Massey Organ repaired after power failure

BENJAMIN HOSTE | Staff Photographer

The interior chamber of the Massey Memorial Organ, as photographed in 2013. The Massey recently underwent emergency repairs.

Just as he has done countless times before, Chautauqua Institution organist Jared Jacobsen walked onto the Amphitheater stage on July 1, introduced himself, sat at the Massey Memorial Organ and brought his hands down on the keys — but this time, nothing happened.

“That’s the worst feeling in the world,” Jacobsen said. “I can still feel how it tingled in my arms when nothing happened.”

Amphitheater Manager Keith Schmitt said he and his crew had been in the middle of recording the would-be performance when they realized something was wrong.

“We had a pretty quick changeover,” Schmitt said.

The crew assumed that a cable had gone bad because the power supply had shorted. When the power supply shorted and burned fuses even without a cord plugged in, however, it became clear the Massey had a problem that was beyond the crew’s ability to fix.

“They went to work like pixies, into the woodwork,” Jacobsen said. “Finally, after 25 minutes Keith came out with a handful of bad fuses and he said, ‘Every fuse I’ve put into the organ blows immediately, so there’s clearly a short.’ ”

A problem on that level required assistance from the Massey Organ’s curator, Mark Fischer, owner of Fischer Organ Company in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“For me, because my world revolves around how the organ works, it was like my child was in the ER and I didn’t know what was wrong with him,” Jacobsen said. “That’s exactly how it felt.”

Fischer said the main power supply of the organ had failed, most likely due to condensation buildup from excessive humidity exposure.

“It’s not particularly unusual, but it’s a little bit premature,” Fischer said.

Though replacing the power supply is a simple fix, Jacobsen said the repair was delayed because the Amphitheater’s packed schedule made it difficult for Fischer to examine the instrument closely enough to diagnose the problem.

By the time Fischer figured it out, the organ part supplier had closed for the Independence Day weekend. While Fischer had the part in his own shop, he had to install it during a rehearsal for the Chautauqua Dance Salon. This timing meant Jacobsen was unable to test the instrument until the next morning.

Fischer Organ Company completely renovated the Massey Organ in 1992. According to Jacobsen and Fischer, it has had relatively few problems since then, the most major of which were the failure of bellows that were both 100 years old or older when they gave out.

“After 22 years, we’ve been pretty lucky,” Fischer said.

After the close of this season, the power supply will be moved to indoor storage to help prevent future failure.

“I know how to play it [the Massey Organ] better than anybody else on this planet, and [Fischer Organ Company] know how it works better than anybody else on this planet,” Jacobsen said. “I would be hard pressed to trust this to anybody else.”

Though Jacobsen will be unable to make up the missed concert, he plans to incorporate some of the music he would have played into his upcoming Massey Memorial Organ Mini-Concert at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday.

Until then, Jacobsen said, he is learning how to trust the instrument again.

“Ever since it was rebuilt in 1992, I go out and push a button and I play, I turn it off — sometimes 10 times a day I do that — and it always, always has worked for me,” he said. “So I just need to relax and realize that all my bad karma is out the door.”