Allen Organ Company in Tune with Sistine Chapel Choir

Steven Markowitz, left with Maestro Msgr. Massimo Palombella at the Allen Organ in the basilica. (Photos courtesy Steven Markowitz)

By TAMI QUIGLEY Staff writer

The sound of Allen organs, produced by Allen Organ Company, Macungie, can be heard in many parishes in the Diocese of Allentown. And now Allen is the exclusive organ of the Sistine Chapel Choir, the Pope’s Choir, for all papal celebrations in St. Peter’s Square.

It will also be used for musical requirements at St. Peter’s Basilica itself including the Christmas Eve Mass. The Mass will be broadcast live worldwide on EWTN starting at 3:30 p.m. EST.

Steven Markowitz, president of Allen Organ Company, visited the Vatican in early December to install the three-manual Allen GeniSys Organ. He made the trip with his wife Ann Marie Markowitz, Allen Organ vice president Barry Holben and Allen Organ’s French representative Jean-Philippe Le Trevou.

How did this local company come to be in tune with the Vatican?

Markowitz said in September, Evola Music of Plymouth, Michigan rented an Allen organ to the world-renowned Sistine Chapel Choir for a concert in Detroit during the choir’s first tour of the United States.

Msgr. Massimo Palombella, maestro of the Sistine Chapel Choir and responsible for the basilica’s overall music, was so impressed by the organ’s sound that the choir contacted Allen Organ Company to create a partnership.

The Sistine Chapel Choir’s three-manual Allen GeniSys organ and its audio system include special adaptions to enable the instrument to be moved throughout the Vatican and other locations. It also has the capacity to have its sound amplified through PA systems for large venues where the choir also performs.

“We were initially informed that the organ would be used by the Sistine Chapel Choir. During our visit we learned that the Vatican wanted the organ to also be used for musical requirements at St. Peter’s Basilica itself,” Markowitz said.

“What an exciting turn of events. Fortunately, we designed the organ with a flexible audio system that could allow for the expanded requirement.

“The acceptance of the Allen organ at the Vatican is an affirmation for us that the musical, artistic and physical qualities we strive for in our instruments are being acknowledged at the highest level. As an organ builder, this is not only appreciated, but humbling.

“We hope that this acknowledgement of the Allen organ by the Vatican will open up other opportunities for our company at churches throughout the world.

“We were told the organ would first be used at the Basilica on Dec. 12. This was very exciting to us.”

Markowitz’s group was met at a gate to the Vatican and taken directly to the basilica. “We were pleasantly surprised to find the organ crates near where the basilica’s choir is located. After uncrating the organ we spent hours setting it up.”

Late in the morning Msgr. Palombella came to preview the organ. “His positive response led to a remarkable turn of events. We were informed that on the following day the organ would be tested in the basilica for broader use,” Markowitz said.

“It is fortuitous that the organ’s audio system included external speaker cabinets and Audio Outs with the ability to connect the instrument to the basilica’s PA system, something we prepared for as we initially understood the organ was to be used in St. Peter’s Square. But this hi-bred audio approach was yet to be tested in the basilica – a bit scary.”

Markowitz said that Thursday morning they started preparing the organ for the test. The instrument’s speaker cabinets were moved on their custom dollies behind the choir in a way that would allow the organ’s sound to reflect up into the basilica. “We then connected the Audio Outs to the basilica’s PA system and waited for 3 p.m.”

During this time period Juan Paradell-Sole, organist of the Pope, came for his introduction to the organ. His response was positive.

“We spent part of the two-hour basilica lunch period, noon to 2 p.m., working with Juan Paradell-Sole and were nearly alone in St. Peter’s. This was a remarkable and once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Markowitz said.

Msgr. Palombella, Paradell-Sole and the basilica’s sound manager arrived at 3 p.m.

“We connected the sound system to the organ and did additional voicing. The organ was then heard throughout the basilica, and it did not take long to see smiles from the three ‘judges,’” Markowitz said.

Msgr. Palombella then informed them that the Allen organ would first be used in the basilica the following week. “It is not possible to put into words our excitement at that moment,” Markowitz said.

Markowitz said there were many side-discussions that occurred during these amazing two days. One related to the basilica’s pipe organ, an instrument with pipes speaking on both sides of the nave.

“It was evident that this organ is not well-received and does not adequately serve the basilica’s music ministry – issues include tuning, as well as an inability to properly mix and coordinate the organ’s sound throughout the basilica.”

“We were also privileged to be invited by Msgr. Palombella for a full rehearsal of the Sistine Chapel Choir itself,” Markowitz said. “We were treated to not only a tremendous musical event, but also able to view the works of Michelangelo and others.

“Allen organs have been installed in many prestigious institutions over the years. Now, being able to place the Vatican at the top of this list is amazing and humbling.

“On a more personal note, the first Allen church organ installed by my father was in a small parish church in Allentown. The church grew and ultimately became the Cathedral [of St. Catharine of Siena] of the Allentown Diocese that now houses a large Allen organ,” Markowitz said. “The company has come a long way.

“As I reflect on the amazing story of how an Allen organ has become part of St. Peter’s Basilica, I find the need to consider decades of efforts by too many to mention. Thousands of Allen employees over the decades played roles in producing the highest quality products. Our engineers created advanced platforms that enable the organs to be voiced to the most exacting and artistic requirements.

“Every Allen installation has a unique story, whether in a small country church or large cathedral. We are pleased and honored to be part of the Sistine Choir Chapel’s music ministry.”

Allen Organ Company has been producing organs for more than 70 years and is the world’s largest organ manufacturer. It also co-developed the world’s first digital musical instrument.