Christ Cathedral’s Hazel Wright Organ makes a joyful noise again

The newly restored Hazel Wright Organ at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
The newly restored Hazel Wright Organ, whose 17,000-plus pipes are among the most famous in the world, stands ready at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

For years the Hazel Wright Organ filled what was then known as the Crystal Cathedral with joyous sounds. Each week the world’s fifth largest pipe organ blasted in the cathedral and into millions of viewers homes during the Rev. Robert H. Schuller’s “Hour of Power” broadcast. But years later her pipes fell silent.

The heat and humidity inside the mostly glass building melted parts of the organ, and birds made nests in the pipes that stretch five stories tall.

“Temperature consistency is very important for a pipe organ,” said the very Rev. Christopher H. Smith, Episcopal vicar and rector of Christ Cathedral. “This building did not have any air conditioning when it was the Crystal Cathedral, and so as you can imagine it got very hot. That did a number on the pipes … birds and other animals found the pipes as a lovely home. The organ was well maintained, but after a while it really needed fixing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Orange took over the former Crystal Cathedral campus in 2012 and began a $3-million restoration project on Hazel in 2014.

“The process was a pretty complicated one but certainly well worth it,” Rev. Smith said.

On June 10, the Diocese of Orange, the Orange Catholic Foundation and music ministry of Christ Cathedral celebrated the completion of the restoration process with a blessing of the organ. Josep Solé Coll, principal organist of St. Peter’s Basilica and organist for the liturgical celebrations of Pope Francis, traveled from Vatican City to play for the celebration.

Vatican principal organist, Josep Solé Coll, plays the newly restored Hazel Wright Organ in Garden Grove.
Vatican principal organist, Josep Solé Coll, plays a short piece as he welcomes in the newly restored Hazel Wright Organ during media preview and blessing of the instrument at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Nicknamed Hazel for the Chicago philanthropist whose donation funded the instrument, the Hazel Wright Organ was dedicated in 1982 with 17,000 pipes and more than 300 stops and 250 ranks. Hazel is sometimes referred to as a “surround sound” organ, with sections placed in all four corners of the cathedral, giving her immense and powerful sounds.

The process of restoring the organ began with the instrument being dismantled in 2014 and shipped to Padua, Italy to the Fratelli Ruffatti Co. The bulk of Hazel was built by Fratelli Ruffatti in 1977 for the Garden Grove Community Church and a majority of the rest of the organ came from a 1962 Aeolian-Skinner instrument from Lincoln Center in New York City.

“The Fratelli brothers were the major builders of the organ, so the whole organ was taken apart, and the pipes were sent back to Italy where they were refurbished and some of them built anew,” said Rev. Smith.

In 2016, the pipes returned from refurbishment in Italy.

“They came before we were ready to install them,” said Rev. Smith. “So we had them in a temperature-controlled warehouse in Irvine.”

Once the organ was assembled, the casing was painted white to better fit the ascetic of the remodeled cathedral.

The  wall of pipes of the newly restored Hazel Wright Organ at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
The room and wall of pipes that project the sound of the newly restored Hazel Wright Organ at the Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“The casing is the original casing, but it really overpowered the building because it was a brown wood color. We wanted it to blend in more with the whole building. So the architects worked for a long time to find just the right color and finish,” said Rev. Smith.

Finally in 2019, the Fratelli Ruffatti team began the process of tuning and voicing the organ, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought the process to a halt.

“That delayed it almost another two years,” said Rev. Smith, “and it has only been in the last few months that we have been able to play the completed organ.”

Rev. Smith and the most Rev. Kevin W. Vann, bishop of Orange are both trained organists, and each played a hymn on the completed organ in a special preview for media before the blessing.

“This is probably the only cathedral, I dare say, where both the rector and the bishop are both organists,” said Christ Cathedral organist and Head of Music Ministry David Ball.

While the organ has keys and pedals like a piano, it is powerful enough to create the sounds of a full orchestra, Ball explained.

“Like an orchestra, we have sound all around us. Above we have a big tuba,” Ball said as he demonstrated the sounds from the organ, and then across the way we have a big trumpet,” he said, hitting another key.

Cathedral organist and Head of Music Ministry David Ball explains the power of the Hazel Wright Organ by pressing a note.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The organ’s main console, known as the chancel, is among the largest drawknob consoles ever built, with five keyboards or manuals and hundreds of drawknobs.

“It is always an honor to sit in front of Hazel’s console and play,” said Ball, “where I am continuously in awe of the sheer power and breadth of this amazing instrument.”

During the restoration process, Christ Cathedral was using a digital organ in place of Hazel. Rev. Smith said parishioners wondered if they would be able to detect the difference.

“We have only been going for a few weeks with Hazel, but people can tell the sound is coming from all over the place,” said Rev. Smith. “You really can tell the difference. It is magnificent.”

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