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Simply the Best

Gillian Weir has mastered the organ to become one of the world's greatest players. She speaks to CHRISTOPHER MOORE.

“The organ is played from the keyboards. The sound is produced by pipes,” according to the 1983 Oxford Companion to Music's minor masterpiece of prosaic description.

Of course, as Dame Gillian Weir will tell you, there is much, much more than merely producing a “sound” from the monarch of musical instruments. There must also be passion, musicianship, commitment, and technique — and in the case of Gillian Weir, prodigious talent.

She celebrates her 60th birthday in Christchurch today with a masterclass on Bach and her only New Zealand recital during her current visit home. Acclaimed as one of the 20th-century's leading organists and regarded as one of New Zealand's shining musical exports, Dame Gillian this week remembered another, earlier New Zealand performance.

The place was Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral. The time, the late 1970s. She had returned home after several years in Britain and Europe where she had quickly established a reputation as a rising musical force. For this visit she brought the music of the contemporary French composer, Olivier Messiaen. She was aware that Messiaen's music was then regarded as notoriously inaccessible and avant-garde but she was not prepared for the fact that after playing the first piece, a large section of her audience walked out.

“I was completely devastated before being told that they were members of a group who were in the wrong place at the wrong concert. Fortunately, the remainder of the audience stayed.”

Gillian Weir's first contact with the organ arrived when the local church wanted an organist to play at the weekday services.

“My mother sang in the choir. They knew that I played the piano and asked whether I could tickle the ivories during the hymns. When I first inspected the organ, it was a completely terrifying monster. I messed about with the stops — it seemed strange that I couldn't produce any music unless I pulled one out — then certain notes made me jump. Dressed in gown and hat, I tiptoed across the pedals during the services. I suspect that I started playing the organ rather like Victor Borge.”

She became “interested” in the organ and took lessons. She later became obsessed by the instrument after receiving a scholarship to London's Royal College of Music and winning the prestigious St Albans International Organ Competition in 1964.

“I went to Alkmaar in The Netherlands where I fell in love with the organ. I played for three hours before being pulled off the stool by my teacher who said that the tourists were complaining. It was so exciting. Here was a polyphonic organ which let me hear every individual voice in Bach's polyphony as if they were marching down the aisle. I could play with the same subtlety I found on the piano. At that point I became obsessed by the organ . . .”

After decades of playing on many of the world's finest and oldest organs, she still retains an almost childlike excitement which bubbles out like a playful gigue.

A recent recital on the new organ in Bach's own church of St Thomas, Leipzig, was a highlight of a year which, like most of her years, has included a punishing travelling, performing, and teaching schedule.

“It was marvellous ... exciting. I played with Bach looking over my shoulder from his window. A magnificent experience,” she adds.

Dame Gillian has bridged a yawning cultural gulf between Bach and Olivier Messiaen, ancient and modern, with apparent ease. After her first experience of hearing Messiaen's organ music (“it seemed incomprehensible . . . like fingernails going down glass.”). She came to appreciate, then love it. Her later recording of his complete organ works has become a landmark in musical recording history, contributing to her recent nomination by the Classic CD magazine as one of the 20th century's 100 greatest performers.

“It was a matter of learning a new harmonic language. Messiaen's music contains a dramatic quality. Music should be about passion and drama but in recent years music teaching by people more interested in musicology and formulae than transmitting ideas has taken the heart and soul out of music and made some very boring performances.

“Organ music can sound very, very dull if you simply take the notes off the page and play them. You must have an awareness of history and technique.”

She still regards the organ as a “fascinating” instrument with an enormous range of dynamics and emotions, qualities which embed themselves in the centuries of music. Dame Gillian has played instruments ranging from diminutive Renaissance chamber organs to the huge modern instruments.

“When I was a child I often wished that I had a time machine which would fly me from one century to another. The organ has allowed me to do that. I can return to Renaissance dances in a Venetian palace or a Widor symphony in a French Gothic cathedral.

“The organ, of course, has its virtues and faults. People often do not hear the best organ repertoire or hear it in poor acoustics. The organ is dependent on the space it is placed in. The space colours the sound of the instrument. An organ might be the easiest of all instruments to get a sound out of but it is the most difficult instrument to play well.”

Dame Gillian Weir is visiting Christchurch as keynote speaker at the New Zealand Institute of Registered Music Teachers' annual conference. Her recital on the Town Hall's Rieger organ begins at 8pm today and includes works by Bach, Ives, and Durufle.

from THE PRESS, Christchurch, New Zealand, January 17, 2001