|Palo Alto's pipe organs offer musical riches behind church and theater doors. For a suburban area, Palo Alto has an impressive set of pipes. This may be due to the Peninsula's affluence, or to the local appreciation for musical quality. In any event, there's a range of musical diversity, which is well represented by a particular trio of organs: the Casavant Freres organ at St. Mark's Episcopal Church; the brand-new Letourneau at First Congregational Church of Palo Alto; and the Wurlitzer at the Stanford Theatre.
At St. Mark's in Midtown, Palo Alto organist James Welch, clean-cut and polite, is more than happy to demonstrate the Casavant. There's a hum as he turns on the electric blowers, which furnish the wind pressure for the organ. He prepares to play what he calls the most famous organ piece, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
The St. Mark's organ is nearing its 50th birthday, but playing it seems remarkably complex, even high-tech. The console has four manual keyboards and a pedal board: Even while Welch's hands cross and dance across the keys, his feet can play chords below. With expression pedals, he can also use his feet to make the music louder or softer.