When in Scotland… Organs?!

Holy Week 2016 was full of beautiful music and liturgy, culminating with Michel Bouvard’s captivating Easter-Day recital at the Basilique St-Sernin. This fittingly featured Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia, Franz Tunder’s setting of Christ lag in Todesbanden, Charles Tournemire’s Choral-Improvisation sur le Victimae paschali laudes, and Jehan Alain’s Trois danses. The latter tied into the Easter theme through Michel’s strong conviction that it represents the passion and resurrection.

The day after Easter, inspired by this wonderful music and by the delectable food of Toulousain Easter luncheons, I headed to the airport to visit the UK for the first time since a family trip to England when I was young enough to be embarrassed when my family ate their homemade sandwiches outside of Buckingham Palace for lunch. We boarded at 7:45, hoping that the announcement saying “we will take off at 13:00” was a mere joke… but weather in London prevented departure until about 10:30, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Edinburgh. For once, there was no stress for me, as I did not have a timetable to which I had to stick closely!

Brief suggestion: if you board the plane at 7:45 with a proposed take-off time of 13:00, talk to your seat-mate. I’ve found that everybody I speak to has had a fascinating life and quite the experiences!

Following the famously stringent UK security and border patrol, where I discovered that my Zoom H4n recording device looks like a taser in the x-ray machine, I boarded another plane, then a tram, and finally a train to arrive in Dundee, an hour north of Edinburgh.

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I took this rather unusual trip in order to attend Spring Meeting of the European Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. If you’ve been reading my overly wordy posts since September, you might remember that I attended the Fall Meeting of this same group in Ingelheim, Germany, where I met one of the nicest groups of organists and organ-lovers I have ever met. I can’t even be more creative this time than to say that this was truly one of the most friendly and kind groups of organists and organ-lovers that I have ever met. A few had also attended the fall meeting but most were new faces. Each had an inspiring story to share about how they came to music or to the organ. Hailing from eight countries and speaking nearly as many languages, we came together in Scotland to see beautiful organs, learn Scottish and organ history, and to meet others who share our love of communication through this instrument… with a little “gourmand eating” in between.

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Naturally, I went for a run most mornings, discovering that the beach was a mere mile down the street (quite literally down – my legs, accustomed to the flat Toulousain bike paths, objected strenuously when I had to run back up the hill at the end of the hour). I was greeted by the sun rising over the North Sea each day.

Trigger warning: While I made about three different versions of this blog post, the organ descriptions in this one are the most concise. I still apologize for the long-winded qualities… if the descriptions of organs become too much, might I recommend some good scotch?

Day 1 (of four) was spent in Dundee, Day 2 in St. Andrews, and Day 3 in Edinburgh. I left before going to Glasgow on the final day of the meeting, so let me know if you’re interested in an organ tour of Glasgow (and really, anywhere else in the UK)!

In Dundee on the first day, we enjoyed late 19th- and early 20th-century organs, all by English builders. Caird Hall, the main auditorium of Dundee, which seats 2,300, features a 1923 Arthur Harrison organ, for which Alfred Hollins was the consultant.We enjoyed an excellent lecture on Alfred Hollins life and complicated relationship with those sponsored the building of the organ before hearing AGO attendees play gems by Hollins himself!

I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but I somehow was ordered to stay on the organ bench when the local newspaper crew came up. Now, somewhere in Dundee, there is a newspaper article with a photo that includes me (see above) and a TV interview including me playing Howells on this beautiful instrument. I rather wish I had had a few moments to select registrations… or chosen a piece that I had practiced a little more recently!

After a bit of lunch (Scottish serving sizes seem even bigger than those in the United States!), we enjoyed the contrasting late 19th-century English organs at Lochee Parish Church and St. Salvador’s Episcopal Church (1890 Thomas Hill organ and 1883 Wordsworth & Maskell organ, respectively), the latter church standing out both for the exceptional instrument and for the visually stunning details of the choir and altar.

As you can undoubtedly see from the plethora of photos above, the morning of second day  was spent exploring St. Andrews, where is merely 20 km (or 30 minutes drive) from Dundee. Somehow, I avoided the golf course entirely, choosing to instead visit the ruined 12th-century cathedral, mere steps from the sea and showcasing stunning views – especially from the St. Rule’s Tower, which is 33 meters high – and fascinating history. I’ll simply have to return for the “great game of golf!”

Following a light lunch, it was back to the world of music and academia with a performance by Sean Heath, PhD candidate and organ scholar at St. Andrews, of Bach’s Clavierübung II. This was followed by a lecture on “Words and Music: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Vaughan Williams, and Rodrigo” by Raymond Calcraft, conductor, musicologist, and former professor of Spanish at the universities of Portsmouth, Warwick, and Exeter, accompanied by tea and scones. Albeit a tad long-winded and tangential, this lecture completely struck my interest, as he tried to show different ways in which these texts, written by giants of late 16th- and early 17th-century prose and poetry, could be given new significance through settings of 20th-century composers.

