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The Penn Symphony Orchestra performs with David Kim, concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Credit: Andres De los Rios , Andres De los Rios, Andres De los Rios, Andres De los Rios, Andres De los Rios

On Paul Marchesano’s first day on campus in 1981, he was on College Green when he first heard the sound of the organ.

He followed it, and it led him to the renowned instrument in Irvine Auditorium. “It was the beginning of a long relationship,” he said.

Marchesano arrived at the University as a Wharton student, hoping to be a “wall street wizard” accountant. However, Marchesano soon realized that he wanted to become a professional musician. After that first day, he immediately joined a group of students who looked after the organ. It became a huge aspect of his life at Penn.

The Curtis organ, which was donated to the University in 1927, has 10,731 individual pipes. It is the 11th largest pipe organ worldwide and likely cost around $60,000 when it was first purchased, which amounts to approximately $800,000 today.

The visible organ pipes on either side of the stage in Irvine are actually just decorations. The actual pipes are hidden behind the dark screens on the tops of both sides of the auditorium. The large windchest, a compartment of pressurized air that is an integral part of any organ, is also hidden behind the walls of the auditorium. It is actually spacious enough that a 150-guest dinner was hosted in the chest when it was at the world’s fair in 1926.

The organ was completed by Austin Organ, Inc. in Hartford, Conn. in 1926 and sold to the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition, a world’s fair in Philadelphia celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The fair opened in May 1926 and had to close early due to less-than-expected attendance, bad weather and financial issues. The organ was purchased from the fair at a 1927 auction by Cyrus Curtis, former publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, and was then donated to the University.

Between 1927 and 1929, the Curtis organ was stored in wooden crates in the archways of Franklin Field, awaiting the completion of Irvine Auditorium. The donation of the organ actually delayed the completion of the 1,259-seat auditorium. It was finally placed in its current home in 1929.

Marchesano explained that he loved the organ because it is “an old world craft.” There are no established organ schools; it is a skill that must be passed down by another individual. It is “connected to a much older life and time,” he said.

He was first inspired by music at church when he was growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. It was there that he learned to play the organ.

At Penn, he realized his childhood hobby was actually a deep passion of his. He continued to play the organ throughout his four years as an undergraduate.

The organ’s sound waves “travel three-dimensionally,” and the sound and feeling of a live organ cannot be duplicated in a recording, Marchesano added.

When he graduated in 1985, instead of an accounting job, he found a job at Columbia Organ Works in Lancaster County. There he learned a great deal about repairing and restoring organs.

In 1993, Marchesano went into business for himself, working as a musician, consultant and organ specialist. He never stopped being a part of “the organ world.” A few years later, Marchesano moved back to Philadelphia and through 1996 to 1997, he would play the Curtis organ every Wednesday at noon for an audience of approximately 90 people.

Throughout the 1930s, the Curtis organ was regularly played and broadcasted on local radio stations. There were also several large concerts over the course of the mid-twentieth century and many well-known musicians came to Irvine Auditorium to use the organ.

In 1978, renowned organist Virgil Fox performed in Irvine to help raise awareness and fundraise for the Curtis organ. According to Marchesano, the concert was sold out with over 2,000 attendees, many of who had to stand. Fox had hoped to record his music using the organ, but the organ then underwent renovations, and Fox passed away in 1980 before he had another chance to record.

In 1997, Irvine Auditorium was slated to undergo a three-year renovation, with little consideration to the well-being of the organ. According to Marchesano, he and his colleagues were uncertain as to whether the organ would ever be functional again, because of a lack of funds to restore it as part of the renovation. He played his last recital and recorded it, unsure if he would ever hear the sound that he loved so much again.

Nevertheless, in 2000, when Irvine reopened, the Curtis organ was restored and made functional. In the last decade it has been used for the occasional concert. On Halloween each year, a silent movie is projected in the auditorium and is accompanied by live organ music.

Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2008, Marchesano served as the assistant organist at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Philadelphia. However, he has spent more time in the last 10 years singing professionally with Philadelphia music groups and working on organ restorations. He currently sings with Vox Amadeus, a classical, renaissance and baroque chorus and orchestra.

The Curtis organ has been a huge aspect of Marchesano’s life since he was an undergraduate at Wharton, and even today, the inspiration in his eyes is evident as he talks about it.

Marchesano added, “Some people are drawn to it, and some people are not, but for me, you can’t substitute the feeling.”

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