Organist Wendy Markosky will play the Letourneau organ at Gaetz United Church in Red Deer.

Gigantic instrument can produce an eclectic, kaleidoscopic sound full of colour

Every time Wendy Markosky sits down at the pipe organ, she thinks of it as entering a cockpit.

Every time Wendy Markosky sits down at the pipe organ, she thinks of it as entering a cockpit.

On the instrument panel in front of her are 28 pullout knobs, or stops, that control airflow to 25 sets of pipes, ranging in size from three inches to a looming 16 feet.

Push them in and the airflow is cut off, muting the organ’s pipes. Pull them out and you are literally “pulling out the stops,” as the old saying goes, and freeing up the instrument’s “kaleidoscope” of sound.

Markosky must also control 122 keys on a two-tiered, hand-operated keyboard at the same time as her feet are feeling their way around 32 notes on a pedal-pushed keyboard down below.

“It’s an athletic, acrobatic, multi-tasking instrument” — kind of like operating a one-man band, said the organist, who’s a music instructor at Lacombe’s Canadian University College and also on call with the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra whenever a harpsichordist or organist is needed.

Markosky will surmount the intricacies of the enormous instrument that remains remarkably unchanged since being invented in the 1600s to perform a “light and lively” concert at the Gaetz Memorial United Church in Red Deer on Saturday.

The concert, held in honour of the church’s 125th anniversary and the pipe organ’s 25th birthday, will include a play list stretching from the 18th century to the 21st century.

Listeners who are only familiar with the pipe organ’s solemn church sounds will be introduced to a whole other side of the instrument, promised Markosky. “It can produce such an eclectic, kaleidoscopic sound that’s full of colour. And this is a chance to show off what the organ can do.”

For instance, Pieces for a Musical Clock were written by Joseph Haydn for the small calliope-styled pipe organs that were often used at circuses. The high-pitched, “chirpy” little pieces will confound most people’s expectations of a pipe organ, she added.

Markosky also intends to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s seldom-heard Pastorale, which was inspired by the Italian countryside.

On the program as well is English composer William Hayes’ concerto for organ and orchestra, which will be played with Markosky doing both parts. “I intend to do a smaller sound for the organ and a larger sound for the orchestra.”

The Ottawa native, who arrived in Central Alberta to work at Canadian University College in 1997, was mesmerized by the organ for most of her life.

She began playing a small, electronic organ at age eight. When she was 16, she was “blown away” by the robust, textural sounds of a pipe organ that she heard on CBC Radio. “It was the coolest sound I’d ever heard. It was like a whole orchestra,” she recalled.

Markosky didn’t find a pipe organ teacher until she was about 18, then completed a whole biology degree before realizing she needed to spend her life playing the instrument.

The graduate of the University or Nebraska, Lincoln, and Indiana University schools of music now believes that young people should be encouraged to follow their passions, wherever they lead.

“If you are passionate about it, you need to do it. You won’t get rich but you’ll always be able to do OK. If you don’t end up following your passion, you could end up doing something your whole life that you hate.

“We are given gifts and we have to take them, run with them and develop them.”

Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. concert at Gaetz Memorial United Church are $10 (children 12 and under are free) at the door. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Markosky said proceeds will go to local charities.

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