By Kate Blankinship
One of the University’s greatest assets is also one of its most unknown. Rockefeller Chapel houses the largest organ pipe in the Midwest, with 8,565 organ pipes ranging from five-eighths of an inch to 32 feet, which is equivalent to four stories tall.
Thomas Weisflog, University organist since October 1st, 2000, recounts the first time he saw the organ pipe. It was March of 1968; Weisflog came to visit the UChicago, as he was considering getting his master’s in chemistry. Headed to the train station after looking at the chemistry department, he walked by the Chapel. He decided to go in, entering through the side door. Weisflog saw the organ and recalls, “Something in my mind said, ‘this is the University you’re gonna go to’ and so I accepted.” Almost 50 years later, Weisflog is still here.
According to Weisflog, the University’s student program, Tea & Pipes, is one of the neater things that the University does. Students are given the opportunity to come and learn how to play the pipe organ, and every Tuesday, there is a recital-- Tea & Pipes.
Tea & Pipes has evolved throughout the University’s history. Organ recitals began in 1928 with Edward Mondello. Mondello the old university organist who taught Weisflog how to play, started Tuesday Noonday recitals. Students would come and gather every Tuesday for 20-30 minutes and eat their lunch. However, the organ and Rockefeller Chapel underwent construction. The intrusive noise of the construction was not conducive to lunch and tea. In 2008, Elizabeth Davenport became the Dean of Rockefeller Chapel and decided to reinstate Tuesday Noonday, but as Tea & Pipes.
“It was impossible to hold a lunchtime recital because of construction noise. I said, ‘Let's have a tea-time recital instead. I'm British! We'll serve tea.’ And so Tea & Pipes was born,” Davenport recalls.
Tea & Pipes is now entering its tenth season, nine of which have been in Rockefeller Chapel. The one season in which it wasn’t, Tea & Pipes moved to Bond Chapel because a new organ was installed in Bond. For a year, students came and had lunch with Mr. Skinner, the name of one of the University’s famed pipe organs. Yet in 2014, the recitals returned to Rockefeller.
“Tea & Pipes offers an opportunity for members of the University community and our music-loving neighbors in the city at large to spend a half hour each week hearing diverse music on the Rockefeller organ, a truly magnificent instrument,” Davenport said.
However, what’s noteworthy is that Tea & Pipes gives young musicians, who are only just learning how to play the pipe organ, the chance to play on one of the most magnificent pipe organs around. Students come and learn how to play under Phillip Kloeckner, and get to play in front of so many. Weisflog recounts how he remembers one student, Isaac, working on a piece for two months. It was Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G Minor. Over two months he learned how to play a stunning piece. Another student is Chelsie Coren. She played the pipe organ all four years. As Weisflog described her senior recital, he smiled, recalling how beautiful and effortlessly she played. Stories like these are why Tea & Pipes is so remarkable.
Weisflog, who plays over 40 hours a week knows how remarkable the University pipe organ is. He joked that when international musicians come to play on it, he always tells them “you can’t take it with you.” Yet for UChicago students, they don’t need to. They have the organ right on campus, easy access.
“There’s not too many places that have a gift like this,” Wiesflog said.