Saturday 16 March 2024

From Early Music to contemporary: the Royal Festival Hall organ is 70 and organist James McVinnie is celebrating with a Southbank Centre residency

James McVinnie performing at the Royal Festival Hall organ with Bedroom Community - Sept 2015
James McVinnie performing at the Royal Festival Hall organ with Bedroom Community - Sept 2015

The Royal Festival Hall organ is 70. Built from 1950–1954 to the specification of the London County Council's consultant, Ralph Downes, it was restored and re-configured by Harrison & Harrison as part of the hall's reconstruction during 2005-2007 and it was re-inaugurated on its 60th anniversary in March 2014. Now, to celebrate the instrument's 70th birthday, organist James McVinnie has a residency at the Southbank Centre featuring organ recitals including a wide range of repertoire as well as an appearance by the James McVinnie Ensemble.

Though James had played the organ once before the rebuild, he was not familiar with it until he came to play it as part of the 2014 celebrations. But he spent two years as an organ scholar at St Albans Cathedral where the organ was also designed by Ralph Downes and built by Harrison & Harrison (in 1963). James's period at St Albans was incredibly formative for him, as he performed at Evensong every evening, and he learned from the organ. This meant that when he came to play the Royal Festival Hall's organ, everything seemed to be familiar and with both instruments the organist is right up close to the instrument.

Ralph Downes designed the organ to challenge the status quo of what an organ was in the 1950s. Organ building in Britain at the time still adhered to the romantic ideal as evinced by the organs at Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Albert Hall. But Downes was something of an outsider, when the musical establishment was conservative; Downes was not interested in the tradition of the organ as emulating an orchestra. Whilst Downes' approach was very forward-looking, he used techniques and philosophies from organ building from 200 years previously. At the time, the organ establishment was very dismissive of these 'primitive' organ-building techniques.

James McVinnie (Photo: Graham Lacadao)
James McVinnie (Photo: Graham Lacadao)

However, James emphasises that the organ does speak with its own voice and the instrument was something of a shot in the dark for Harrison & Harrison who were responsible for building it. It is important to understand the context behind the building of the instrument and indeed the hall itself. Post-war Britain was still suffering from rationing and Londoners were living with the destruction wrought by the Blitz. The hall and the organ were a great forward-thinking enterprise, a new 3000-seater hall to replace the Queen's Hall that had been destroyed by bombing in 1941. It was a philosophical statement, that the arts were important and this is a statement that is still appropriate today with the funding crises that the arts are facing. So the hall and the organ are both a great enterprise and an ideal for us today.

The result is an organ that James sees as ideal for music from the 16th and 17th centuries, anything that has counterpoint including Bach and French classical. James' recital on the afternoon of 23 March 2024 has a programme of the type of music that Downes would have had in his ears, Sermisy, Praetorius, Sweelinck, Pachelbel, Böhm, Buxtehude and Bach [see Southbank Centre website].

But in his second recital on the evening of 23 March, James is exploring the other end of the repertoire with a performance of Infinity Gradient, the 2021 tour-de-force for organ and 100 speakers by American composer and sound artist Tristan Perich. James wanted to give a pair of concerts to show how adaptable the organ is, from Early Music to the present day. In a way, the two concerts show different sides to the organ, but they both use the same stops and pipes, the recitals demonstrate the organ's chameleon nature.

James McVinnie and Tristan Perich
James McVinnie and Tristan Perich

James describes Perich's piece as an hour-long symphony for organ and electronic speakers, effectively it is a duet for organ and speakers. Perich often uses electronics in his music and he likes primitive electronic sound. For the 23 March concert, the speakers are one-bit (normal speakers are 16-bit), so have a primitive resolution, akin to a 1990s computer! There are 100 speakers of three different sizes, four large, 27 medium and the remainder small. They are custom-made by Perich and will be grouped on the hall stage, making a strong visual statement too. James premiered the work and has given eight or nine performances of it since and is pleased to be bringing it to London. He thinks that both hall and organ will be ideal for the work, the speakers will look amazing.

