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Pulling out the stops

The organ recialist Dame Gillian Weir has played the boys at their own game on the king of instruments, says Geoff Brown, and won a legion of fans.

Think of an organist, and what stereotype comes to mind? A grey, otherworldly chap perhaps, high up with the organ pipes in a cathedral, playing music that props up a service, but otherwise does not much matter. Or, turning the decades back, you might have a picture of a cinema or theatre organist, also male, flower in buttonhole, smile fixed to lips, playing popular songs or The Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Neither image fits Dame Gillian Weir, long the queen of the organ console, who gives a recital at the Festival Hall on Tuesday. At her last concert, two years ago, there were no spare seats. Ears were ravished and eyes were transfixed by her spectacular turquoise dress, a long train glittering down her back like a waterfall. “Go out there and make a statement,” her new dress designer had said. So Weir did.

Her gender, she feels, has been a mixed blessing. Church circles have sometimes erected barriers. One of her cousins was once told flatly that Weir was “the wrong sex to play the organ”. But part of her initial impact in the Sixties came from the eruption of someone who wore dresses into a branch of music-making not known for any female charms. When she entered the St Albans International Organ Festival Competition in 1964, her playing, her sex and her choice of repertoire (a movement from Messiaen's Les Corps Glorieux) stirred the jury and audience to wonder. She won first prize. One year later she appeared before millions on television playing the Poulenc Concerto on the first night of the Proms, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, who taught her how to take a bow.

She was in her early twenties then, barely out of the Royal College of Music, where she had arrived on a scholarship from New Zealand. Most trained organists disappear into the religious fabric, assuming posts at churches and cathedrals, giving recitals here and there. Weir's career developed differently. After her win at St Albans recital offers kept coming; she never found the need for a salaried position. Honours kept arriving, too. She was appointed a CBE in 1989 and a DBE in 1996.

As a child her first instrument was the piano. But before that came the radio. At home in Wanganui, New Zealand, she listened a good deal while dancing in the dark, spinning private fantasies round core classics such as the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. Her hands first touched an organ at the church where her mother Clarice sang; the organist was ill and Gillian deputised, learning the instrument's mechanics on the job. At the Royal College of Music in London organ studies went in tandem with the piano, but after winning the competition at St Albans, and hearing Baroque music played in Holland on organs of the period, the piano fell by the wayside. The organ, the “king of instruments”, was the thing. And a difficult thing. You cannot really play one at home. All Weir has at her house in Berkshire is a tiny electric organ.

Instead she practises on the road, at the recital venues, or in obliging churches, with all the distractions of visitors interrupting, perhaps asking her where someone is buried. For major projects she will sometimes settle in for a few weeks at a church in America; their churches, she says, at least have washrooms and a canteen.

Her repertoire is enormous, but the bedrock is Bach and Messiaen — an early speciality. Initially, the Frenchman's music reminded her of fingers scratching a windowpane, but she soon grew to relish its extravagance, emotional power and technical challenges. Her recordings of Messiaen's complete organ works, first issued in 1994, are currently being re-released by Priory.

This music is not merely for organ connoisseurs. The buffs certainly crowd her concerts and chatter about technical titbits, from the stops she uses to the Festival Hall organ's new Solid State Logic diode circuitry. Weir herself can share in their fascination; her late husband was Lawrence Phelps, one of America's leading organ designers. But she gives recitals, she insists, to present the music, not model an exhibit at a car show. Quite right.

Tuesday's programme showers us with crazy variety. Bach is present, and Mozart (the F minor Fantasie). Weir also tackles Nielsen's Commotio, a mighty and neglected piece, with all the quirks and power of the composer's symphonies. There is Liszt, too, and Charles Ives, and a brisk workout for pedals by the British organist Thalben-Ball.

Ah. Pedals. So no high heels.

This article appeared in the October 26, 2002 The Times (London)