It doesn’t matter how good your sound system is: you simply can’t duplicate the thrill of listening to live music played on the Fenner Douglass Organ at Moorings Park’s Bower Chapel.
“That’s the thing about electronic organs: you’re listening to music coming through speakers,” explains Director of Chapel Concerts John Fenstermaker. “The digital reproduction of sound is just an approximation. You have to hear this organ in person.”
Exceptional Performances In An Amazing Sonic Environment
John oversees the Concert Series at Moorings Park. Working with Campus Life Director Mitchell Swanson, he invites musicians to perform in a series of ten concerts each year at Bower Chapel. The series — open only to residents and their guests — typically features a mix of classical performances and lighter fare (such as Broadway melodies).
One performance in the current series featured the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Gary Levinson. With the Dallas Symphony Association’s permission, he performed with a treasured Stradivarius violin. His presentation included a demo and discussion of the rare and prized 18th century instrument.
Upcoming concerts will spotlight two extraordinary talents from the Naples Philharmonic: Concertmaster emeritus Glenn Basham and the orchestra’s frequent piano soloist, Jodie DeSalvo. Another will showcase the brilliant clarinet and saxophone jazz stylings of twin brothers Peter and Will Anderson.
A Beautiful Beckoning
John enjoys being able to present such world-class talent to the community.
“The beautiful acoustics in our chapel and our wonderful weather are very appealing to musicians. People in New England love to come down to Florida in the winter to get paid to perform in our warm climate,” John laughs.
“The chapel has cathedralesque acoustics,” he explains, noting that it provides the ideal environment for stringed instruments, vocals, piano, and, of course, the organ itself.
“The chapel is extremely reverberant,” John points out. “A reverberation is different from an echo, where the sound bounces. With reverberation, the sound attenuates evenly and gradually. In organ music, this is desirable. Bach composed his organ pieces with this kind of acoustic reverberation in mind.”
The Fenner Douglass Organ is named after its designer, a past Moorings Park resident who was a renowned organ scholar and teacher. He created the organ in the style of a North German 18th century instrument. There is no electricity involved in the way it produces sound. (The only concession to modernity is the organ blower which provides air pressure to three giant bellows — a century-old ‘innovation’ — and the lights that illuminate the keyboard.)
The organ features 1,600 pipes, and is entirely hand-made.
“This is the kind of organ Bach would have encountered as a teenager. Hearing music played on it is like musical time travel,” he points out enthusiastically. “Even people who aren’t interested in organ music recognize immediately that this is different. It’s a uniquely rich auditory experience.”
A Lasting Legacy
The organ and chapel were built at the same time, so the acoustics would be a perfect match for the instrument it housed. Both ended up being constructed larger than originally planned to better accommodate the organ’s acoustic signature.
All of this was made possible by the extraordinarily generous grants of past Moorings Park resident Edwin Bower, for whom the chapel is named. John notes that subsequently Edwin’s family continued his devotion to the creative spirit by founding the Bower School of Music and the Arts at Florida Gulf Coast University. The school’s Chamber Choir, led by Dr. Trent Brown, will be performing in the chapel in April.
Though Edwin Bower’s contribution to the Moorings Park community is lasting and singular, his appreciation for the enrichment music brings to our lives is shared by many residents.
“Having a large audience that’s attentive and enthusiastic — that a performer can connect to — is a big thing,” John says. “The energy a musician gets from an appreciative audience can really make a difference. The audiences here are sophisticated; they are real movers and shakers, and they know good from bad.”
John knows whereof he speaks. His career as a professional organist has spanned six decades. While serving as Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at the National Cathedral in D.C. in the late 1960s he played at the funeral of Dwight Eisenhower and the memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was Director of Music and Organist at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for 30 years.
He eventually made his way to Florida, where he’s overseen the Moorings Park Concert Series for 16 years. He also served as Director of Music for Trinity-by-the-Cove Episcopal Church until he retired from that position two years ago.
Through it all, he’s played thousands of concerts. Being able to continue to musically enrich people’s lives through his work with the Concert Series and Bower Chapel is extremely gratifying, he says.
“I’ve had a wonderful career,” he smiles.