30th Anniversary of UUSM Organ - September 25, 2011

by Rob Briner, UUSM Historian

In 2010, I was introduced to Ann Thiermann, who was a surprise visitor to one of our Sunday services.  I recognized her name as the muralist who painted the UU History mural upstairs in Forbes Hall in 1980.  As Ann was upstairs telling me about the mural project, she mentioned that she was also the wedding organist for our church and worked closely with Dean Voegtlen in the late 1970s and early 1980s to get a new pipe organ for UUCCSM.  I had learned about that project from records in the archives and knew that the 30th anniversary of the 1981 dedication concert was coming up, so I asked Ann if she would be interested in playing the organ for the congregation someday.  Her response was an enthusiastic yes, even though she long ago moved to northern California and visits southern California only once or twice a year.

UUSM organ pipesI e-mailed Ann in mid-2011, reminding her about the 30th anniversary in September, and she responded that she would try to put something together.  Did she ever!  On her own, she recruited a former UUCCSM  Director of Music, "Dee" Stevens, and another professional musician, Margaret Thornhill, who was Dean Voegtlen's clarinet teacher and musical mentor.  I had heard of the name Delores Stevens but knew nothing about her, and doing some research on Margaret Thornhill was astonished to find a tribute she wrote to Dean Voegtlen shortly after his passing in December 2004.  

I was fortunate enough to have known Dean for a short time before his passing, and have always considered him among UUCCSM's "greatest generation."  I knew that he was a Renaissance Man, adept at science and art, a humanitarian, teacher, and yeoman member of our congregation for over 40 years (and his wife, Lee, continues as a member).  I don't know if he would consider the 1981 organ to be his most significant project for the church, but the multi-year effort he led to develop interest and support, raise approximately $65,000 by the time the project was completed in 1982 or 1983, and oversee the design and installation of a very complex instrument is something I consider very significant in the church's history.  30 years after its dedication and 6½ years after Dean's passing, I fear the our beautiful organ has come to be taken for granted.

One of the fascinating threads in this project is that Dee Stevens had taught our pianist, Louis Durra, making the September 25th rededication recital a homecoming event in many ways.  I invited Ann Thiermann to talk briefly during the 1-hour concert about the 1981 organ project and perhaps Dean Voegtlen's leadership, but she said she wanted the music to speak for itself.  With professional organists expensive to hire, this was the first time in more than a decade we heard the full capabilities of our organ, both alone and with the piano, along with a world-class clarinetist.