Lively-Fulcher at Christ Church, New Haven

by Jonathan Ambrosino

I have always liked Lively-Fulcher organs, but with the nagging feeling that I should be liking them more. After all, what's not to admire? Lively-Fulcher now has a decade-long corpus of highly commendable work. Whether tracker or electric-action, their instruments flow from an orthodoxy we recognize in the discipline of mechanical-action organbuilding. Cases are employed; departments exist in traditional physical relationships; and the whole approach is refreshingly gimmick-free, focusing on essentials over fancies in an effort to build a compelling multi-style American organ of the early 21st century.

Mark W. Lively began as an organbuilder in Cincinnati. In the later 1980s, he became Joint Tonal Director of J.W. Walker, where he was later Artistic Director and Paul Fulcher was Tonal Director. Lively returned to America in 1993, with Fulcher joining him shortly afterward. The young firm made its first splash with a bold (to put it mildly) opus at Saint Patrick's R.C. in Washington D.C. (a block from the site of another explosive event, the Ford Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot). This three-manual electric-action organ was essentially a complete two-manual augmented by a skeletal third with Cornet and unified big chorus reed.

More Washington-area contracts led the two to settle their company in this region, building perhaps an organ a year with great deliberation. As their operation grew, Lively and Fulcher joined with talented organbuilder Patrick Quigley to establish a shop that, while hardly equal in scope, functions on the same principle as what prevails with J.W. Walker and P&S Organ Supply. QLF (as in Quigley, Lively and Fulcher) produces anything from wood pipes to complete organs for other builders, while still permitting the production of precisely the sort of organ to which Lively and Fulcher are devoted.

Mark Lively is as intense today as he was when I first met him in 1987. Almost twenty years on, there is an increasingly sure hand stemming, perhaps, from age, acclaim and a clientele who have essentially let him get on with his vision. The partnership with Paul Fulcher has been seminal; as organ-builders, each is the other's oxygen. Lively recently wrote to me, '…our tonal feet [are] sort of spread across the English Channel. When we started with St. Patrick's [Washington], the organ scene in D.C. was pretty grim, and I wanted to finally do something different, and if it meant that it would be the last organ I'd build, that was quite OK with me. Since then, I think the instruments have been a variation on the theme, but I'd like to think with ever increasing refinement. The response seems to have been that people either really like them or they really don't like them, often feeling they are too bold or aggressive.'

My impressions weren't polarized to either extreme. Instead I found the Lively-Fulcher canon to embody cautious instruments of paradoxical boldness: thrilling, sure, but somewhat uptight. Saint Patrick's is dazzling and terrifying; where many organists responded in awe (seven CDs were made on it in the first two years alone), I left scratching my head. It's good, to be sure, but was it really that good? Mark and Paul were after a classically-oriented core fleshed out with French Romantic timbres and concepts - hardly a novel approach by 1993, but here executed with heartfelt conviction and along a different pattern than Rosales or Fisk on the one hand, the factory builders on the other. And yet, the drama seemed largely to reside in sheer power. With the decibels shorn away, the voicing was in fact rather cerebral and calm, even plain. In later organs, such as the incomplete opus for Saint Matthew's R.C. Cathedral in Washington (it awaits funding for a Positive, Bombarde and the remaining Great and Pedal), and the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, there remained the likable orthodoxy and clear thought behind the engineering - that internal order that results from painstaking time in the drawing office. And yet the placidity of tonal texture persisted.

I have yet to hear the later Lively-Fulchers in Utah, Minneapolis or Nashville, although fine reports filter back. What made a distinct impression was an electric-action three-manual completed in 2001 for the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. This instrument followed the Saint Patrick's plan (complete two-manual with skeletal third), speaking into a grand acoustic of crystalline luminosity. Its French-inspired tone and compass balance are matched to an Anglo-American intermanual relationship in which the Swell is two clear notches below the Great. While not without its puzzlements - a Great that lacked a single stop with which to accompany the milder Swell, undeveloped and anti-climatic Pedal reeds in an otherwise French-leaning scheme - this organ had more than a flicker of new warmth. Indeed, here was an 8-foot Diapason one kept returning to, with shades of Bonavia-Hunt-type dithering.

