Meet the man at the pedals and pipes at his 13th straight CBC Christmas Sing-In

Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul organist Jonathan Oldengarm loves everything about his job, even crawling around near the ceiling to tweak the 7,000 pipes.

Jonathan Oldengarm, organist at Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, loves everything about his job

Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul organist Jonathan Oldengarm will perform in his 13th consecutive CBC Christmas Sing-In this Sunday.

The CBC Christmas Sing-In is taking place Sunday. You can donate online or in person. Money raised supports West Island Community Shares.

Jonathan Oldengarm likens playing the organ at Montreal's Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul to sitting in an airplane cockpit.

"You have all these keyboards and buttons and different sound possibilities everywhere," he says of the 86-year-old instrument, built by the renowned organ builders Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe.

In Montreal — a city known for its organs —  this 1931 model is one of the largest of its kind.

"It's absolutely wonderful," Oldengarm says. "There's just no end to the resources of colour and volume."

You can hear more about Jonathan Oldengarm on CBC Montreal's The Bridge on CBC Radio One on Dec. 9 at 5 p.m.

Organ repairman, too

Oldengarm has been the organist at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul since 2008, when he took over as director of music.

When he's not sitting at the complicated console, you might find him crawling around close to the ceiling of the church, tuning one of the organ's 7,000 pipes.

"There are a lot of moving parts," he says. "And to call in a service technician every time some little thing needs to be fixed would be … well, they'd be living there!"

Jonathan Oldengarm explains how the organ at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul works. He has been playing the organ for the CBC Sing-In since 2005. 3:03

Tuning and repairing the organ is one of Oldengarm's favourite parts of the job —  a fascination he's had since he was a child.

Oldengarm grew up in the small town of Listowel, Ont., northwest of Guelph. He began taking piano lessons when he was young.

"I think the predominant culture was probably, more, hockey," he said. "I did play some pick-up hockey. But I was much more interested in music."

Oldengarm says a local piano tuner got him interested in the mechanics behind the music, as well as the idea of playing the organ.

"I would sit there and watch him the whole time when he tuned our piano," he reminisces. "I think normally a tuning took him an hour and a half, and it took him about three hours to do ours."
Jonathan Oldengarm played the church piano in Listowel, Ont., growing up. (Oldengarm family)

"We did some real hands-on things, taking pianos apart and so on and putting them back together."

At 12, Oldengarm began taking organ lessons, in addition to piano. And while he doesn't remember precisely the first time he sat behind the controls of an organ's "cockpit," he does remember the love affair beginning with the LP recordings his parents had of Dutch organs.

"That was when cover art albums meant something," he says. "There was this huge 16x16 [inch] space to work with, so the pictures were big, they were colourful, and they were beautiful. The sound, of course, was amazing because they were big instruments in big roomy acoustics."

'Fire the imagination'

After studying at Wilfred Laurier and McGill universities, he landed the job at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, working with the renowned choral conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

It's a job Oldengarm says he always had his sights on.

"I get to do all the things I'm really passionate about," he says — from playing services and concerts to calibrating the organ so it sounds its best.

And he's always keen to share his love of the instrument with others.

"In Montreal, I think we have that magic combination of venues, instruments and energetic, entrepreneurial people who have helped to put [the organ] on the map," he says.

"It's beautiful. It's beautiful to look at. It's beautiful to hear. And it's in these huge buildings that just fire the imagination."

That's Jonathan Oldengarm at the console, his back to Maestro Jean-Sébastien Vallée at the 37th CBC Christmas Sing-In in 2016. (Tam Lan Truong)

38th CBC Christmas Sing-In is Oldengarm's 13th

This year marks Oldengarm's 13th year accompanying the choir and audience for the 38th CBC Christmas Sing-In, a gig he says he never tires of.

He says he loves the energy that emanates from the audience. "Coming into the church when it's so full, and people are there. They're so excited."
The audience packs the nearly 1,000 seats in the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul at CBC's Christmas Sing-In each year. (Tam Lan Truong)

"We have a lot of different Christmas services and Christmas events at the church, and each of them has an individual character, but the Sing-In is really special," he said.

It "is really mass entertainment, in the sense that the other ones aren't. You sit there and you feel this electric energy coming from the audience during the whole thing."

On Sunday afternoon, Oldengarm will play a variety of pieces for the Sing-In — some solo, like Alexandre Guilmant's Organ Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, and some classic sing-along carols, including Once in Royal David's City and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

With all the seats already reserved, 1,400 people will fill the church and the overflow viewing room at Bourgie Hall, next door.

"It's a packed house, and we're stoked," he said.

The CBC Christmas Sing-In takes place this Sunday, Dec. 10 at 3 p.m. The event is now sold-out, but you can live stream it here.

About the Author

Sarah Towle is a journalist at CBC Montreal.