Marie Rubis Bauer sits at the bench of an immaculate pipe organ three stories tall and summons forth sounds centuries in the making.
Bauer, 51, the director of music ministries for Omaha's St. Cecilia Cathedral, performs two versions of a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. First, she plays in a “modern” tuning system: powerful, dissonant and slightly foreboding — the organ of masked phantoms hiding out in opera houses. Then, she plays the piece as Bach would have heard it in his time: lighter, sweeter and more delicate, like hundreds of piccolos in harmony.
This ability to switch styles and evoke some 700 years of sound — or play in two temperaments, in organ speak — makes the pipe organ that sits high above the west entrance at St. Cecilia a musical landmark in the United States. There is one other like it in the country, on the campus at Stanford University.
“In organ circles, this organ would be known on a world basis,” Bauer said.
Over the next month, St. Cecilia Cathedral will celebrate the organ's 10th anniversary with a series of events, beginning with a free concert Tuesday night featuring Olivier Latry, chief organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Latry, a world-renowned performer praised for his improvisation, also appeared at St. Cecilia during the year-long celebration of the instrument's installation.
Bauer recalls that when Latry arrived a decade ago, he spent hours and hours getting to know the organ before playing it for the public. It is an idiosyncrasy unique to an instrument that is architectural in nature. Organists do not travel with their instruments; they travel to them.
“Up until the Industrial Revolution, organs and clocks were some of the most sophisticated things that people built,” Bauer said.
The innards of the St. Cecilia organ — officially known as the Pasi Opus 14 — illustrate her point. Behind the intricate wood shell that faces the congregation courses an elaborate mechanism of wood and lead capable of operating without electricity. An entire room to the north of the organ is devoted to the intake and output of air, providing the wind that gives voice to the 5,500 pipes.
The organ was designed by an Austrian named Martin from a Washington town called Roy.
Martin Pasi of Pasi Organ Builders researched, built and installed the $1.1 million instrument, a process that spanned five years and produced an organ that draws visitors from around the world. An artisan organ builder such as Pasi faces numerous challenges, starting with the acoustics of their environment. In this regard, the Omaha cathedral was ideal.
“As far as the sound goes, it's a beautiful room,” Pasi said. “One can usually only dream about these kinds of things. I had the luxury of actually having one to work in like that.”
Pasi returned to Omaha for the organ's 10th anniversary. He'll check to see if it requires any maintenance before taking in Latry's performance.
“My career wouldn't be the same without that instrument,” he said. “It has always been extremely special to have had the privilege to build that organ.”
Most days, the privilege of playing goes to Bauer, who came to St. Cecilia the year the instrument debuted. On Sundays, she arrives at the cathedral at 6 a.m. to practice for an hour before doors open, then plays at Masses into the early afternoon.
“It's life-changing every time I sit down (to play),” she said. “I'm a lucky duck.”
Bauer grew up outside the small town of Lakefield, Minn., where her music-loving father listened to Bach as he milked cows and volunteered as the church organist on Sundays. She followed in his footsteps and then some, completing her education with a doctorate from the University of Kansas, a school known for training organists.
On a recent weekday morning, Bauer demonstrated the range, power and responsiveness of the St. Cecilia organ, manipulating the dozens of keys, knobs, levers and pedals that give voice to the instrument — or more accurately, voices.
“If an organist is doing their job, they're managing a large choir,” she said. “Some would say orchestra, but because it's wind, I say choir.”
She looks forward to this week's anniversary concert — though she recognizes a decade is a blip in the life span of an instrument built to last centuries.
“In the life this organ will lead, 10 years is just the beginning,” she said.
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If you go...
What: Olivier Latry, chief organist for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: St. Cecilia Cathedral, 701 N. 40th St.