“All the air things wear that build this world of Wales”, is a quote from Gerard Manly Hopkins picked up from Jan Morris last and latest book, Alligorizings. The featured image here is of the new organ console from Virtual Pipe Organs Australia – http://www.virtualpipeorgan.com.au/.
Travel seems the ultimate luxury in these covid-ridden days. Even reading Jan Morris, posthumously published, I’m sorry to say just but can’t beat waking up to waiters in shorts in May, the fresh smell of the sea and the unflappable elegance of Double Bay. I’m in Sydney for a week.
The good people in the parish of St. Francis in Paddington have also been waiting patiently, and for an equally magic occasion: the first concert of their new digital organ. I was thrilled to be there and able to attend on the afternoon of Sunday, 23 April 2021 in a concert of mainly sacred French music .
St. Francis of Assisi sits at the top of Sydney famous and infamous Oxford Street, and, like St. Peter’s Toorak, partly came about because of the Catholic servants in the big houses of Woolalhra.
I remember the old organ. It had two manuals and severed the Parish well. I heard on the grapevine about the new organ, an electronic organ which was installed in 2019. Paid for in full by donations from parishioners. By electronic, I mean there are no physical pipes rather the sound is recorded in meticulous detail and played through powerful speakers.
The principle drivers of the new organ are Bransby Byrne, along with Ian Sell from Virtual Pipe Organs Australia. Their technical brilliance and keen eye for the instrument shine through. This is truly a unique instrument and music creation.
Bransby generously agreed to meet and give me a ‘behind the scenes’ a couple of days after the recital.
And there, with it’s brand new console and case, with four manuals and numerous old fashioned pull-stops is the new organ, in all its brilliance. As you can see in the featured image of this blog post.
On the wall near the console alcove is a special plaque with the names of all the patrons of music who kindly, and generously, made this happen. There was an air of a community of music lovers, church goers, people who value culture and care for musicians about the place.
The organ can, in seconds, be transformed into the exact replica of about 13 historic organs from across Europe. Special touch screens pull out and can be fixed in front of the stops which define the St. Francis organ. It means you can play Bach on an organ built at the time and in the region where Bach was writing for.
This is revelation for organists like me, who often tussle with our beloved home-church organ. To make it ‘sound’ more authentic or like others we have heard. This technology might as well be the transporter device on Star Trek. It’s that good.
The organ specifications are detailed and expansive. The instrument can grow or shrink with the needs of the music and the liturgy. Bransby has poured his extensive experience, expert ear and authentic self to ensure that the result is exactly that, authentic. The positioning of the high quality speakers and subwoofer are such that the building plays an active part in the creation of the sound.
There is even a smaller continuo organ which is freestanding and has it’s own computer and speaker system.
Music is obvious a foundation element in the liturgy at St. Francis, with a thriving cantor program, choir and music ministry team. Noel Debien and Bransby Byrne head things up music wise. Both are experienced and well regarded musicians.
The new organ is a brand new creation. One that can also morph into one of a number of instruments drawn from Bransby’s extensive experience performing and listening to organs across Europe. The technology is astounding. Each individual pipe from an exisiting organ is recorded several times to give a rounded sound with some depth.
Speakers are positioned exactly in the church to allow the sound to be carried and enriched by the natural acoustic. And it works beautifully. It’s not just a recreation or recording playing, the church itself plays a role to shape and nuture the sound as it reaches us.
And despite my slighly snobish reservations about electronically produced sound, I am a convert and believe now more than ever that whatever the instrument, the result is shaped to a large degree by the driver. That person or persons who are often unseen behind the console, combined with the best quality investment, are what matter. It’s how the magic of music happens.
The first concert featured mainly French music performed by Thomas Wilson (Director of Music at St. Mary’s Cathedral) on organ and four of St. Mary’s Cathedral Lay Clerks.
The program was a bit of Bach (BWV 540) played at a great rollicking tempo and then the songs of St. Franics set by Poulenc (Seigneur, je vous en prie, Tout puissant, tres saint), Dupre’s Ave maris stella, Durufle’s Messe Cum jubilo and Walton’s Orb and Sceptre at the start, Petr Eben’s Moto ostinato (“Sunday Music”) to end.
Thomas Wilson was incredible. Technically and musically. A real one to watch as his career continues to unfold.
From the outset there was an open generosity which I have no doubt Pope Francis, St. Francis or any Christian-minded folk would heartily approve. There was no entrance or ticket fee except by donation, there was a warm welcome and program for everyone and the display of talent was unfettered by commercial breaks or talk of sponsorship or cost.
Quite simply it was a beautiful gift and appropriate given this was a concert of sacred music outside of the practice of liturgy. The air of culture, togetherness and generousness was palpable. It made the occasion memorable and very special in my mind.
Regardless of our own individual passion, the audience and capacity to care for pipe-organs is not increasing in Australia. Traditional organs are hideously expensive to build and maintain. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cherish the instruments we have, but in terms of encouraging developing organists it makes sense to have low-maintainance and flexible instruments.
Credits: The Parish are to be congratulated for raising the money for the new organ, along with Bransby Byrne and Virtual Pipe Organs Australia’s Ian Sell for the build; and Fr Anthony Selvaraj OFM (Parish Administrator) and Noel Debien (Director of Music) for making it all happen.