Massey Memorial Organ damaged in electrical fire, out of commission for final worship services

The Massey Memorial Organ will be silent for the rest of the 2018 season.

Amphitheater crew members, including head of audio Chris Dahlie (with fire extinguisher), along with Jared Jacobsen respond to a small fire in the Massey Memorial Organ console Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the Amp. PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL EVANS

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 21, following morning worship, the Amphitheater crew was moving the organ’s console from the stage to its storage housing when a power cable disconnected. That appears to have caused a short circuit that overheated and damaged part of console’s internal computer, according to Chris Dahlie, head of audio at the Amp.

Amp crew members responded immediately, and Dahlie said he quickly extinguished the candle-sized flame, preventing any harm to the organ’s keyboard or casing. The pipework and mechanical systems of the organ were not affected. According to Paul Fischer, the organ’s restorer and curator, the organ should be repaired in time for next season.

The damaged portion of the computer — the motherboard — serves as the “nerve center” for the organ, Fischer said. Because it was custom made when it was installed 26 years ago, Fischer said that he could not make any specific predictions on the timeline or cost of the repair until the company that made the computer assesses the damage.

“It’s not just something you can take off the shelf and replace,” Fischer said.

This is the second time this year the console of the Massey Organ has sustained major damages.Last winter, ice and snowmelt caused a leak that damaged the console, including its original ivory keys.

Fischer, along with his son Mark, had three months to replace the keyboard and have the organ functional for the 2018 season.This time, there are more than nine months to make what appears to be a simpler repair, Fischer said.

The Massey Organ, installed in 1907, is the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. It was funded by Eliza A. Massey in memory of her late husband, Canadian businessman Hart Massey.

Since then, the Massey Organ has served as the main musical feature of worship services in the Amphitheater. Jared Jacobsen, Chautauqua’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, provides music for those services and gives recitals on the organ throughout each season.

Jacobsen has functioned as the the Institution’s organist since 1996, but he first came to the grounds to study piano when he was just 5 years old. The Massey Organ, he said, is at the center of his musical life — so Tuesday’s damage was especially troubling.

“It’s a little bit like having your child in intensive care, but the best doctors I know are on it.”

-Jared Jacobsen, Organist, coordinator of worship and sacred music

Jacobsen will perform on the Amp’s grand piano for the remainder of the season’s worship services.

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The author Justin Kelly

This is Justin’s first summer at Chautauqua, where he covers symphonic and chamber music. He grew up in Washington, D.C., attended Carnegie Mellon University and Manhattan School of Music, and now resides in Pittsburgh. Justin is a dedicated lover of live music, and he tries to attend as much of it as he possibly can.