Loose leaves from a diary

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It's not just a recital- it's an education! Dame Gillian Weir shares insights about the music as part of an appearance in Columbus, Ohio

 Gillian Weir on the trials and tribulations of the itinerant organist


After three weeks on tour in Denmark I find the mail has overflowed and is seeping out from under the door of the study. I spend till 1 a.m. dealing with the most urgent, but Tuesday is another day and a swift trip to London is scheduled before making for Bristol for the annual conference of the Incorporated Association of Organists. I am scheduled to record an interview for this evening's “In Tune” on Radio 3 (I recall the inspired headline of a Virgil Thompson review of a less than exciting singer: “in tune, but not with the Infinite”) and am throwing CDs into a briefcase when the phone rings and a voice edged with carefully-controlled dementia asks whether I could after all do it live, please? I demur, with thoughts of the evening's event; is it vital? The voice, cracking slightly, murmurs that the gents' loo above the Radio 3 studio has overflowed and the programme will have to be transferred, but the alternative won't be ready until ... I see the point, and dash off meanwhile to the Japanese Embassy to collect my visa. This yearly exercise is fraught with difficulties, as the protocol is strict. A few years ago I was relaxing between concerts in America at the movies, a week before going on to Japan. The film was The Last Emperor and the audience rapt until I leapt to my feet crying “My visa!”, the course of the story having triggered the realisation that I'd forgotten it. Frantic calls to my London agents, Japanese agent, the NY Embassy etc. elicited the fact that the magic stamp on the original papers, now in London, was essential, my favourite toy the fax machine no use; the official advice of the Consul was to fly back to London, collect the papers, and return. Deadlock was finally broken after anguished pleas to the right quarters (a state secret), but I have learned my lesson and am now a model applicant.

Japan is amazing; every year another magnificent new concert-hall has blossomed, and each has a superb organ, made by the world's finest builders. A sophisticated audience for the concert organ has burgeoned – in his centenary year I was asked to play all Franck's works in Tokyo's Suntory Hall in one afternoon and evening (both concerts broadcast) and this year my visit includes being an adjudicator for Tokyo's international organ competition. (This is one of five juries I will be part of this year, in Switzerland, America, Britain etc. – “Judge not, that ye be not judged” haunts my waking and sleeping hours.) In a traffic jam en route to Broadcasting House I recall my first experiences with the food, from sushi to live prawns jumping off the teppan-yaki heat; hurrying back to the hotel one day after three weeks of healthy delicacies I passed a McDonald's and, seduced by the sodium, was swept through its portals on a wave of nostalgia. The exquisite girl behind the counter giggled helplessly as I ordered cheeseburger and fries and McNuggets and Coke and then sat looking at them lined up in front of me like a Bosch portrayal of decadence. At this rate I shall be late for the interview briefing – unforgivable in Japan, where on my first visit I had indicated to a stage-door keeper, in what I thought was a triumph of communication, that I would be back in an hour (sweeping circular gestures with watch) after lunch (eating gestures). I was bewildered to find a search party out for me when I returned after just one hour and five minutes.

The interview, in the happily dry Radio 2 studio, is fun and I manage a mention for the newly-formed PIPEDOWN, the society formed to fight the menace of non-stop musak that threatens to make us all deaf: literally, when horrendously loud, and figuratively, when to preserve our sanity we “switch off” our sensitivity. After midnight, having been briefly lost in the wilds of outer Bristol, I arrive at my long-suffering hosts'. Time for a few hours' sleep before I give a master-class. I am delighted with the standard – well-prepared and really interesting young players. Classes are always a challenge: I am very much aware of the responsibility to give the players something worth while during their stint, while at the same time one is trying to make the comments as universal as possible in their application, for the sake of the audience. I greet numerous Congress friends, and then on to St. Mary Redcliffe to prepare for my recital there the next day. I am playing Widor's 5th symphony, complete; a thrill. The Toccata means so much more as the blaze of glory at the end of the symphonic structure. A lecture on the last morning, and then I can relax and enjoy the final dinner. I discover that I am seated next to the Bishop who chaired the commission that recommended on occasions the use of rock in church. Knowing that rock acts as a drug (via the noise level and also the incessant beat) to raise blood pressure, quicken the heart-beat and stimulate aggression (amply proved during the “poll-tax riots” when one young vandal commented approvingly that he and his team had been helped by “someone drumming in the crowd” to get on with their work of smashing shops and burning cars), I seize the opportunity to ask how this is intended to be made use of in the context of a church service. It is hard for the layman to reconcile “Be still then, and know that I am God” and “Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things” with such apparently different aims. The Bishop is charming and the subject inexhaustible.

I bid goodbye to Bristol and leave my car at Heathrow, embarking for Paisley, another organ competition. At Glasgow I am greeted by a journalist with whom I embark on an interview as soon as we reach the hotel. Here, rock is playing in the foyer at a level happily just below that of pain, but above that at which speech is possible; I soon have a new convert to PIPEDOWN. The rest of the jury arrives and we confer regarding marking procedure; bliss: we are in total agreement. A good omen for the week. Off to beautiful Paisley Abbey for a rehearsal for my Wednesday recital; the Festival's driver cannot believe I am happy to be locked up alone in the dark church till after midnight. During the week he will learn a lot about the strange practice habits of organists – especially when the organ is working overtime to cope with 18 contestants. The organ, with several Cavaillé-Coll stops, is an old friend and sounding fine; I will look forward to playing Widor's 6th symphony, this week. My fellow jurors are Lionel Rogg, Joachim Grübich from Poland, Naji Hakim and the Scots composer Martin Dalby, old friends all. We prove to be in complete accord throughout the week – by no means as common as might be thought. We learn a good deal from the reactions of Martin Dalby, who has written the excellent (but difficult) test piece but who is unfamiliar with the more annoying idiosyncrasies of the organ world. “What on earth is that marimba?” comes an explosive question from his chair. “Ah well,” we reply, “the gedackt has been given rather too much chiff, I'm afraid...” A throttled scream, “Why on earth is this player transposing the piece up a fifth?” “Yes, well – he's using the nazard – yes, it is too narrow scaled and does indeed simply sound a fifth above, rather than integrate with the fundamental as it should...” Why indeed? If only the usage and abusage of mutations were better understood.

We sit and listen and run for a sandwich and sit and listen, and I make a mental note never again to play certain of the test pieces; Durufle's wonderful toccata left my repertoire years ago after I'd listened to some 30 performances of it as a juror in Chartres... The week ends with a performance of the Poulenc Concerto by Chris Nickol, 1990's joint winner. It is first-rate, and I sit enjoying it and thinking nostalgically of my own first performance of this eternally youthful work, on the opening night of the Proms when I was still an RCM student. It was televised, and I experienced the curious concerns of some of the public for the first time when, among the flood of letters, was one criticising my nail polish. We relax at the winding-up party and fantasise briefly about hiring ourselves out as an instant Rent-a-Jury. Then it's to bed for a few hours before heading bleary-eyed for home for a night before driving to Exeter. I had forgotten how full of atmosphere the Cathedral is; it is joy to play there, although I am momentarily disconcerted to find the acoustic vanish when the audience fills it up. I tear myself away afterwards and am home by 2 a.m. ready to fly early next morning to Belfast; I am playing the Rheinberger G minor Concerto next day in the BBC's immensely popular Invitation Concert series. A bomb just a few days before has relieved the Ulster Hall of every one of its windows, and the pipes of the organ jumped out of their sockets but have settled down again. The performance is joyous and, as always, it is immensely satisfying to make music with other musicians.

