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Queen of the keys

Organist Dame Gillian Weir has just turned 60, but maintains a packed touring schedule. Kenneth Walton meets her.

Not many organists have experienced a 70 miles-an-hour dash through the busy Saturday night streets of Edinburgh, sirens blazing, in a police car- at least, not any that would care to admit it. But this is just one of the many trials that Dame Gillian Weir has had to face in a blistering 40-year career as a virtuoso concert organist, a career in which she has totally transformed the reputation of the much-maligned king of instruments.

The occasion was the closing programme of the 1980 Edinburgh International Festival. Weir had been asked to perform the prominent organ part in Berlioz's Te Deum along with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra. There was just one problem. With the Usher Hall organ unfit to play, the then Festival director, John Drummond, had the crazy idea that Weir should play the organ a mile away in St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, watching Abbado on a TV screen. The sound would be relayed live to the Usher Hall.

It worked. And, to give it an extra ounce of showmanship, says Weir, she was whisked up to the Usher Hall under police escort in time for a curtain call. "I remember John Drummond opening the car door and saying: 'One minute, 20 seconds- may I take your shoes?' I was still changing them as I walked onto the stage."

At 60, the New Zealand-born organist is as busy performing and teaching as ever. She may look relaxed later this week as she makes her typically flowing and flamboyant entrance onto London's Royal Festival Hall stage for Friday's celebratory 60th birthday recital, but the fact is, after celebrating her birthday on 17 January with her brother in New Zealand, Weir is now performing in the United States, before heading for London on Thursday. "It's still not unusual for me to spend 300 days a year on the road," she admits.

She has never really stopped since winning the prestigious St. Albans Organ Competition in 1964 while still a second-year student at the Royal College of Music. One thing led to another. Shortly after St. Albans she was called in at the last moment to open the BBC's Proms season with Poulenc's Organ Concerto under Sir Malcolm Sargent. "I was a lot less nervous when Sir Andrew Davis invited me back to close last year's Proms with the same piece," she says.

This is the lady who attracted weekly audiences of two million for her 1980s BBC2 series The King of Instruments and whose career was documented recently on ITV's South Bank Show.

"Above all, I've tried to break down the barriers and transmit the huge emotional range of the instrument. The organ is regarded by people in so many negative ways- associated with funerals, or just with church. But the concert repertoire is fabulous, from the smallest Renaissance dances to the great French symphonies of Widor and the exquisite sounds of Messiaen. I hope I've managed to divert people away from mere technological fascination in the instrument, and from the organist as man against monster."

Kenneth Walton for The Scotsman, January 22, 2001