Tag Archives: organ music

Meet the Artist…… Paul Griffiths, organist

Who or what inspired you to take up the organ and pursue a career in music?

When I was ten years old, my best friend at school asked whether I wanted to come and join the local church choir. I said that I wasn’t interested until he said that I would be paid for my services! When I went along to my first choir practice he showed me the organ and from that moment on I was determined to learn. It was a real Eureka moment.

You’re also the CEO of Dubai Airports, how does your musical background influence your work life?

I believe that the ability to think through complex problems and break them down into small pieces, then reassemble them is the same process as learning a challenging piece of repertoire; having the patience to learn an instrument that demands the coordination of so many different events has so many applications in business. Running the world’s largest international airport is certainly demanding, so the application and discipline that I have learnt from music is very helpful.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

When I was eighteen I was introduced to Malcolm Hicks, who has had a long and distinguished career as an organist and conductor. He took me under his wing and enabled me to appreciate a whole different level of musicianship. I had some notable successes in competitions and diplomas with him and have accompanied many choral performances under Malcolm’s baton.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Undoubtedly taking eighteen months to learn and perform the three-movement Suite, Opus 5, by Maurice Duruflé. It is a tour de force of the organ repertoire and many professional organists shy away from it. Inspired by Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play it Again’ which a pianist friend gave me, the book describes how it was possible to learn Chopin’s fearsome Ballade No 1 in G minor whilst being the editor of a major international newspaper. I decided I could learn the Duruflé Suite whilst running the world’s largest international airport. The most heart-warming part of the whole experience was the willingness of many professional musicians to give their time to help me prepare for my first performance.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

In 2004 I was the soloist in Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ and Strings at Birmingham Symphony Hall, under the baton of Lionel Friend. It’s a great piece and when I was in my teens I listened tirelessly to the recording made by Maurice Duruflé in 1961 in the presence of Poulenc himself, so being able to perform the work was a great thrill.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

As a student I used to tackle the standard repertoire of Bach and Buxtehude but then ventured into the world of Paul Hindemith, particularly enjoying his three Sonatas for organ. However, romantic music has always enabled me to really express my deepest emotions and latterly I became hooked on the French romantic output from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Louis Vierne and Cesar Franck.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I always set myself the goal of learning new repertoire to expand the possibilities and contrast of performance. I enjoy creating connections and setting strong context in my programming as the organ can be rather dull to those who don’t encounter its repertoire outside of a sacred context.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The organ loft at Westminster Abbey is a very special place. Late at night when you are alone in the building you are very aware of more than 1,000 years of history all around you and the magnificence of the architecture and grand acoustic add so much to the performance of any major work.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I used to play for the Waverley Singers, an accomplished choral society based in Farnham, Surrey, which was conducted by Malcolm Hicks. We undertook several concert tours and accompanying the choir in the splendour of the Cathedral of St Bavo in Haarlem in Holland was a very memorable experience. Malcolm recently found a photograph of me at the organ during our tour in 1999 which he gave me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I lead a very diverse life so I am not sure that I can give the answer purely from a musician’s perspective. However, the ability to express one’s inner soul and communicate on a completely different level through the power of music is unparalleled in any other form of human communication and having the ability and determination to achieve this is immensely rewarding.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The subtlety of artistic impression goes so deep that there can never be an end to the attention to interpretative detail; grasping this at a young age and applying it through hours of preparation can really set an artist on a whole different level of musical awareness and appreciation.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

At home in East Sussex, at the console of the three-manual Aubertin organ which was installed in 2015.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having spent my whole life wondering whether I should have become a full-time musician, becoming a full-time musician when I decide to relinquish my role running Dubai Airports

What is your most treasured possession?

My battered black briefcase which has been around the world with me countless times

What do you enjoy doing most?

Trying to befriend one of my three cats, called Kitty. She loves attention but then snaps into a tiger. Knowing exactly when to quit can become a near-death experience

What is your present state of mind?

I currently have the complexity of Durufle’s Toccata coursing through my head whilst sleeping and awake. It’s amazing how the human brain can absorb an idea, develop it and then create a whole new level of understanding without any apparent intervention.

 

Paul Griffiths performs at Westminster Abbey on 13th August at 17.45. Details here

Paul Griffiths began playing the organ at the age of ten and won first prize in the London Musical Competition Festival at the age of 13.  Whilst studying with renowned organist and conductor Malcolm Hicks, he gained the ARCO, ARCM and LRAM within a six-month period and the FRCO two years later.  In 1981, he was placed second in the Trianon Organ Competition.

