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Globe-trotting organist Gillian Weir plans her recitals like a menu — and as with her taste in food, she prefers a balanced diet, as Sue Fox discovers

As one of the world's most celebrated organists, Dame Gillian Weir would travel with a hairdresser and an exorcist in an ideal world. Bad hair days and the occasional ghost go with the life. “I travel so much, I can never stick to a regular hair appointment. I have to take my chance with a hotel stylist, who doesn't always listen to what I want.” Some churches — for example St Albans, which she believes may be haunted — can be quite spooky: “I was once rehearsing Messiaen very late at night and kept hearing vague whispering noises. Each time I stopped playing, the whispering started up again. At 4am, when I left, I thanked the organist for letting me practise, adding, ‘But I could have done without the ghosts.’ He knew exactly what I meant.” Organists are the only musicians who don't have an instrument at home on which to practise. “This can be a very anti-social life, because you're dependent on getting into a building. If it's a church, you may have to stay there until very late. Sometimes you can't get out again. I was locked in Westminster Cathedral until 2am because I'd missed a vital instruction about an electronic key. Fortunately, there was a telephone. I decided to call Matron from the choir school as she was probably used to being woken up at night.”

Having played so much in America, where churches tend to be well heated and you don't have to lock up with some ancient key, Gillian has grown accustomed to another occupational hazard: vacuum cleaners. “A famous American organist warned me that if I was rehearsing during the day, I'd discover that as soon as the motor switch was flicked to turn on the organ, it would be mysteriously attached to a vacuum cleaner or floor polisher. The janitor usually thinks you're there trying to learn the music, and won't matter if they carry on cleaning. They don't understand that it's the only time you have to adjust to the acoustics of the space as well as the individual complexities of the organ. After that you can start working on the colours in the music. I always ask for eight hours' rehearsal — five on the day before a performance and three more on the day itself.”

Gillian's husband was the celebrated American organ builder Lawrence Phelps, who was probably responsible for designing more organs than anyone else in history. She was recently in Boston to play at the First Church of Christ, Scientist. “The organ was designed by my husband. He died just before completing four years of restoration work to get the sound back to exactly how it was when it was first built. It was absolutely his baby.”

Gillian, who grew up in New Zealand, also plays organs in concert halls all over the world. In 1965, after winning the St Albans International Organ Competition she was invited to play at the opening concert of the Proms. “I had to learn the Poulenc concerto very quickly. It was just the greatest moment of my life, but also terrifying. Even before the season, Sir Malcolm Sargent, the conductor, had already reduced some of the soloists to tears, but he was very helpful to me. He was even nice about the performance. It was an incredibly thrilling way to begin my career.”

The Royal Festival Hall, where Gillian is giving a recital on 26 January to celebrate her 60th birthday, has a unique place in her heart. The pioneering designs for the organ (newly restored last October) were done by her teacher, Ralph Downes. “I have such a sentimental attachment to this place — I adore it. As a student at the Royal College of Music, I'd often come here to work with Ralph. After rehearsing, we'd eat sandwiches in the artists' bar, In those days, that's all there was — although sometimes we used to go to a little restaurant over the road which was more like a den under the arches. Ralph was vegetarian and ate like a bird, but I'm sure that he would have really enjoyed eating here now. Delicious food and wonderful views from The People's Palace restaurant were unimaginable then.” As a founder member of Pipedown, the organisation which campaigns to rid public spaces of Muzak, she is especially delighted to eat at The People's Palace, where the only music you are likely to hear is if a visiting conductor or soloist (and many of them eat there) suddenly bursts into song.

As a self-confessed hopeless cook, Gillian enjoys eating out with friends. For lunch she chose a Cornish crab, red pepper and saffron tart, followed by a main course of salmon. “l love fish. As a child, Pacific oysters were a great treat, but I've developed an allergy to them. A few years ago I was performing in Brisbane, where I ordered oysters and became so ill I thought I was going to die. I still don't know how I made it to my recital at the Sydney Opera House the following day. Most of the time people want to give you grand food and champagne, when all I long for is some fresh spinach and mango juice.”

In planning the programme for her birthday recital Gillian thought of the music in much the same way as you might plan a menu. “Young organists often start out wanting to devote a whole evening to the four huge symphonic works they've learned. In the end, although there are obvious differences in loud and soft passages, it all sounds very much the same. I prefer to go for colours and textures. The Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm in C minor is a kind of symphonic work — or a main course. The Schnitzer Sonata in D is like a sorbet, and then we have hors d'oeuvres and desserts with the Willan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E flat minor and the Franck Chorale No.2 in B minor. When we were planning the celebration I was also asked to play some Bach, so I've included the Toccata and Fugue in F.”

Will there be an encore? “To be honest, I hate encores. When I'm in the audience I love to applaud enthusiastically, but I don't necessarily want to sit down to more music after I've heard a wonderful concert. For my own recitals I try to build everything up to a crescendo so that I hope the evening ends in a festive atmosphere with everyone clapping. I don't keep hopping back on stage like a cuckoo clock, but if the applause goes on and on, I might sit down and play something about one minute long. It's what I call my ‘After Eight’. My after-dinner mint.”

from CLASSIC FM