Concert Organs

Rodgers Organ in concert hall


For many people, the organ is inextricably linked with church music. But of course there is a wealth of repertoire either written for the organ or with an organ part which was never intended to be performed in church. Principal Organs has been involved with many organists and ensembles in need of an organ, either for a one-off concert, or for permanent installation into a performance space. We spoke to two customers to find out about their projects.

Peter Ellis found himself in need of an organ in The Concourse concert hall in Chatswood for four concerts during 2022. He has many roles: Peter is the Choral Director and a classroom music teacher at Barker College, in Sydney’s Hornsby. But he is also the Music Director for Willoughby Symphony Choir, and the organist for the related Willoughby Symphony Orchestra.

When Peter realized that both Barker and the Willoughby Symphony Choir were performing concerts with repertoire that demanded an organ, he got in touch with Kerry Morenos at Principal Organs. ‘When I saw what the requirements were for the organ in the Concourse for a number of concerts this year which involved me in one way or another, it was easiest just to go to Kerry and say, “I’ve got these things, what can work?”,’ Peter tells us.

Another institution which recently made use of Principal Organs’ services was the Conservatorium High School (CHS) in Sydney. Following the instigation of a new ‘Keyboard Scholar’ programme, a decision had been made to purchase an organ for the school’s auditorium. Dr Michael Bradshaw, who has spearheaded that programme, talked to us about it, about their new organ and custom Rodgers audio, and about their collaboration with another Principal Organs client, Dr Donald Nicholson.


Limitless opportunities


For both Peter and Michael, a digital organ was the only realistic option to meet their requirements. As Peter tells us, ‘Sydney has a distinct lack of large, good, symphonic pipe organs in venues that you might want to use. You can hire Angel Place, or The Concourse, or one of the big school halls, but they don’t come with an organ. If you have the vision of works which really do require an organ, you’re limited in what you can do unless you can do it affordably.’ And that, of course, is where a digital instrument comes into its own.

‘Everyone loves a symphonic pipe organ, but they are an expensive luxury. You’d only want to do it if it was going to be put into a symphony hall. But The Concourse is a symphonic concert hall, which gets year-round use for different things, and sometimes you don’t want the symphonic pipe organ just hovering there.’

The Concourse was, however, originally designed to include an organ: a black wall in the auditorium hides a cavity where an organ is intended to be installed. When finding out what could be arranged for his concerts, Peter investigated the possibility of making use of the cavity: ‘We looked at bringing in speakers and putting them in the cavity and using it properly. At the moment it’s not possible, and so Kerry has had to bring in the speaker rig and the organ each time. It all sits on a dolly so that it can just roll in and out.’

Michael is delighted with the breadth of possibility which a Rodgers digital organ provides. ‘You could have a small chamber organ in a room, but in the rooms that we have available you’d be quite limited in terms of the tonal palette. But with a digital organ, it’s one size, and then the opportunities are limitless. I also think that unlike with a lot of instruments where the digital version falls quite significantly short of the acoustic instrument, nowadays the technology of digital organs means that they stand up for themselves.’


With a Rodgers digital organ, it’s one size, and then the opportunities are limitless.


Although the CHS was looking for an instrument for its main auditorium—and is delighted with its new Rodgers Inspire Series in that space—as Kerry Morenos of Principal Organs heard about their plans, she came to realize that they probably needed more than one organ. ‘Kerry understood that the performance hall is used quite a lot, and so she suggested we could also pop a loan instrument into a practice room. She could see the practical side of how we wanted an instrument, but we also wanted students to have access to one. She’s supplying this other instrument as a sponsorship programme, and that’s incredibly generous. In fact that practice instrument, in terms of hours played, is being used the most, more than the Rodgers Inspire Series organ.’


An electrifying effect


Like everything at the Conservatorium High School, the Keyboard Scholar programme is designed to help produce well-rounded musicians: in this case with a specialism in keyboard instruments. As Michael Bradshaw explains, ‘the Scholar programme is designed to open students’ worlds up to the keyboard instrument family. Most of them come from a strong piano background, and the performance opportunities associated with that; now they’re rotating through specialist tuition in accompaniment work or collaborative work, and also learning harpsichord. They’re doing some historical improvisation—in the past, classical musicians would do a lot of improvisation like jazz musicians, but that’s an art which has been lost now. And then, the organ, as well.’ In addition to these four specific elements (accompaniment, harpsichord, improvisation, organ), the Keyboard Scholar programme more generally helps to provide a variety of opportunities with keyboard instruments.

