed executive committee.
"It will be an extraordinary historical experience," promises Johnson, a Poultney resident.
It will also be a religious one. St. John's lost its congregation in 1935, Johnson explains, but to continue receiving funds from the Episcopal parish in Burlington, the church has had to offer religious services. It has filled this need by offering one service a year, on East Poultney Day every August.
The concerts will expand that religious component by doubling as Evening Prayer services, led by Episcopal clergy but open to all.
Some of the 13 concert services will feature other instruments, but most involve the organ. Green Mountain College music department chair James Cassarino will play two of them.
Cassarino, of Rutland, is the organist at that city's Trinity Episcopal Church. He says the organ at St. John's is "a destination instrument, one that organists would actually travel to see and play."
That's already happening for this series. The other two organists are Karl Moyer of Pennsylvania, who earned his doctorate of musical arts in organ performance from the Eastman School of Music; and Carl Schwartz, a Warren summer resident and retired D.C.-area church organist who received the same degree from the Catholic University of America.
Cassarino says the St. John's organ is slightly worse for wear — or rather, neglect. "Instruments are built to be played," he comments, adding that he's rehearsed on the single-keyboard organ twice.
Like all organs built before electricity, the Nutting requires an assistant to pump the bellows — essentially a lever that's worked up and down — while the organist plays. (The church still has no electricity.) Cassarino's wife will fill the job next rehearsal, and his son has been roped in for at least one performance.
That will likely be Cassarino's concert of traditional Welsh hymns on June 21. At another concert, he'll play from hymnals found in St. John's that date back to the 1840s and '50s.
The committee members hope this series will inspire donations to help repair the church's roof and, eventually, to fully restore its historic organ.