French Organ and Much More: An Interview with Gillian Weir
We've included an engaging interview between Fanfare's James Altena and Dame Gillian Weir! Click here to go to the full article.
Gillian Weir – A Celebration
In January 2021, Decca paid a landmark tribute to Gillian Weir with their 22-CD box-set "Celebration" released on January 17th to mark her 80th birthday. Issued on their Eloquence label, this unique accolade from Decca has been gathering a cornucopia of praise. Gramophone magazine reviewed the release in the January issue together with a tribute article from their contributor Marc Rochester, outlining her extraordinary career and naming her as a Gramophone Icon.
To quote: "[All the works included here] are treated to the distinctive Dame Gillian combination of musical insight, scholarly understanding, technical virtuosity, textural rigour, innate appreciation of an organ's distinctive character, and sheer communicative zeal - all delivered with her hallmark elegance." Recalling her career, reviewer Malcolm Riley wrote: "As a foremost international organ superstar she could sell out the Royal Festival Hall, have the pick of the world's great instruments for recitals, broadcasts and recordings, and also find time to serve on countless juries, as well as passing on the benefits of her musical wisdom to several generations of organ pupils. She remains a trailblazing grande dame."
In Choir and Organ Michael Quinn wrote: "Nearly a decade after her farewell performance in 2012, Gillian Weir remains the touchstone by which other organists are measured. Celebration emphatically illustrates why." ..... "Weir provides an extensive, 29 page commentary on her career and recordings in the copiously illustrated booklet, together with a six-page diary from 1992, both full of characteristic wit and wisdom and often revealing asides on the many illustrious names she has shared her career with. John Amis once memorably declared that Weir 'is to the organ what Heifetz was to the violin, Casals to the cello.' On the strength of this essential set, who could possibly argue? Admirers of Weir will need no urging to acquire it. Anyone encountering her for the first time will find it the perfect introduction to one of the most astounding organ talents of the modern era."
In The Organ, Robert Matthew-Walker wrote: "As music-lovers who are also record collectors will immediately recognise, this set constitutes what may well be the most significant tribute paid by the gramophone to any organist in living memory. […] Gillian Weir stands head and shoulders above so many of her contemporaries and successors as an artist, and this compendium will stand as a lasting example of her profound musicianship, insight and technical command. […] This set deserves to form part of any serious library of organ music. It is unmissable."
In his comprehensive review Michael Bell, in the Organists' Review, wrote "constant and consistent enjoyment is at our disposal", and alludes to the exceptionally detailed booklet: "The remaining 45 pages of this fascinating document include Dame Gillian's comprehensive and absolutely absorbing survey of the many aspects of the repertoire included here, the making of the recordings, a variety of concomitant incidents […] and over a score of rare and unpublished photographs." He summed up with "What a tremendous catalogue of music-making and virtuoso organ playing this compilation enshrines. A greater ambassador for organ music it is not easy to imagine. Long may she reign!"
Fanfare (USA) included a lengthy interview with James Altena in its January/February issue, in which he refers to her as "one of the great queens of the console". His meticulous survey of the set followed in the May/June issue, detailing everything in the 22 CDs, all of which contain performances appearing on CD for the first time. He mentions her "extraordinarily eclectic musical palette'". and quotes Rick Jones's remark in the Evening Standard on her winning the publication's prestigious Solo Performer Award: "She can play anything; she is one of those performers who are natural-born, and that's what makes her unique". Of the pre-Bach compositions on the set Altena writes "Weir has exactly the right ear and touch for drawing an authentic-sounding early Baroque style out of whatever instrument she employs." He concludes "This is without question the organ release of 2021. For organ devotees, this is required hearing; don't hesitate for a moment. And, happy 80th birthday, Gillian! "
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Dame Gillian Weir - a look back at a unique career
Ann Elise Smoot has written an insightful article from her interview with Gillian Weir back in 2012. Originally appearing in the June 2012 issue of Organists' Review, the article is available here for your reading pleasure!
ION Music Festival 2020
Dame Gillian Weir was to have been among the jurists for the Organ Interpretation Competition scheduled to be held in Nuremberg in June/July. Because of the virus epidemic it was postponed until a later date, but alas had to be held on a smaller scale without those jurors or performers needing to travel from abroad. We'll look to the future for another opportunity to join in this distinguished and long-established Competition!
In 2019 Gillian's previous vinyl recording from the Royal Northern College was issued as a CD on the Decca Eloquence label. It includes the spectacular 2nd symphony of Dupré and other stunning French showpieces, played on the College's Hradetzky organ shortly after its installation. The recording is hailed by MusicWeb: "Gillian Weir presents a master-class in French organ music performance on this CD. […] It is great to have this exciting, technically demanding and imaginative recording in my library once again."
Click here for details!