On 29 June, James is back at the Southbank Centre, at the Purcell Room this time, with the James McVinnie Ensemble in a programme entitled American Minimalism, with music by Gabriella Smith, Philip Glass, John Adams and inti figgis-vizueta. The ensemble features four keyboard players, James himself plus Eliza McCarthy, Siwan Rhys, and Hugh Rowlands. The ensemble has its origins in 2017 when Philip Glass was turning 80. James has always been a big fan of Glass's music, particularly that from the 1960s and 1970s. He is one of those who saw Einstein on the Beach in London in 2021 and it changed his life. Another work that he found powerful was Glass' Music in Twelve Parts, written between 1971 and 1974. Something of a cult piece, the work had never been published and so had never been performed by anyone other than the Philip Glass Ensemble. James wrote to Philip Glass to ask if he could put together a performance for Glass's 80th birthday. The result was a performance by a group of musicians assembled by James at the Barbican on 1 May 2017. It was a unique opportunity and the genesis of his ensemble.

He did not do anything further with the ensemble until after the pandemic when he launched it more seriously, performing music by Glass, Adams and percussionist Chris Thompson at the Barbican. They concentrate on music that is less well-known in the UK. The ensemble features two organists and two pianists, all devotees of music by Glass, Adams and other similar composers, and their programmes mix music for all four with two piano repertoire and solos. The June concert will feature ensemble pieces as well music for two players including early Philip Glass pieces as well as Adams' China Gates and Hallelujah Junction. The concert is on the final weekend of the Southbank Centre's year when there is a festival across the whole Southbank, which James calls a wonderful place.

James grew up as a pianist, where the default is performing on your own and he thought that this was the norm, whilst other instruments need other performers. He loves performing with others, both in his ensemble and in concertos with orchestras.

Premiere of Gabriella Smith's Breathing Forest at Walt Disney Hall with James McVinnie, Los Angeles Philharmonic & Esa-Pekka Salonen - Feb 2022
Premiere of Gabriella Smith's Breathing Forest at Walt Disney Hall
with James McVinnie, Los Angeles Philharmonic & Esa-Pekka Salonen - Feb 2022

The June concert includes music by American composer Gabriella Smith, and looking ahead James will be performing Smith's organ concerto Breathing Forests with the Cleveland Orchestra, conductor John Adams in Severance Hall, Cleveland on 4 and 6 April 2024. The work was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for James and premiered in 2022 by them at Walt Disney Hall, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and James has subsequently performed the work in San Francisco. James explains that all of Gabriella Smith's music is concerned, in some way, with the climate emergency. She is both a composer and environmentalist, involved in rewilding projects including a recent one at a former Air Force base.

Her organ concerto for James sprang from a meeting they had in Los Angeles at a performance of her music. The organ in the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles has an all-wood façade, and Gabriella Smith came to think of the organ as like a forest. For the concerto, the forest is part of the regeneration of the climate and the work's three movements, Grow, Grieve, Burn, are about the life-cycle of the forest and a lament for the loss of forests, particularly by fire. Whilst fire is a natural part of the life of a forest, the final movement of the work is an acknowledgement of the changes recent decades have wrought, with the wildfires in California. James has performed the work twice in California; as a Londoner, he is very conscious of how different life is in California, with the dangers of wildfires. He describes the concerto as hugely powerful; for him, Gabriella Smith's music gets to the heart of the matter without sounding trite or cliched. There is an immediacy to her music and it works on lots of different levels.

Another work by Gabriella Smith that James mentions is her Requiem, written for the vocal ensemble, Room Full of Teeth and string quartet. Rather than using the conventional liturgical text, Smith sets the Latin names of species that have become extinct in the last 100 years.

Whilst James' career is now focused on concert and recital work, he regards church music as a wonderful tradition and it is a big part of who he is. He keeps his hand in as director of music at two City of London churches. Being in the City, this does not require a Sunday commitment from him, thus enabling him to get his church music fix.

James was assistant organist of Westminster Abbey between 2008 and 2011; before this, he held similar positions at St Paul's Cathedral, St Albans Cathedral, and Clare College, Cambridge (where he studied). He made the move into more regular concert work because he felt that he had come to the end of the shelf-life for the job he was doing, and outside of church music he was coming into contact with a world of contemporary composers. These were kindred spirits, and he did not know anyone in the organ world doing this type of music. So, he did a side-step, focusing on concert work but feeling that he could go back if necessary. And twelve years later he is still here, having built a bit of a unique, custom career that has a momentum of its own.

