Notre Dame: Playing the 'Holy Grail' of pipe organs

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Fear that Notre Dame's famous pipe organ might have been lost in the fire triggered anxiety worldwide. One musician who shared that concern is a Bay Area organist, who has given two recitals at Notre Dame.

"I would have to say that the organ at Notre Dame is really the 'holy grail' of pipe organs anywhere in the world."

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Those are the words of Palo Alto organist James Welch, one of the few invited to play what's named the "grand organ" at Notre Dame. He has performed there twice, once in 1980 and again in 2015. He was able to rehearse twice before performing for the public.

"It's an exceptional experience to be in there by yourself and with all the ghosts of all the organists and all the people who have ever been there in the church and be able to play that organ into the wee hours of the morning," Dr. Welch said.

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He was heartsick to learn of the fire. It appears the organ was spared, but it's not clear if the pipes suffered smoke or water damage. Nothing compares, he says, to the sound of that organ.

"The feeling the first time you hit a chord on that organ and then let go and hear that sound reverberating through the sanctuary, down the nave and back, there's nothng else like it," he said.

Dr. Welch shared with us a recording of his 2015 recital. One selection was a composition by Notre Dame's famed organist, the late Louis Vierne. A scrapbook with the recital program provides treasured memories.

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Welch is the organist at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. He also teaches organ at Santa Clara University.

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James Welch, who has played the organ twice at Notre Dame, plays the organ at his church in Palo Alto.

James Welch has a very ambitious goal to do a third recital at Notre Dame, and he has a year in mind-- the year 2050 when he turns 100 years old.

Check out more stories and videos about the Notre Dame Catherdral Fire.
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