Archive for July 9th, 2010


Phantom Organists

A leisurely breakfast, for a change, gave me the chance to read an entire newspaper at the start of the day. I even got to the “Five Things To Do Today”, which I usually notice, if at all, round about 10pm the following evening. No.1 was “attend a free lunchtime solo organ recital” and, as I had over three hours in which to get to the venue mentioned, I suddenly realised the value of taking time in the morning to read the paper. I wasn’t the only avid newspaper reader that day, by the look of things. There must have been a hundred or so folk (mostly, it has to be said, rather younger in years than one expects to find buried in the inner pages of a broadsheet) in attendance; mind you, there were probably plenty of other adverts for the recital – it’s just that I never got round to seeing any of them. I’m afraid I’m like so many people; I wait for concerts to come to me rather than go out and actively search for them.

Anyway, at 1pm we were duly seated and out on to the stage appeared not one, but two figures in black who made their way to the lonely console set up centre stage. I won’t tell you where the recital was – it doesn’t matter – and I won’t tell you who the recitalist was, simply because I’m not so sure myself. As I say, there were two, one who sat down on the stool and the other who danced energetically and distractingly behind, pulling out and pushing in stops, staring at the other for some sign of instruction and, every so often, turning a page backwards or forwards. When this continued even during a short piece for pedal solo, at which point Sedentary Organist merely kept arms out of the way while Athletic Organist carried on pulling out and pushing stops with gay abandon, a person behind me muttered to her friend, “Why are there two of them ?” Why indeed?

So far as I am concerned, when you play a musical instrument – be it the piano, the violin or the organ – you do everything. You play the notes, you adjust the volume, you control the tone and you try to communicate your interpretation of the composer’s intentions to your audience. Yes, sometimes, complex music requires you to use the music and, occasionally, call on the services of a person to turn the pages for you. But otherwise it’s just you and your instrument.

But there’s a school of organists who feel that their job is merely to press the notes up and down, and it’s somebody else’s business to do things like control dynamics and tone colour; when you allow that, you are no longer in sole charge of either your instrument or your interpretation. No wonder that musicians often denigrate organists, believing them to be mechanics rather than musicians. If you believe your job is purely to operate the mechanics of the music, how can you compete with someone who gives you the whole package? I’ve even seen three organists on stage; one to turn the pages, one to operate the stops, and one to play the notes. What kind of musical performance is that? It reeks of Yellow River Concerto – music by committee. And there is a growing tendency for organists on CD to mention their “Registrant”, thereby acknowledging that the performance you hear is not the work of a single performer. Pianists don’t get someone else to operate the pedals; violinists don’t get someone to move the bow across the strings while they devote their energies to wiggling their left hand fingers about, so why do organist believe themselves to be exempt from the decencies of musical performance?

An answer which many will be shouting out by now is that on some organs it is impossible to control the stops without moving your hands away from the keys and thereby interrupting the flow of the music. True. Archaic organs on which either the music intended for them did not require any changes of tone colour or dynamic or where the organ was purely a functional machine for sound creation rather than music-making. If you play an archaic organ, then you have to content yourself with the fact that your repertoire is limited and your interpretive scope restricted. But this lunchtime recital was on a modern organ – one built in the 1980s, I am given to understand. More than that, the programme included Stanford, Hollins, Karg-Elert, all composers whose music demands rather a lot of registration changes. I didn’t know the organ, nor was there any details given of it in the programme leaflets, but if it really was impossible for one person to handle registration changes, why choose such music?

Sadly, misguided organ builders and even more misguided organ consultants, are of the opinion that the organ is, simply, a machine, and while they can happily make use of such modern devices as electricity and plastic–coated wires in the areas which the general public don’t see, it’s more important that an organ looks old and archaic, than it is a credible musical instrument. How many owners of Stradivari violins refuse steel strings, fine-tuners or modern-hair bows? Not many, to my knowledge. Why, then, does an organist believe that the visual integrity of the machine is more important than its musical effectiveness.

More disturbing still are those organists who simply can’t be bothered to play the whole instrument themselves. I never forget a Japanese lady organist coming to Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in KL to perform on the Klais there. It’s bristling with playing aids, and, despite its amazing idiosyncrasies (the result of being designed by day release inmates of a lunatic asylum), it can easily be controlled by a single person. The Japanese lady organist performed her programme from memory but needed me to operate her stops. A lengthy tutorial on the Klais’s weirdities was to no avail; she didn’t sully her manicured hands by touching those vulgar stops, that was my job. So, despite the fact that the entire programme was played form memory, she wrote down in painstaking detail every stop change she wanted – and there was a profusion of them – and I was charged with bustling about pulling, pushing, moving the swell pedals (by means of a foot between her legs) and, ridiculously, actually pressing the buttons under the keys which are so positioned as to be easily accessible to the player. Now, said Japanese lady insisted on playing the mechanical action console upstairs and my duties involved moving frequently from side to side. I am fat – let’s not disguise the fact – and every time I squeezed between her and the back of the organ loft, my stomach inadvertently pushed her forward on to the keys. It disturbed her greatly and clearly put her off her performance (I take the blame – never let it be said that the DFP authorities would ever hire a musician who was not at the peak of their ability) and when I missed a cue, she got very angry indeed. I was very aware that there were two of us in that performance, and if she didn’t like it, she should have gone alone!

My feelings are unequivocal on this matter. If you play the organ, you play it, you don’t pick and choose which bits you want to do and which you want to farm out to your assistants. If you can’t play the instrument, get away from it and take up some other form of teamwork like bank robber, club bouncer, Carlsberg promotion girl, they are always crying out for people who don’t like to go it alone, and that should leave the field open to proper organists who believe that a solo recital should be just that.

July 2010