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Proms 2009: Prom 11 – Organ Prom \ Elgar \ Dickinson \ David Titterington

July 25, 2009

There’s something irresistable about a programme of organ music. It takes me back to my childhood and times when I stood in a chilly church, observing enforced periods of silence with nothing but the inexplicably reassuring smell of mouldy hymn books.

The musical backdrop was always underpinned by the sound of the organ. The bigger the venue, the better. I wanted to grand architecture even if I didn’t always follow the theatrics which went on inside it.

This probably explains why I’m a recent convert to Choral Evensong on Radio 3. Wednesday afternoons offer an hour of relative calm in a busy office. I’m quite particular about observing the moment. If it’s a live broadcast, even better. I will when necessary settle for listening back on the BBC iPlayer. Little wonder the prospect of an hour-long organ recital was exactly my cup of tea even if it did mean travelling in from South East London for this one concert.

Whilst the day-ticket queue grew outside the Royal Albert Hall for the evening Prom, I and presumably like-minded others settled down for a programme consisting of two Elgar sonatas, and a small selection of blues-influenced variations by Peter Dickinson.

Elgar would be a doddle – and was – I reckoned. There were moments, I’ll happily confess, when I dozed off. My eyelids closed, legs trembled and if it hadn’t have been for a few unexpected fortissimo chords I may well have remained there in the arena until the following morning.

My snoozing was not because I was bored but solely because of the soporofic effects of the quieter passages in both Elgar compositions. It was an indulgence to have the space to lay out on the arena floor and stare up at the friendly looking blue mushrooms above me. The soundtrack was every bit as cushioning as listening to Charlotte Green read the late night Shipping Forecast on Radio Four.

It was the Dickinson which made me feel the hard floor beneath me on a number of occasions. I wriggled uncomfortably during the opening theme when the sound of the blues emanating from the Willis Organ made me think of dads embarrassing their offspring at school discos they weren’t invited to. Somehow the juxtaposition of styles didn’t feel quite right. When I started thinking of rainy seaside resorts and Wurlitzer organs in the later variations I did, I confess, begin to smile quite possibly for all the wrong reasons.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not being mean. Nor am I using it as a thinly veiled criticism. I’m all for bringing seemingly disparate worlds together. Who says the rule is that the likes of blues can’t be combined with the classical organ? If there are people who say it shouldn’t then that is reason enough to do it. You know, just to antagonise them a bit. The chances are, I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to it if you’d given me a CD recording. So get me in a concert hall and sandwich it between two familiar works and then see what effect it has. If the work makes me listen, if it makes me think and (most importantly) it makes it memorable then the composer has absolutely done what he set out to achieve.

What’s even more important is remembering that there’s every chance that if the person who wrote it is still alive, there’s a reasonably good chance he’s in the audience. I was reminded of this piece of advice (given to me some years ago when I attended something which displayed little I enjoyed especially after the conductor insisted he and the orchestra ploughed through the work for a second time in front of the audience) when organist David Titterington graciously re-directed the hearty applause towards composer Dickinson, sitting in the stalls just a few metres away from where I was in the arena.

Listen to the organ recital via the BBC iPlayer. Keep an ear out for the final section in Dickson’s Blue Rose Variations, described as ‘an orgy of secularity invading the once sacred organ loft’. It’s quite a corker.

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