A day in London and I am again at Heathrow en route to Germany. I am to play in the Festival at Schwäbisch Gmünd; a car collects me at Stuttgart and I become progressively more enraptured as we drive through the incomparably beautiful countryside in the soft evening light. Schwäbisch Gmünd appears – a baroque fantasy, an entire town of rococo splendour, with a market-place that could be the set of a Mozart opera. The Münster's magnificence is challenged only by the dazzling Johanniskirche. I check into my hotel and set off eagerly to choose a restaurant for dinner. But everywhere, from every door, comes the incessant thud and ker-chih, ker-chih, ker-chih of heavy metal. I am disappointed, then incredulous. The fairy-tale beauty before the eyes is so much at variance with the ugliness assaulting the ears that it is eerie – as though one had stepped on to another planet. The end of the film 2001 surfaces in my memory, when the astronaut encounters rooms filled with French antique furniture – the feeling of strangeness and disorientation is the same. Clearly much love and a great deal of money has been lavished on this wonderful place, but the qualities engendered in the buildings could not be more at odds with the numbing, dead thump of the noise. No tune is identifiable or, for the most part, audible; just the hypnotic, synthesised beat. I retire, defeated, and sit in my room until at 1 a.m. the various machines are finally turned off and I can sleep – until the cleaners come at 6 a.m...

The organ in the Münster, a 3-manual Klais some eight or nine years old, is superb, and the acoustics warm and resonant. My programme, centred on the big, impressive Passacaglia and Fugue of Healey Willan but taking in Bach and several French composers, is leavened with two of Guy Bovet's tongue-in-cheek Hamburger Preludes; the audience loves them and has fun searching for the quotations he has hidden in them. Over dinner I learn more about the fine work done by the city's cultural department (and fall in love with the local speciality spatzle), and then a night among the trees (having changed hotels!) before flying home. Twenty four hours to sort out urgent paperwork, collect the dry cleaning, reserve October and November foreign flights, make yet more excuses for the now horrific lateness of the 6,000 words promised as my contribution to a new book, pack for three and a half weeks in Japan... The Organbuilder has arrived, with the second instalment of my interview with the Editor on various aspects of organbuilding and repertoire. He calls me “controversial” in his introduction; am I controversial? Enthusiastic certainly, and passionately concerned for the education of our students and above all for the survival and nurturing of our wonderful body of music... Perhaps all enthusiasts are labelled controversial; better that than to have remained silent when so much is at risk in our beloved world of music and the arts.

There is also a batch of ISM matters to attend to – as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians for this year I am responsible for the Conference at the end of the term of office, next April, and my flood of ideas are patiently being brought down to earth and turned into reality by the Chief Executive, Neil Hoyle. A spanner was temporarily cast in the works when the speaker I had hoped would provide the keynote for the conference declines to answer faxes or phone calls; but there are many other possibilities and I am brought up to date with progress in all of these. I am having to give more speeches during the year, or rather the local ISM Centres are having to endure them, than I had ever contemplated, used as I am to saying what have to say through the fingers more easily than verbally; with each one I learn something else not to do. A few years ago was given a prize in my native New Zealand and in the course of a concert tour there was presented with it at a splendid dinner hosted by the Prime Minister. I was in an agony of nervousness, and only at the last minute managed to pull myself together sufficiently to appear at all. With a supreme effort of will I made my acceptance speech, managing to raise some laughs and completely to conceal my fear. At the end, a man who had known me when I was a child came up to the top table and stood looking at me, silently shaking his head. Then he spoke: “And you were such a nice, quiet little girl...” He walked silently away. You can't win!

Telling stories can be dangerous. In New York recently I was asked to wait after the first piece during a recital as someone in the back row was taken ill. The paramedics had been called and the victim was being attended to, but it was felt we should wait until he had been removed. Most of the audience did not realise anything was wrong, so l went out to say that there was slight problem but it would give me a chance to chat to them about the programme. With some Vierne coming up but with only half my mind on what I was saying, I found to my horror that I was well into the story of Vierne's unhappy life which would culminate in his dramatic death at the console of Notre-Dame. Mesmerised as though by the headlights of an oncoming car I could not steer clear of the looming punch-line, but struggled to give it an upbeat flavour. “And so he gave out the theme for the improvisation and ... and fell dead at the console! What a lovely way to go!” I retreated, moaning gently, to my own.

Ticket, passport, MUSIC, SHOES, luggage – the taxi is here.

September 1992 CHURCH MUSIC (Royal School of Church Music)

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