As the lecture ended at 16:45 and the castle closed at 17:30, I quite literally ran from the lecture hall to the 12th-century ruined castle of St. Andrews, only to find that I was the only person there! The views of the town and the ocean were again stunning, and it was great fun to explore the mine and countermine found beneath the foundations of this bishops’ mansion.

The evening featured a recital by John Grew, former organ professor of McGill University in Montréal, Canada, who performed his specialities: French classical music. The 1973 Hradetzky organ was not quite the right instrument for this music but had a stunning façade. Another reason to go back to St. Andrews and experiment with other styles of music on the organ here!

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Edinburgh Castle, where there has been some kind of royal castle since (yes- you guessed it!) the 12th century.

This trip to Europe is becoming nothing more than me discovering cities that I wish to return to, as the final day at the meeting that I could attend was spent in Edinburgh. Of course, I already need to return to explore the castle, the museums, the Scottish cheese, the Old Town, the Royal Mile, the Gardens…

Again, three organs of drastically different styles were the plats du jour. The first, in Usher Hall, was a 1914 Norman and Beard instrument that yearned for Howells and Stanford and invited everybody to try the strings, the solo stops, and, of course, the Tuba. The second stop was the 1978 Ahrend organ, which beautifully filled the space at Edinburgh University’s Reid Hall and let the meeting attendees try their mettle with a flat pedalboard. Even more of a privilege was having Ruth Ahrend, the builder’s wife, in attendance. Naturally, she was the first to play!

Finally, we heard the 1880 Father Willis organ at the unusual St. Stephen’s Church Centre. Only part of this church remains so the organ is too large for the space, although its thrilling sound nearly makes up for its overwhelming scaling.

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Ronald Brautigam showing off his fabulous shoes and hair.

The day ended with a phenomental recital by Dutch fortepianist and pianist Ronald Brautigam at the Byre Theatre back in St. Andrews. Featuring works by Mendelssohn (Sonate écossaise, of course) and Ronald Stephenson (short pieces based on Scottish folksongs), which were played wonderfully, this concert really became a highlight through Brautigam’s performance of Beethoven. Next time, I’ll hope to hear him on the fortepiano…

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Haggis and Scotch at the airport!

This week, all too short, was full of instruments. However, even more importantly, the week was full of connections and (re)establishing old and new friendships. I met people with whom I will retain contact for months and years. All of these individuals love the organ but they also hold such passion for all kinds of music and for making sure that “our” instrument retains and garners a wider audience in the future. Through the guidance of the dean, Judy Riefel-Lindel, we were encouraged not just to stick to whatever cliques quickly developed at the beginning of the meeting but to talk to and even (shocking!) become friends with each of the 30-odd people in attendance. The size allowed this, as did the temperaments (pun intended) of all participants. While the organs were beautiful, I came away most refreshed by each individual that was there. I feel fortunate to have been a part of this admirable group.

The next morning, I escaped to the airport where my flight to Brussels had been rebooked 3 hours earlier and would now arrive in Antwerp. While waiting to board, I had the time and the gall to try haggis with a Glenfiddich to wash it down. When in Scotland…

I have been in Belgium since 2 April and it has taken me since then long to write this blog post, which tells you how busy those five days have been. I can’t wait to share the Belgian leg of my travels with you as it’s been a trip to remember, but both Scotland and Belgium deserve their own posts – and you deserve a few days reprieve from my writing!

A few thoughts from “when in Scotland:”

Haggis: If the fact that this world-famous unashamedly and undeniably Scottish dish is comprised of all of the parts of the sheep that most people reject, mashed up with oatmeal and suet, surprises you, then it is most definitely time for you to visit Scotland. Enjoy the meal and follow it with a glass of 10-25 year aged whiskey and your mouth and throat will be burning, although in a most assuredly satisfying manner.

Accent: If you’re not a native English speaker and you sometimes (or even frequently) struggle to understand the Scots, be comforted by the fact that it’s definitely a challenge for us American English-speakers, who aren’t used to distinguishing the words among the lilted syllables.

Travel to the UK: British customs can and will take awhile, especially if you have a recording device in your backpack that looks suspiciously like a taser…

Public transit: is very expensive, but food (even in the airport) can be surprisingly reasonable. £5,20 for soup, bread, and a good cappuccino seemed to be a norm.

Coffee: None of the plain black coffee or espresso was as good as what I make myself… but the cappuccinos were definitely worth the extra £ .

Countryside: The views made me want to skip the cities and organs and simply explore the verdant green and mysteriously black rolling hills and distant snow-capped mountains. I think a walking or biking tour or a backpacking trip is in order.

Whiskey: Perhaps comparable to the accent – much variety and lilt with a bit of a pleasant burning in the ears!

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One thought on “When in Scotland… Organs?!

  1. I’m envious! Went just once to the European Chapter and it was a fantastic group. Judy and hubby are warm, wonderful. Mike and Joy Irvine came to Boston for national convention with John and Liz Falkingham. They came out to our house in Westboro and I took them to play on the JWWalker instrument at St. John, Sudbury, where I am organist. Had a great time together. BTW, when do you return to the states? Happy to see you’re running for Boston AGO office! – Lois

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