NORTHERN IRELAND INTERNATIONAL ORGAN COMPETITION (NIIOC)
The Northern Ireland International Organ Competition (NIIOC) was founded in 2011 to give opportunities to young organists under 21, and has become increasingly successful and respected in the years since, its prizes now being recognised as among the organ world’s most coveted. The Dame Gillian Weir Medal was commissioned by the Board of the NIIOC to honour Gillian Weir and her lifetime achievements. It is awarded each year to the competition participant giving the most outstanding performance in the opinion of the jury of a single piece.
This year the competition had to be held online, as was the case with so many similar events. It is a mark of the steadily increasing success of the NIIOC that even the restrictions imposed by Covid were not enough to faze the competitors or dampen the enthusiasm that has led the Competition from strength to strength each year. The standard of performance from these young players (all under 21) was extremely high, and we salute the prize-winners: Laura Schlappa (first prize), Jonas Schauer (second), and Josua Velten (third) (all from Germany). The winner of the Dame Gillian Weir Medal (sponsored anonymously for the NIIOC this year) was Iliaria Centorrino from Messina, Italy (pictured), who gave a brilliant performance of Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. in the Jean Guillou arrangement. The Bach Prize was won by Johannes Güdelhöfer (Germany). Other contestants came from Poland, USA, the UK and Italy. Because of the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic no competition is planned for 2021, but it is hoped it will return with all guns blazing in 2022.
The Dame Gillian Weir Medal, sponsored this year by the Allen Organ Company, was awarded to Julia Raasch, 21, a student at the Franz Liszt University of Music in Weimar, Germany, for her performance of Reger’s Toccata in A minor from his set of 12 Pieces. The very fine medal was designed by Declan Coyle, a Contemporary Applied Artist who recently graduated from Belfast University with a BA Hons Degree, and who has previously worked as a Stained Glass Craftsman with 20 years’ experience. He won the Festival’s commission to design and make the medal in 2018; it was awarded for the second time at the 2019 Festival. The picture shows the Festival’s Founding Secretary Gillian Morrow presenting it to award winner Julia Raasch.
Gillian Weir reflects: “The Dame Gillian Weir Medal for the 2018 NIIOC was created by the artist Declan Coyle. His imaginative design featured pipes on one side from the famous organ in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, with which I have had a long and much valued association. The Mulholland Organ is so named after the distinguished family who in the spirit of the Industrial Revolution gave the organ to the city originally, for the enjoyment and recreation of the people. I have played there very many times, in solo recitals and with the Northern Ireland Orchestra; have made recordings and CDs there and broadcast frequently, so I am delighted that the NIIOC has honoured me with this medal and that the artist has chosen to make the link with the Hall and its organ.”
GILLIAN WEIR MESSIAEN PRIZE
This award, for the performance of a work or works by Messiaen, was given to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire by Gillian Weir in 2018 for an annual prize of £1000 for 10 years. The first award was made in 2019. The planned second competition was not able to be held in 2020 because of the pandemic, but we are looking forward very much to holding the postponed competition later this year.
Second Dame Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize Awarded
A wonderful evening last night, as we enjoyed excellent music making in The Second Dame Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize.
Congratulations to all of the impressive performers (who were some of our current BMus organ students), and especial congratulations to Charles Francis (First Prize) and William Peart (Highly Commended).
A real pleasure to have Dame Gillian, Ann Elise Smoot and Professor Christopher Dingle (chair) as our distinguished panel.
Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize - First Competition
The first competition was held on 28th November 2018 in St Chad’s Catholic Cathedral, Birmingham, and was won by Callum Alger. The standard was very high and a special commendation was given to Ashley Wagner. Before the competition began Gillian Weir was interviewed by the Messiaen specialist and author Christopher Dingle regarding her lifetime association with the music of Messiaen; Professor Dingle also acted as Chairman of the jury, which included Simon Johnson (St Paul’s Cathedral) and Gillian Weir.
Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize Announcement
In July 2018 Gillian Weir gave funds to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for a special prize for the best performance by an organist of a work, or works, by Olivier Messiaen. The prize is £1000, and will be awarded annually for ten years. The Conservatoire sent out the following Press release:
Famed Concert Organist Offers Prize for Young Birmingham Musicians
Young organists at Birmingham City University’s Royal Birmingham Conservatoire are being given the opportunity to compete for a new prize donated by one of the world’s foremost musicians – Dame Gillian Weir.
The Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize will be awarded annually for the next 10 years for the best performance by a student at the institution of a work or works by French composer Olivier Messiaen.
During her illustrious international career, Dame Gillian has been particularly renowned for her performances of Messiaen’s organ music; she made the first commercial recording of the complete works, gave the UK première from the composer's manuscript of the ‘Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité’, and has written, lectured and broadcast extensively on his music.
