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Arts & Culture

Hartt School Winds Down Organ Program, Sells Pipe Organ

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Courtesy Allen J. Hill, Gress-Miles Organ Photo Collection
Hartt's Organ Studio. The organ will be dismantled at the end of the semester, and the room will become a rehearsal and performance space.
By 2013, there was only one organ major enrolled at the school.
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A 1970 Hartt brochure announces the inauguration of the new Gress-Miles organ. That organ has been sold to a church on Long Island.

The University of Hartford's Hartt School will graduate its last organ major in May. Once a robust program, Hartt made the tough decision to abandon the organ program two years ago. Alumni of the organ program will gather this weekend to say goodbye to the school's pipe organ, which has been sold to a church on Long Island. 

The Gress-Miles organ was inaugurated in 1970 with a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott." The organ resides in room 21, also known as the organ studio.

Hundreds of organ majors through the decades have vied for precious practice time on the Gress-Miles.

"I spent many hours in [room 21] practicing. It's a very nice instrument. It's big enough that you can register a wide variety of repertoire on it," said Hartt organ alum Stephen Scarlato. "I remember lots of early mornings, because a lot of people practice at night. You go there at 11:00 pm, and someone is practicing, so I'll go at six -- no one will be there then, and I usually had good luck with that."

Scarlato received his organ performance degree in 2003. He said that at one time, during the 1970s, the organ program was one of the bigger majors at Hartt.

"John Holtz was really the man who put it all together, quite some time ago, and I think at some point there would be 23, 25 organ majors at a time," Scarlato said. "When I came in 1999, there were eight majors." The program continued to shrink through the 2000s. By 2013, there was only one organ major enrolled at the school.

At the same time, the University of Hartford was taking a critical look at the viability of certain majors university-wide, an initiative called "Foundations For the Future."

Two programs at the Hartt School were targeted for closure: the classical guitar department and the organ department. Hartt managed to save the classical guitar department, but made the tough decision to close the organ department.

"Unfortunately, the organ program hasn't highly enrolled, and we didn't see a great future even if wanted to put some immediate resources into it," said T. Clarke Saunders, Acting Dean of the Hartt School. "It was a very difficult and painful thing to do, yet I think it was something that the university needed to do, because you can't do everything at all times, and the market changes, so we had to think that way."

"It's disappointing," said James Thomashower, executive director of the American Guild of Organists. "It's never good news to hear that a music school is giving up its organ program. It's only going to hurt the churches, when they discover they need new organists as this current generation of organists retire, who is going to sit on the organ bench? Who's going to make music for services? It's going to be a problem."

Hartt's last organ major, Mary Pan, graduates in two weeks. The Gress-Miles organ in room 21 will be dismantled at the end of the semester and sold to a United Methodist Church in Babylon, New York. The room will be re-purposed as a rehearsal and performance space for small ensembles. But before that happens, alumni of Hartt's organ department will squeeze into room 21 for one last recital.

The final piece on the program Saturday night will be the same piece that was played on the first recital in 1970: Bach's "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott."

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