He still misses Evensong, playing the psalms and canticles, the music of Stanford and Howells. For James, the repertoire of music for Evensong is extraordinary. But living in London with that sense of rubbing shoulders with other cultural offerings made him want to focus on other areas, to explore and uncover other music. He has now had major concerto and solo works written for him by Nico Muhly, Gabriella Smith, Tristan Perich, Tom Jenkinson/Squarepusher, Martin Creed, David Chalmin, David Lang, Richard Reed Parry, Bryce Dessner, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Darkstar, and others.

Most of his commissions have been through composers who are friends, and it is rare for him to get involved in a project where the composer does not already know his work. But writing for the organ can be somewhat daunting for non-organists; it works best if the composer is not too specific, they need to have an instinctive feel for the instrument. When Gabriella Smith was writing her concerto for him, he sent her lots of things to listen to and they had a very satisfying back-and-forth while she was writing the piece. He describes it as a great collaboration. Some composers are quite hands-off when it comes to organ specifications, whilst Nico Muhly, who has a church music background, knows instinctively how to write for the instrument, leaving scope for the player.

James McVinnie at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015
James McVinnie at the Royal Festival Hall in 2015

When Esa-Pekka Salonen was writing his Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra (2023) he mentioned being daunted that the organ is an orchestra in itself. Many of the repertoire pieces for organ and orchestra, Poulenc's concerto, Saint-Saens' symphony, Alexandre Guilmant's symphony and Jón Leifs' concerto (which James calls amazing and difficult) tend to be a battle between organ and orchestra. Composers now are taking a more integrated approach, and Gabriella Smith's writing in her concerto feels very organic, with the orchestral writing coming out of the organ. Nico Muhly's piece for organ and orchestra, Register uses the orchestral wind in a very organ-like way, and the work is something of a philosophical dialogue. James recently gave Register its European premiere with the Helsinki Philharmonic, conductor Pekka Kuusisto at the Helsinki Music Centre on 7 and 8 February 2024 as part of the inauguration of the hall's 124-stop Rieger Organ.

James grew up with the idea that there was a lack of concerto repertoire for organs. But more recently composers have been taking up the challenge, for instance Kaija Saariaho wrote Maan varjot (Earth's Shadows) for organ and orchestra in 2013 and things are looking up.

In the second half of his year-long residency at the Southbank Centre, James will be exploring more Romantic repertoire as well as focusing on Bach, so that during the year-long residency he gets to show who he is. But the two concerts in March show his main interests, Early Music and modern music.

When I ask whether the Royal Festival Hall organ is suitable for the Romantic repertoire, James answers with a firm 'Yes it is'. He points out that the organ's specification is diverse and that with careful registration you can make it sound French, particularly as all of the reed stops are built in the French manner. But you can also play music by Liszt and Julius Reubke with integrity (James heard the organist Thomas Trotter in Reubke at the Royal Festival Hall, and he sounded terrific). But you can also play Bach with integrity on the instrument.

James points out that the Royal Festival Hall is not the most generous of acoustics, you get less of a thrill from the room which means that there is an incredible clarity and immediacy to the sound of the organ. Gillian Weir said that she enjoyed Messiaen on the hall's organ because of this clarity. Also, the organ gives the player a very immediate experience whilst playing it, it does what you tell it!

James McVinnie at the Union Chapel with Nico Muly and Oneohtrix Point Never - Feb 2015
James McVinnie at the Union Chapel with Nico Muly and Oneohtrix Point Never - Feb 2015

Often, the organist has the worst seat in the house when it comes to hearing the organ. At the Union Chapel, there is an amazing Father Willis organ (dating back to 1877), but the organist is far removed from the sound in the room. At the Royal Festival Hall, you are right next to the organ. The sound does change as you go further back into the hall, the balance is different, but at the console, you still get a great picture. Whilst at the Royal Albert Hall, the organ there points in so many directions that you either have to know the instrument or have someone listen for you.

23 March - 28 June 2024 - The Royal Festival Hall at 70 concert series
see Southbank Centre website.

29 June 2024 - American Minimalism, Purcell Room
see Southbank Centre website.

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