Having been Organist and Choirmaster at St Mary’s Welwyn from 1980, he moved to Hong Kong in 1986, where he became Assistant Organist at St John’s Cathedral and Head of Organ at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.  He also featured in broadcasts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has also given recitals at the English Cathedrals of Ely, Peterborough, Wells, St Paul’s and at Westminster Abbey.  Paul also features regularly as an organist and continuo player in concerts and recordings in the UK and overseas and in May 2002, made a guest appearance at Birmingham Symphony Hall with Dame Gillian Weir.  He has also given recitals at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, St John’s Smith Square and London’s Temple Church.  In 2003, Paul was appointed organist to the voluntary choir at Guildford Cathedral, where he studied the organ with Stephen Farr. In October 2004, Paul returned to Birmingham Symphony Hall to appear as the soloist in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with the Birmingham Conservatoire Orchestra, conducted by Lionel Friend.
 
Outside of musical life, following 14 years as an Executive Director of Virgin Atlantic and the Virgin Rail Group, in January 2005 he was appointed Managing Director of London Gatwick Airport and, in 2007, moved to Dubai to become the first Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Airports, the owner and operator of the world’s largest international airport.  He is regularly requested for interviews on the BBC to contribute towards aviation-related issues, including the debate on Heathrow’s 3rd runway. 

Paul was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen’s Birthday Honour List in 2015, for services to British prosperity overseas and to music.

 

 

 

 

Loft of Delights – organ recitals at St John’s Smith Square

organ

The splendid venue that is St John’s Smith Square, a beautiful eighteenth century church nestled amongst government offices and ministries in the heart of Westminster, is fast becoming one of my favourite London concert spaces – not just for piano music but also chamber, orchestral and choral music. I’ve even performed there myself, albeit a mere “15 minutes of fame” as part of St John’s 24-hour Music Marathon! And since September, I’ve been attending the monthly lunchtime organ recitals through which I’ve discovered a real liking for organ music. This is in part down to a friend of mine who adores Bach’s magnificent Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582 (which we heard in November, performed by Peter Stevens), but who would probably never go to an organ concert without my instigation.

The organ at St John’s is not original, though the main organ case, built by Jordan, Byfield and Bridges in 1734 acquired from St George’s church in Great Yarmouth, compliments the wonderful Baroque interior. It was installed in St John’s in 1972, and a new, larger organ case was built to accommodate the new instrument, built by Orgelbau Klais Bonn, which offers an enormous range of musical colour and versatility, suitable for repertoire from the German Baroque to high romanticism and contemporary repertoire.

There’s something really special about hearing an organ being played in the grandeur of a ecclesiastical building such as St John’s Smith Square. Whatever one’s religious, or otherwise leanings, one cannot help but be uplifted and awestruck by the volume, range and variety of sounds, the way those deep base notes swell and vibrate in the pit of the stomach, and the soaring sounds of the upper registers.

The organ series at St John’s Smith Square, now in its fifth edition, offers a broad range of performers and music, including organ favourites such as Bach’s ‘Ein Feste Burg’ and works by the leading composers for organ, Louis Vierne and Olivier Messiaen. In fact, it was the concerts featuring works by Messiaen which first drew me to this series, and David Titterington’s profound, vibrant and intensely absorbing performance of ‘La Nativité du Seigneur’ on 15 December was an example of the exceptional quality of these concerts (David has also recorded this work for Hyperion). Earlier in the season, we enjoyed a wonderfully mixed programme of music by Mendelssohn, Bach, Wesley and Messiaen by Jennifer Bate (a world authority on the organ music of Messiaen). The concert also included a work by Jennifer Bate herself, her ‘Variations on a Gregorian Theme’.

Seating is unreserved in St John’s for these concerts so one can choose to sit almost beneath the instrument if one so desires. A camera in the organ loft projects onto a screen on the stage, offering a fascinating glimpse of the organist at work (I had no idea it was so energetic, with hands and feet engaged for much of the time!). From the point of view of the pianist’s technique, I found it particularly interesting to see how the organist achieves legato effects, given the technical demands and mechanics of the instrument. And the sheer physical sound of the instrument, its richness, textural variety and surprising delicacy, has been quite unexpected, and something I look forward to exploring further at future concerts.

Monthly lunchtime organ recitals continue at St John’s Smith Square until June. Full details here

Prom 52: A thrilling journey of improvisation

Prom 52 offered a fascinating musical journey with French organist Thierry Escaich, who juxtaposed the organ music of J.S. Bach with responses to it by Mendelssohn and Brahms, as well his own improvisations on themes by Bach.

Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien

(Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien)

Escaich is part of the grand French tradition of organ improvisation which dates back to the 19th century, and he succeeded another great French composer and organist at St Etienne du Mont, Maurice Duruflé. Escaich calls the art of improvisation “composition in real time” and in an interview for BBC Radio 3 explained that he can often improvise for 20 minutes during a Catholic mass “in Bach style, in Romantic style”. In discussing Mendelssohn, whose Organ Sonata in A major featured in this programme, Escaich described this music as Bach “with a little more romanticism”, and explained that in his own improvisations he adds his own personality to the music of Bach, while honouring Bach’s themes, textures and idioms. The end result is music which shines a new light on Bach’s original, while demonstrating the exciting range of possibilities offered by this genre.

Read my full review here

‘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.