A mighty organ

People might wonder to what extent this post will be autobiographical, but as the author I do feel that I need to retain both some secrets and a certain becoming modesty: dips demurely behind opened fan…  Let’s face it, I am not a celebrity and this is not Snapchat, the only exposure going on here will be of the dark shallows of my soul (subject to their availability and/or existence).

If we’re honest, this is a clickbait title to hook a few extra eyes as I expound (yet again) about the cultural riches on offer to the residents of a south coast city more famous for its departures than arrivals.  It has also grown from thoughts too long even for me to attempt to shoe-horn into a Facebook status.

This last week has provided a particularly rich and varied seam of cultural coal and, in the interest of narrative drama I shall leave delivery against the title until towards the end (or will I?  Now, you’ll have to read the whole tedious diatribe in hope of salacious content).

Monday started well with a concert of less-commonly seen brass instruments, including a tuba which looked like it had been knocked up by a plumber from bits and pieces found in her van: and was all the better for it.  It also marked my introduction to the althorn, the rotary trumpet (less exciting looking that its name might suggest) and a horn with pipework that would not look out of place in some Celtic knot work.  I was left wondering if concert brass had taken a wrong turn, towards the bland, at some point in its history…

Talking of brass, last night’s jazz included a trumpet that looked to have lived a life of debauchery and excess.  It led me to realise that at some level I don’t really trust a shiny brass instrument: if I can’t read too many late nights and a life lived not wisely by too well in its patina I can’t help feeling there is something lacking.  Then again, I do have a friend with a saxophone to sell, and while it is probably shiny I am seriously tempted (and I’m not really going to fool anyone that I have lived a dissipated existence, however battered my horn might be).

Wednesday afternoon delivered a talk on pulsars by (Dame) Jocelyn Bell Burnell: the person who discovered them in the most analogue (and often uncomfortable) way possible.  She did this as a graduate student in 1967 and she is an excellent advertisement for radio-astronomy as an alternative to a painting in the attic. It was a talk in turns amazing and inspiring with a fascinating Q&A after: Richard Rodgers was right, there is nothing like a dame!

On Thursday night, it was world music – a description I usually despise, but with a trio of musicians hailing from Cuba, Senegal and Venezuela it is probably the least clunky description available.  What an amazing gig it was!  Incredible musicians – Omar Sosa on piano and keyboard, Seckou Keita on the extraordinary double-necked kora and Gustavo Ovalles on a huge range of percussion – and they were having so much fun doing it!  It was feast for eyes, ears and the soul.

Saturday afternoon I saw the powerful and amazingly well written, directly and staged People, Places and Things at the Nuffield Theatre: yet another strand in an incredible strong autumn season they are having.  I’m very glad I do not tend toward addiction as I think I’d seriously struggle with any form of 12-step programme – much as the play’s protagonist does.

OK, I’ve made you wait long enough: it is time to talk about a massive organ (fear not, there will be pictures too and, like me, you’ll probably want to get your hands all over it!).  Yesterday afternoon, as part of Southampton Film Week there was a showing of the silent Buster Keaton film The Cameraman.  However, for the fortunate audience, the film was far from silent.  Southampton Guildhall is home to a Compton organ – the largest they ever built – and has been since 1937.  This engineering marvel has 4000+ pipes plus sundry items of percussion and sound effects somehow hidden above the main stage (frankly, there doesn’t seem to be room and I strongly suspect the organ also consumes a significant tract of hyperspace).  It is also the proud possessor of two consoles: one for traditional (classical and ecclesiastical) organ recitals and one for a theatre/cinema organ performance.  Sadly, they no longer rise from beneath the stage, but are otherwise a remarkable survival.

Frankly, I can’t help thinking NASA’s recruiters should have looked to organists rather than test pilots!

So many keyboards, pedals and buttons: especially for a chap struggling to come to terms with one keyboard and a single pedal (though I have had a brief dalliance with an una corda pedal!).  Then again, I may be sleeping in a room with even more organ keyboards within the week (though those will not be functional at the time).

This musical behemoth was played by Donald MacKenzie the resident organist at the Odeon, Leicester Square,  Who knew it still had a resident organist?  Not I!  It is almost worth taking out a second mortgage and going, just to see and hear the organist in action!  In the first half he showed off the amazing range of the Compton organ – an instrument pleasingly maintained by a man with the fine organ-linked name of Peter Hammond!  In the second half he accompanied the film, live as it happened.  After the first few minutes, you completely forget that the music is not part of the film and is being produced by a man at an incredibly complex console – so perfect was the integration of image and music, even the punches landed correctly in the ‘soundtrack’.  The film is surprisingly good with some ‘jokes’ I’d not seen before (though for a modern audience, and even me, could probably do with a little judicious editing), despite it having been made in 1928!  However, what made it was the organ – how lucky I am to have this possibility less than 10 minutes stroll from my door.  Once again, I would never have known about this gig (or the organ) – let alone thought of going – but for a friend suggesting it to me.  In an overly self-direct life, ideas hailing from outside my own skull are such a boon!

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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