Concerning the gift, she spoke of her admiration of the work being done in the Conservatoire’s Organ Department and congratulated them on their glowing international reputation. The award was facilitated by Conservatoire organ tutor Henry Fairs, whose own career has also included complete performances of the composer’s music.
Daniel Moult, the current Head of Organ Studies, commented: “All of us in the Organ Department are honoured and delighted that Dame Gillian should aid our students in such a generous and palpable way. Many young musicians are in need of every conceivable financial assistance, and this prestigious prize will be much coveted and appreciated for years to come in the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.”
The first Gillian Weir Messiaen Prize competition will take place at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire later this year, with the winner awarded £1,000.
In June 2018 Pembroke College, Cambridge University, presented its first 24-hour Bachathon. All Bach’s organ works were played in Pembroke, starting at noon on June 18th and continuing till noon on the 19th. Anna Lapwood, Pembroke’s Director of Music, was the first player and a succession of gifted women organists followed.
Gillian Weir is Patron of the project, and gave a master-class before the Bachathon began in which three Cambridge organ scholars played works of Bach, being present for 18 of the 24 hours, to cheer the organists on. The Bachathon has continued each year with growing success, going online in 2020.
Do come and cheer the organists on, and be present to hear everything the greatest master composer wrote for the organ!
Association of Assistant Cathedral Organists (ACO) Patron
Gillian Weir was delighted to have become the Patron of the Association of Assistant Cathedral Organists (ACO), assuming the role during their March 2018 Conference. This was held in Exeter and Buckfast Abbey, where she also gave a master-class on the Abbey’s new Ruffatti organ. The pandemic has meant the cancellation of the 2020 Conference, as of so much else, but hopes are high for next year.
On November 7th St Chad's College, Durham University, honoured Gillian by awarding her an Honorary Fellowship. At a Dinner in the College Dr William Apedaile, President of the Senior Common Room, gave the citation, and the College Principal, Dr Margaret Masson, presented GIllian with the College Hood.
Southbank Centre Scholarship!
In 2017 Gillian Weir made a gift to the Southbank Centre for its Scholarship programme. It was announced on September 15, 2017 as follows:
As the 2017/18 classical season begins, legendary organist Dame Gillian Weir announces a new organ scholarship for London’s Southbank Centre - the place where she made her professional debut more than 50 years ago and where she has appeared as soloist more than 50 times. In an unprecedented collaboration for the arts centre, the Dame Gillian Weir Organ Scholarship will fund Southbank Centre’s Organ Scholar (a post that has been in place since 2007) for the next ten years.
The first recipient of the Dame Gillian Weir Organ Scholarship will be David Thomas. David is the Director of Music at St. Mary’s Church in South Croydon, and holds the organ scholarship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. After reading music at the University of Hull, he studied with David Titterington and Anne Marsden Thomas at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with the Stephen Bicknell Organ Prize. David became an Associate of the Royal College of Organists in 2016.
[L-R Gillian Moore MBE, Southbank Centre Director of Music; David Thomas, Organ Scholar; Dame Gillian Weir; Elaine Bedell, Southbank Centre CEO; Dr William McVicker, Organ Curator] credit: Elyse Marks / Southbank Centre
Dame Gillian has a long and illustrious history with the Royal Festival Hall’s Harrison and Harrison organ - an instrument designed by her teacher, organist Ralph Downes. She made her professional debut on the organ in 1965 and was, at the time, the youngest organist to perform there. Over the following years, she has given countless performances and broadcasts as recitalist and concerto soloist and has been instrumental in developing new concert repertoire for the organ. She has given significant premières at the Royal Festival Hall such as the UK première of Messiaen’s ‘Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité' in 1973, given at the composer’s request and performed from his original manuscript. Other Royal Festival Hall highlights include Dame Gillian’s 60th birthday concert in 2001, where she was presented with a CD of work written and performed by school-children and a giant organ cake; and a sold-out concert celebrating the organ’s 50th birthday in 2004, when she performed Guilmant’s D minor Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Her CD ‘On Stage!’ includes a variety of popular concert staples and was the last recording to be made of the organ before it was dismantled for refurbishment in 2005.
In committing to support ten years of the organ scholarship, Dame Gillian enables Southbank Centre’s work to further build the profile of the concert organ and develop repertoire for it. Recipients of the Organ Scholarship spend a year as part of Southbank Centre‘s staff as an ambassador for the organ, learning from Organ Curator Dr William McVicker about the many facets of curating the international organ series, but also bringing the organ to the general public, through Southbank Centre’s year-round festival programming and education and participation activities for all ages.
