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Key player in the uprising

Dame Gillian Weir took on the male-dominated closed shop of the organ world, and has grown to become one of the world's most sought-after and influential players.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

KENNETH WALTON

When Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam cracked her magnificent drive off the first tee at the traditionally all-male Colonial Golf Tournament in Texas last month, men in Pringle sweaters wept. “Ridiculous,” snorted male pro Vijay Singh, before pulling out of the event. Sorenstam didn't quite make it to the final round, but with a mightily impressive scorecard, the sporting suffragette sure proved her point.

Organist Dame Gillian Weir must have ruffled similar establishment feathers the night she breezed gracefully onto London's Albert Hall platform in 1965. She was still a piano and organ student at the Royal College of Music and, following her historic success the previous year as winner of the St Albans International Organ Competition, had accepted a last-minute invitation to perform Poulenc's Organ Concerto at the opening night of the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Across the road, in the smoke-filled male-dominated Kensington Gore clubhouse of the then ultra-stuffy Royal College of Organists (RCO), men in dark suits and port-stained college ties must have been choking on their pipes.

Organ lofts and golf clubs have that in common. Even in Johann Sebastian Bach's day, the sight of a lady seated at the organ bench was a censurable act. When the youthful Bach sneaked an “unfamiliar maiden” into the organ loft “to make music there” in 1706, the Arnstadt city fathers took him to task for his casual indiscretion. No women in the clubroom please.

It's an attitude that Gillian Weir – now one of the world's most sought-after concert organists – has fought hard to extinguish from a precious cell of the musical world that still smoulders in Victorian chauvinism. In an interview 11 years ago she told me that a former head of the Royal School of Church Music, in response to a question about the likely admittance of girls into church choirs, had answered: “We couldn't possibly have women in the choir. Who would take the boys on their picnic?”

When Weir made history by becoming the first female president of the RCO, she tried valiantly – and not without some success – to inject new life into the college's activities. She even had organists dancing gavottes and galliards at a study day designed to illustrate the stylistic principles behind the music of Couperin and Bach. “We shook things up, but I constantly found myself hitting against politics and the establishment, so I finally called it a day,” she says.

Sure enough, when you look around the senior echelon of church organists in the UK – those who occupy the lofty cathedral positions – the picture even today is still that of an Oxbridge-dominated old boys' club. The delicious irony now is that Weir, in her capacity as teacher to a generation or two of Cambridge organ scholars, has probably had a wider impact on the standard of cathedral organists than if she had become one herself.

It never came to that, of course. The New Zealand-born virtuoso, who celebrated her 60th birthday two years ago with a Royal Festival Hall recital that drew more than 3,000 people, whose 1989 television series The King of Instruments brought unprecedented viewing figures – two million a week – to a normally low-viewing tea-time slot on BBC 2, and who still maintains a frantic performing and recording schedule involving almost 300 days' travel each year, has, over four decades, transformed the image of the organist from anoraked nerd to consummate artist and musician. Well, almost.

In her own right as a concert soloist, Weir ranks with the John Lills, Itzhak Perlmans and Felicity Lotts of this world. She has opened organ festivals in Tokyo, and when she needs to hide herself away for a concentrated period of practice, simply nips over to the United States where, she says, “the churches have kitchens, loos and heat”, and where many of the best organs were built by her late husband, Lawrence Phelps.

Her dynamic evangelism has also played a key role in revolutionising attitudes to organ building, to the status of the instrument in the concert hall, and to broadening its repertoire. When she won the prestigious St Albans competition, the judges were blown away by her performances of Messiaen, a relatively underplayed composer at the time. She has since performed his complete works several times, and recorded them. “I got to know Messiaen very well,” she says. “He was surprisingly insecure, and simply glad that his pieces were being played.”

Predictably, Messiaen features this Saturday, when Weir gives the opening recital in a programme on Edinburgh's newly refurbished Usher Hall organ. His glittering Joie et claret des Corps Glorieux forms part of a champagne musical cocktail that extends from Bach's sprightly E flat trio Sonata, through Vierne, Liszt, Mulet and Czech composer Petr Eben, to Guy Bovet's Hamburger Preludes, which Weir describes as being the organ equivalent of Ravel's Bolero.

This is Weir's first return to the Usher Hall since her legendary encounter with Lothian and Borders Police 23 years ago. The occasion was the closing concert of the 1980 Edinburgh Festival – a performance of Berlioz's Te Deum with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra. With the Usher Hall organ unplayable, Weir was asked to play the organ in St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, which would be relayed live to the Usher Hall. Amazingly, the crackpot scheme worked, and Weir was ultimately whisked off in a police convoy, sirens wailing, to reach at the Usher Hall in time to greet the applause.

This weekend's recital has its own quirks, including the premiere of The Rise of the House of Usher, a new work written specially for the occasion by Snowman composer Howard Blake, and a rare performance of Charles Ives's mildly irreverent Variations on 'America' – based on the tune better known as the British national anthem. When Weir played these variations – which include a tango version in the minor key – in Oxford once, she raised the hackles of Dr Bernard Rose, the much-respected old-guard organist of Magdalene College. “How dare you suggest the undignified sight of the queen doing a tango,” he puffed furiously at her.

But Weir has always possessed the knack of knocking the pompous off their perches – more through gentle seduction than aggressive caterwauling. She took early advice on the matter from her Royal College of Music piano teacher Cyril Smith. At a lesson on the very day she was due to rehearse her Proms programme with Sargent, Weir confessed to being nervous and asked Smith how she should best deal with the conductor. “Treat him like anyone else in that position”, he told her. “Flatter him.” She did, and Sargent took to Weir instantly, even giving her lessons in how to bow.

Her destiny as an international soloist was sealed the moment Sargent interrupted his 1965 Proms rehearsal to announce to the all-male orchestra: “Gentlemen, we have a musician in our midst.” From that point, Weir has never looked back. She became a Dame in 1996.

But she's never been one to rest on her laurels. It was in Edinburgh, early in her career, that Weir experienced a hard lesson in life's unpredictability. “I'd given a recital and master class to some very charming students who mobbed me for my autograph, just as I was setting off for the station,” she recalls.

“All they could find for me to sign were their plastic cups. I walked off on a high, but later stumbled and fell on the hill leading down to Waverley Station. As I lay on the ground, not one person stopped to ask how I was, or to help me up. They just walked by. Such are the contrasts of my life – signing autographs one minute, lying helpless on the pavement the next!” Just where are the gentlemen when you need them?

This article appeared in the June 2, 2003 The Scotsman