As I sit here in the Pravda Café in Wellington, New Zealand, I’m admiring the fantastic Soviet themed décor around me, whilst simultaneously confused by the music of Diana Krall and Eva Cassidy playing in the background – it doesn’t seem like music the Politburo would have approved of... But more importantly, I’m also thinking about what extra preparation I need to do for my upcoming concert in the beautiful Cathedral of St Paul, and I’ve realised that an organist’s concert preparation is unique amongst musicians. Hence, I’d like to share with you the process of how I, like many organists around the world, make an organ recital happen.
All musicians have similar things we are mindful of as we prepare for concerts: whether we’ve studied the score carefully enough, what particular markings we need to make to remind us to take extra care around certain tricky passages, our body postures, and so on and so forth. However, due to the fact that pipe organs can differ from each other drastically, and they are inherently heavily influenced by the acoustics of the building they are located in, organists have a few additional things that we must be attentive to.
An integral part of the preparation of an organ concert involves the organist carefully selecting the stops they will use for each piece of music. However, there are always a few complications along the way. For starters, some composers do not write down what particular stops they require, and so the organist is left to using their own good taste and scholarship to work out which are the appropriate stops to use. However, no two organ stops are exactly the same, even if they have the same name, or were built by the same organ builder! Moreover, as I alluded to before, the building it is located in is an incredibly significant factor – to the point where some organists call the acoustics of the building “the most important organ stop”.
In my current situation, the Cathedral of St Paul here in Wellington possesses one of the most incredible acoustics in New Zealand, and possibly even the Southern Hemisphere. In this cavernous space, there is a 7 second acoustic, and subsequently, I must make my articulation more detached so that the music can be heard clearly. Whilst other musicians may work out the articulations they wish to use for each piece in advance, an organist can only have a general idea of it and must alter it to match each organ and each building.
Here in Wellington, I will be playing music by Richard Madden (New Zealand), César Franck and Pierre Cochereau (France), and Giuseppe Verdi (Italy). In selecting my programme before I came here, I had to research the specifications of the instrument and listen to recordings to become more familiar with it, so that I can choose the appropriate repertoire. Indeed, it is perhaps unsurprising that I have chosen two French works – particularly the Cochereau, as his renowned improvisations at Notre Dame de Paris depended as much on the famous organ there as its incredible acoustics, which I hope to recreate here in windy Wellington.
Playing the organ brings a myriad of challenges, but for the same reason it is also one of the most rewarding instruments to play. Once an organist has reached a certain standard, it is essentially a passport for international travel – as I’ve been finding out recently! Organists are also often fluent in multiple languages (though mostly limited to organ-related jargon and technical terms!), as we need to read composers’ instructions in various languages, as well as, for example, deciphering how a fagott stop is different to a flageolet stop!
Overall, preparing for an organ concert is a real labour of love, involving hours of practice (most often in the wee small hours of the night) and preparation, occasional foreign language translation, rapid adaptation to a foreign instrument, and sometimes even a bit of organ maintenance! It is always a challenge, but it is also always one that I welcome and very much enjoy.