wed 17/07/2024

Organ Gala Launch Concert, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Organ Gala Launch Concert, Royal Festival Hall

Organ Gala Launch Concert, Royal Festival Hall

Mighty instrument meets its audience for the first time in nearly a decade

The Royal Festival Hall organ and massed children's choir for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' 'A Wall of Music'Photo: David Levene

The newly restored Royal Festival Hall organ was inaugurated in a celebratory atmosphere with this gala launch concert, which also marks the beginning of the Pull Out All the Stops organ festival.

The varied programme included works for solo organ, as well as combined with brass and choir, and included two world premieres composed specially for the concert, one by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and one by the late John Tavener. Four organists took turns (John Scott, Jane Parker-Smith, Isabelle Demers and David Goode), two conductors (Jessica Cottis and Sam Laughton), plus Alison Balsom, the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Brass Ensemble and Philharmonia brass Ensemble, the Elysian Singers, and massed choir of school children brought together by the Southbank Centre’s Voicelab.

Entering the Festival Hall to see the complete organ was thrilling in itself – it is nearly a decade since it was packed away for the hall’s restoration, with no financial provision made at the time for its reinstatement.

Isabelle DemersThe concert opened with Gigout’s Grand choeur dialogué arranged for brass and organ, with its fanfares allowing the organ to clear its mighty throat in style. John Scott had the honour of opening proceedings, and he also stayed on to perform Bach’s monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Canadian organist Isabelle Demers (pictured right) then stepped up to play the Scherzo and Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, delving with remarkable virtuosity into the organ’s palette and showing off a number of colourful registrations.

David Goode then took the mantle, and was joined by Alison Balsom for her trumpet and organ arrangement of Bach’s Concerto in D for keyboard. This worked well, with Balsom’s expressive tone ducking and weaving through the organ’s sterner textures.

There followed the first of the world premieres, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ A Wall of Music for organ, brass and children’s choir. Setting a poem by Jo Shapcott titled Questions for the Machine, which expresses childlike wonder at the magnificent organ, this was really the festive centrepiece of the evening, and perfectly judged by the composer. The presence of dozens of primary school children in the massed choir was, to quote Davies’ own programme note, "suitably affirmative", and Jessica Cottis conducting brought everything together.

Royal Festival Hall organThe second half of the concert began with the premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument for Beethoven for chorus and organ, with John Scott back the organ and the Elysian Singers. Short episodes of blaring organ chords or jagged horror-movie motifs were contrasted with ethereal choir passages. As monuments go it was fairly insubstantial but certainly put the organ’s more strident traits in the spotlight.

The rest of the programme was devoted to the organ as a solo instrument of many colours, with Jane Parker-Smith playing Franck’s Fantaisie in A and her own rather demented fairground arrangement of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No 1. Isabelle Demers then brought the evening to a close with a positively athletic performance of one of Marcel Dupré’s mindbogglingly intricate preludes and fugues.

In all, a very satisfying welcome back for this spectacular instrument.

This article was corrected on 21 March to reflect the fact that Isabelle Demers is Canadian not American
Entering the Festival Hall to see the complete organ was thrilling in itself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


Insubstantial? I think not.

Isabelle Demers is Canadian, not American.

Thanks for pointing this out - have now corrected.

Whatever her nationality she looked like and played like a traffic warden! Why saw she chosen? A virtual unknown of limited ability?

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters