27 February 2011

Organ Stagnation

During the 1970s it was my duty to cover all the London organ recitals for the Musical Times.  It was a dream job.  1500 words a month on as many or as few organ recitals as I chose.  There was the 5.55 recital every Wednesday at the Royal Festival Hall, while every day of the week you could find some church or other in the city hosting a lunchtime recital.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sample the London organ scene, but a day-long meeting in central London with a long lunch break gave me the opportunity to see if it was still as active as it was 40 years ago.  I know the 5.55 RFH recital (along with the organ itself) is now history, but everything else seems very much the same and at the second church I tried (St Bride’s, Fleet Street), I struck lucky. 
St Bride's Fleet Street

To say that nothing much seems to have changed is putting it mildly; I felt that I had stumbled into a time-warp.  Everything seemed exactly as it had in the 1970s.  The audience numbers were still pitiable – apart from a couple of old codgers who wandered in and started to talk to the organist while he was playing (and had to be shooed away by his minder) we remained resolutely at nine – and among this milling throng were those there just to pass the time, businessmen seeking a quiet place to munch their sandwiches, and seasoned old hands who attend every recital and let their opinions be known to all and sundry.  There should be something reassuring about such continuity, but in fact I found it deeply depressing, the real problem being the complete unoriginality of the recital itself.  The name of the player – Simon Hogan - was new to me (as were just about all the players listed in the brochure about recitals handed to me by one of the seasoned old hands) but he could have been a clone of the organists who used to perform in the 1970s – young, eager, neatly attired in suit and tie and clearly living a life in which the organ and its music dominated existence to the exclusion of all else.  Saddest of all, his programme was just what nearly everybody played in the 1970s; Fast and French. 

I always used to think there were two types of organist, those who believed the only organ music was by Buxtehude and Bach and a few other 18th century North Germans, and those who believed the only organ music was by Vierne and Widor and a few other 20th century Parisians.  The former believed in counterpoint, polyphony and emotional intensity, the latter in fast, furious and musical superficiality.  Simon Hogan is clearly in the latter camp and limited his programme to music written in Paris during the 44-year period between 1878 and 1922.  He showed us that he was capable of playing lots of right notes in very quick succession with very few wrong ones thrown into the mix.  If he were to have presented his programme of Widor (Allegro from the 6th Symphony), Duruflé (Scherzo), Dupré (G minor Prelude & Fugue) and Vierne (Final from 1st Symphony) for a recital diploma he would have been laughed out of court; the obligations to present varied and contrasting music so blatantly ignored. 

But this was not a recital diploma, it was a concert presented to the public.  True, it was not a fee-paying public - the great thing about the London organ recital scene is that the recitals are usually free - but the audience had given up its time to attend and deserved a little more variety.  I would happily listen to any one of these pieces every day of my life, but not in this kind of undiluted concentration.  Spiced up with something relaxing, something expressive or something intellectually challenging, I could digest and enjoy it, but even when the Dupré Prelude evoked tranquillity, Simon Hogan was clearly more interested in the rapid undercurrents and we missed those celestial chords.  In fairness, it is not his fault he has no idea how to devise an organ recital programme; he was simply following what everyone else has done since time immemorial (or at least since 1970).  I just wonder whether it crossed his mind that, while dazzling us with his undoubtedly brilliant technique, he might have been keeping people away as well.  Nine people enjoyed derrière-à-derrière Fast French Frolics; perhaps a few more might have enjoyed a little more variety, even if such programming prevented Simon Hogan from offering up an uninterrupted display of technical wizardry.

In south east Asia we have realised that if you want to attract large audiences to organ recitals, you have to accept that not all of them will be organ aficionados, capable of appreciating technical skill as an isolated entity.  We offer varied and interesting programmes which cater for all tastes, and in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur at least, we are disappointed when audiences dip below 300.  I fear the London organ scene has stagnated simply because it is catering solely for that small but loyal band of diehard enthusiasts.  It’s surely possible to attract them as well as a wider audience, but until young players realise this, the organ in London is destined to remain in its own time-warp ghetto.

1 comment:

  1. Organ recitals in Singapore are as rare as hen's teeth. So any piping good fun at the Esplanade Klais organ will always be warmly welcome. There is however one cardinal rule: Always begin every recital with the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV.565) and everybody will be happy with whatever you play after that!!!