Dame Gillian Weir said: “The Royal Festival Hall has always been special for me - not only did I make my professional debut here but the organ was designed by my teacher so I had the opportunity to explore it under his direction, whether delving into its internal construction or discovering all its musical possibilities at the keyboard. Since those early days, I have played at Southbank Centre on so many occasions - frequently practising in the middle of the night! - and accumulated a cornucopia of wonderful memories.
“My career as solely a concert performer has been unusual, and I admire the opportunities Southbank Centre is giving through its Organ Scholarship for a young organist to be associated with a great concert hall and to develop his or her talents in the myriad ways possible in such an environment. The donation I am making to Southbank Centre is the smallest drop in the ocean, but I hope it will be a useful drop and I consider it a privilege to be thus continuing my own association with the concert hall that has meant so much to me. I am now looking forward immensely to meeting the successive Scholarship holders and following the progress of their careers."
Gillian Moore MBE, Southbank Centre’s Director of Music, said: “Dame Gillian’s generous support is invaluable in bringing this incredibly unique instrument, steeped in the history of British players, more fully into the public eye, by enabling a further ten years of our vital organ scholarship and the continued development of an exciting new concert programme. The new organ scholar will be integral to the fabric of our new season, from year-round festivals, schools’ and higher education activity to standalone events and performances. This is a very exciting start to the season and we are hugely grateful to Dame Gillian for her wonderful support.”
David Thomas completed his two years as the Dame Gillian Weir Scholar and was followed by Mie Berg, from Norway, who was also carrying out a project on aspects of English organs as well as a performance course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. It was disappointing that she was not able to carry out fully her second year in the post because of the Covid pandemic, but in her time at the RFH she nevertheless made a considerable contribution. We look forward to announcing the next holder of the Award as soon as it is able to continue.
Bloomsbury Organ Day 2017
This excerpt from the February 2017 The Organ highlights Dame Gillian's masterclass.
Dame Gillian Weir’s masterclass can only be described as the masterclass of masterclasses! Insightful, probing, witty, challenging, Dame Gillian certainly cast a spell over the large audience (several hundred throughout the afternoon) and the allotted hour seemed wholly inadequate to survey the chosen works in detail; but nothing was lost as the opening sections of the chosen works were subjected to the most intense scrutiny.
The three students who submitted themselves to the challenge together with their choice of repertoire were Konstantin Gensitskiy - (Bach Trio Sonata 1 - 1st and 2nd movements); Hannah Gibson (Franck - 2nd Chorale) and Ashley Wagner (Mendelssohn - Sonata 1 - Adagio and Allegro Assai).
Although Dame Gillian may have retired from centre-stage performing, the sheer energy, stamina and bravura were as gripping as ever. At every opportunity Dame Gillian could be seen adding and subtracting stops, refining registration, demonstrating alternative fingering patterns, and it would be impossible to summarize the wealth of experience and erudition of this ‘hands on’ approach here. Questions which frequently vex organists such as the pros and cons of 8’ or 16’ pedal registration in the trio sonatas, choice of mutation stops and understanding the important concepts of rhythm and meter were all addressed. The Mendelssohn proved to be an ideal choice for defining accent and articulation in the opening bars of the last movement with the overlapping arpeggios- no hint of blurring tolerated here!
Organ Days 2018, ’19 and ’20 aroused equal enthusiasm; alas, the 2021 Organ Day could not take place, but hopes are high for January 2022. Watch this space!
Honour for Gillian Weir
Gillian Weir was made an Honorary Fellow of Grey College, Durham University. (2016)
Honour for Gillian Weir
Gillian Weir has been given the signal honour of being made an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. This venerable and distinguished Society, one of the Livery Companies of the City of London, dates back to at least 1360. Founded as a specialist guild for musicians, the modern Company promotes all aspects of the art and science of music. It supports musicians and musical education, awarding prizes, scholarships and medals.
The Honorary Freeman is the Company's highest Award. Other current Freemen are Dame Janet Baker, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, HRH the Prince of Wales, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and HRH Duchess of Kent. Past Honorary Freemen have included Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams O.M., Lord (Benjamin) Britten, and Sir Yehudi Menuhin.
The Award was conferred on Gillian Weir by the Master, Andrew Morris, in a ceremony held at the ancient and beautiful Merchant Taylors' Hall, in the City of London. A Dinner for some two hundred members and guests followed, at which Gillian was the speaker.
LYRITA have issued a CD containing the world première of Peter Racine Fricker's Symphony No. 5 for organ and orchestra (in effect an organ concerto). The concert was broadcast live and Lyrita have been able to acquire the BBC's recording.
The work was commissioned by the BBC for the 25th Jubilee anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall, and the concert took place on May 5th 1976. Gillian Weir was soloist (as she was in his later Organ Concerto and other Fricker works), and Sir Colin Davis conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The CD, which also contains his oratorio The Vision of Judgement, is available now, on Lyrita REAM1124.