At Christ Church in New Haven, musician Rob Lehman was determined to have an organ in the modern eclectic pattern, yet one whose finer details would be driven not solely by organ repertoire but also the need for that subtlety of musical mood implied in Anglo-Catholic worship. As the church was deliberating the choice of builder, it had come down to Schoenstein and Lively-Fulcher, two firms so dissimilar it seems almost comedic how often they come to dead heat. One espouses hyper-steady wind, all-unit chests, multiple enclosures and fragrant neo-orchestralism; the other insists upon slider chests, casework, a tracker-like aesthetic regardless of action, and an almost ascetic purity of style. In their discernment, were these clients perhaps after an elevated middle-ground aesthetic neither builder was really offering?

Interestingly, the New Haven organ may well be that fresh channel, and it is arrestingly good. Certainly it represents novel territory for Lively and Fulcher: an instrument in a side-facing chancel chamber with large transept opening. Such situations are always beguiling; it takes a T.C. Lewis at Southwark Cathedral to make it work, and even there one has a sense of a smaller organ (Swell-Choir) within a larger, transept-facing one (Great-Solo), the whole requiring a tactful approach. In New Haven, the decision was made to encase the instrument within a foreshortened chamber and direct the tone chancel-ward as a unified entity. Only the largest bass pipes and unenclosed Tuba speak through the transept façade.

The nomenclature is a bit of a ruse: this organ speaks a purely modern, eclectic language. Pressures, cut-ups and scales are moderate, though fully voiced; in the principals, tone is prompt, nicking is present but hardly abundant. Articulation (translation: chiff) is less than Buzard or Schoenstein (the 'romantic' electric-action builders) while a tad more than, say, Dobson, Fisk or Rosales (the 'eclectic' tracker builders). The approach is more straight-line in the scaling than in the voicing. The 16-foot is full, but still a step below the fruity 8-foot. The Octave, Twelfth and Fifteenth are in a leaner and lesser world; the Twelfth has narrow mouths, but is otherwise voiced to match its neighbors: hardly the quiet formality some builders make of this register. The Mixture brings things back again, more handsome for lacking all-out punch. The other foundation stops are attractively treated, and blend across every different combination; the calm Gambe is more like a French Salicional, and probably more useful as a result. Throughout the flue voicing, treble ascendancy is happily present without reaching promiscuous levels, certainly not as heard from the nave. The Trompette and Clairon are even, strong and rich - there is nothing of the 1960s American “frainch” quality to these reeds, yet they are not so bass-aggressive as the real French species. Capped by a superb Cornet, Full Great gels into an ensemble that is strong, grand and really quite distinctive.

To this core, the Swell and Choir relate nicely. Directly behind the Great, the Swell has a time-honored, unglamorous stoplist. Once again, the terms 'Harmonic Cornopean' and 'Harmonic Clarion' here coyly refer to French-style reeds ('Cornopiènne'?) that become harmonic where their Cavaillé-Coll counterparts might. The slotted Diapason is handsome and not overdone. Perhaps surprisingly, the Voix Celeste is the diminutive of its pair, and thus doesn't really affect the Diapason or any larger combination. But the strings are awfully nice, as are the clear harmonic flutes and chimey Chimney Flute. Extension octaves on the strings permit a Purvisian shimmer: nice touch.

The Choir is divided in two boxes. One contains the Diapason and Dulciana basses; the other has everything else, tightly encased, for the focus one might expect of a Positive. Thus the secondary chorus is clearly in the Choir, not the Swell. Having the mutations here as well, and alongside the Cromorne besides, is a pre-1960s throwback that speaks to choral work (think Duruflé Messe cum jubilo) above organ repertoire. On my June visit during site voicing, the Choir reeds were not yet in, so it will be interesting to see where the Choir Trompette fits into the buildup. But preliminarily, it seems the Swell and Choir share an equal billing in common subordination to the Great - an intriguing departure from the more usual 19th-century Anglo-American arrangement of terraced dynamics Great-Swell-Choir or the more current Great-Positive-Swell, and something more along the three-manual Cavaillé-Coll model of the 1880s where the Positif is enclosed.

It takes guts these days to make a vibrant, true organ that doesn't overwhelm. Here the line from the sanitized to the reserved has been crossed with daring and sentiment, resulting in something I was unprepared to experience from a Lively-Fulcher: sex appeal. Leave it to an Anglo-Catholic client to draw that out of a staid organbuilder. Ironically, the organ's innately conservative style may well keep it sounding fresh to future ears.

Reproduced with permission from the September/October 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005