‘Darkness & Light’ at the Royal Festival Hall

For the past three weeks, a very special celebration has been taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, on London’s Southbank. The focus on this celebration is a huge structure of wood, metal, pipes, stops, pedals and keys: it is the Festival Hall’s great organ.

The organ was first heard on 24th March 1954. Days before the opening of the then almost brand new Royal Festival Hall, the organ attracted some controversy in the pages of newspapers and music journals. Described as the “tax-payer’s organ” by the music critic of The Times, the organ was considered by some, in those frugal post-war years, to be unnecessarily extravagant. In 2005 the organ was removed from the hall as part of the refurbishment of the venue and one-third of it was reinstalled when the hall re-opened in 2007. Now, sixty years after its inauguration, the organ is restored to its full glory and can be heard and enjoyed once again.

Usually when one attends concerts at the Festival Hall, the organ is hidden away in its huge “wardrobe” behind the choir stalls, and if one didn’t know it was there, one might be none the wiser. As I tend to visit the Festival Hall only for piano recitals, where the focus is on the pianist seated at a gleaming full-size concert Steinway occupying the middle of the stage, it was therefore rather wonderful to enter the hall for a concert where the stage was completely bare.

This was the final concert in a series of events to celebrate the organ’s 60th birthday and its extensive restoration. Entitled ‘Darkness & Light’, the concert was a collaborative project between Belgian organist Bernard Fouccroulle and Australian video artist Lynette Wallworth who between them have created a programme which seeks to transcend the traditional organ recital by combining 350 years of organ music from Buxtehude to present day with a video installation. Displayed on twin giant screens hung before the organ, the installation presented images of Australian landscapes, the moon, clouds, trees, waters, train-lines and trains, factory smoke stacks, city panoramas, and birds. The project was named after Light and darkness (or “Hell und Dunkel”), a composition by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, which was included in the programme, and was part of a series of special commissions to celebrate the return of the organ to the Southbank Centre.

In talking about the project, Bernard Fouccroulle says, “In organ music, darkness and light can easily be associated with visual equivalents, but they also refer to obvious theological concepts. Our purpose was to invite the spectator to listen to this music in a new way, and to enrich the music with a visual counterpoint. I very much believe that organ music can be brought into a new life in our time.“ (source: http://www.forma.org.uk)

The programme was an absorbing and at times highly arresting and emotional mixture of music, from Toshio Hosokawa’s atmospheric opening ‘Cloudscape’ to the refined, processional elegance of two Buxtehude Chorale Preludes, and the ecstatic outpourings of Olivier Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte. The entire range of the instrument was explored, offering some interesting insights into its versatility and sonic range. The works were presented in a continuous stream, uninterrupted by applause which made for a deeply involving musical experience. It was a pity that the images in the video installation seemed from the outset to be rather derivative and at times almost clichéd, and, to my mind, added little to the concert. Indeed, at times the images were overly distracting: music has a habit of conjuring very personal images and associations in the minds of the listeners, and to have such visual cues imposed upon one by someone else was not always totally convincing. See an extract from ‘Darkess & Light’ here:

That said, the concert was wonderful, the music extraordinary, profound and uplifting, and it was an absolute treat to hear the Royal Festival Hall organ in all its magnificence.