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updated: 4/30/2012 2:14 PM

Suburban organist plays recital on state's largest instrument

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  • Heidi Rittmeyer in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

      Heidi Rittmeyer in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.
    Courtesy of Marilyn Rittmeyer

 

A Northwest suburban music major and the historic pipe organ at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago came together last month for a rare event.

Heidi Rittmeyer of Arlington Heights performed her senior recital on the majestic instrument. She is graduating with a music performance major from the University of Illinois at Chicago, having studied organ under Thomas Weisflog, the organist at the University of Chicago.

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"She's a wonderful player," Weisflog said as he introduced Rittmeyer to the senior recital audience. "This organ, for those of you who haven't experienced it, you'll hear something like you've never heard before."

He described how the organ was built in 1928, the first of four university organs built by E.M. Skinner, who went on to build ones at Yale, Princeton and Michigan.

"It is the Cadillac of instruments," Weisflog added, "built for major higher institutions of learning."

As it stands now, the organ at Rockefeller Chapel is the largest in the state, with more than 8,000 pipes, including more than 6,000 in the front chamber and another 2,000 in the gallery.

Rittmeyer commanded them all -- giving the audience the feeling as if a "747 was landing on them," Weisflog said. She performed four major organ works for her recital, opening with a ceremonial processional by the Welsh composer William Mathias.

Her interest in the organ goes back to her youth and growing up attending St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights.

"I became interested in the organ at the age of 9, after taking piano lessons for a few years and from growing up in the church," says Rittmeyer, a 2008 St. Viator High School graduate. "I enjoy organ so much because of all the different sounds to choose from, from trumpets to flutes to reeds.

"The instrument allows you to be the conductor," she adds, "literally of your own orchestra."

Her mother, Marilyn, credits the local Fox Valley Guild of Organists and the American Guild of Organists at the national level, with giving young organists a chance to perform.

Both groups offer "pipe organ encounters," which bring together young, aspiring organ players at Chicago area and national venues.

"Heidi attended pipe organ encounters in several cities," Marilyn Rittmeyer says. "So she had the opportunity to play some of the best organs in our country and hear some of our nation's best organists."

While attending high school, Rittmeyer played a conventional band instrument, but she also studied privately with David Christiansen at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Park Ridge.

Weisflog describes Rittmeyer's talent and interest as exceedingly rare.

"The numbers of students studying organ is declining," he says, "so they have to be fostered."

However, Rittmeyer knows that she has to diversify. Consequently, up next she plans to earn an advanced degree in church music, possibly from the University of Alabama, where she'd study under organ professor Faythe Free. But she also has another plan in place: to earn a nursing degree.

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