The programme has been in place since the beginning of the 2021 academic year: students participate over a two-year period, spending half a year on each of the four core focuses. Until the school came to acquire its own instrument, it was necessary for those studying the organ either to play the organ in the main tertiary Conservatorium, or for students to walk up Macquarie Street to the church where their teacher, Mark Quarmby, works. Each of these limited solutions necessitated a lot of time and effort on behalf of each student—before a note could even be played.

Things changed, though, when the practice instrument was installed. ‘I grabbed some students,’ Michael tells us. ‘They had heard whispers that maybe an organ was coming, and they immediately leaped in and started playing on it. The students were overjoyed, and they had the same reaction to the one in the main performance space, our Joseph Post auditorium. Immediately students were saying, “I’ll practise a piece because I want to play for an assembly.”’
The Barker concert in the Concourse is an annual event. ‘We do a Masterpiece concert every year, where the very best of our ensembles get to showcase at a greater length than what you’d normally do in a two-minute length in a school concert,’ Peter Ellis tells us. ‘We make a great effort to make the best use of the Concourse, and to give them stage space and rehearsal time in there. Like all schools, we’re very time-poor, and we don’t want to over-stress people, but—because of the nature of the Concourse—we were able to do a massed choir item at the end, allowing parents to come and join us if they wanted to, and non-music staff as well. We had a choir of about three hundred in total, including all the guest singers.’

The programme for the concert included James MacMillan’s A New Song, I was glad by C. Hubert H. Parry, Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim, and a piece commissioned from the school’s Composer-in-Residence. About this last item, Peter recounts, ‘it had an organ part to begin with, but when the composer realized that we were getting a better organ, he allowed me to go away and rewrite the organ part and make it bigger, because I knew what the organ could do.’


Rodgers Organ at The Concourse, Chatswood


When the Rodgers organ and custom audio was installed and voiced in time for the rehearsal in the Concourse, its effect was immediate. ‘We’ve never been able to programme works which are organ-specific; we’ve been able to put on works with a small organ role and use a synthesizer and get away with it. But two or three of the pieces specifically had organ parts in them, and I was only able to programme them because I knew that the organ was coming in.
‘It was transformative, particularly for young singers who need a bit of confidence: to have an organ underpinning their sound in a massed way was incredible. Even with our small chamber choir, of twenty singers, James Macmillan’s A New Song starts low on the organ, then requires all sorts of symphonic organ sounds, and goes to full organ for the end. It just would have been not doable at any other venue: even our school chapel organ hasn’t got the chops for it, to give us the breadth of ability to do all that, never mind all the symphonic sounds at the end.’


It was transformative, particularly for young singers who need a bit of confidence: to have an organ underpinning their sound in a massed way was incredible.


Two weeks later, Peter was back in the Concourse for Willoughby Symphony Choir’s performance of Elijah. ‘I’ve done Elijah in the Concourse before, without an organ, and I can now compare and contrast. The difference is incredible!’ The organ part is integral to the score: ‘They’ve discovered the original organist’s part for Elijah from the première performance,’ Peter recounts. ‘It was played by Gauntlett, who wrote Once in Royal David’s City. There’s one bit where he has scribbled in a C Major chord, and wrote “Play a C Major chord at the express request of Mr Mendelssohn.” So, we can see that Mendelssohn had specific organ parts in his ears.’

What is the difference that the organ provides for Elijah, then? ‘All the big choruses are made bigger, more dramatic, and more impactful by the judicious application of the organ. The way that Kerry set the Rodgers organ up, it was programmed to be very loud if you required it, but it also allowed you to add depth without having to pile on too many stops. It’s a problem with many organs in Sydney, that you have to pull all the stops out to get anything, together with all the squeaks and whistles. The Rodgers organ allows you to add depth without necessarily having to add all the crazy loud stops, which means that when you do want to go crazy loud in a couple of places, it has real impact because it’s not already been over-used.’


Dr D.Nicholson & CHS organ developments


SCHAS - Dr Donald Nicolson


Participants in the Conservatorium High School’s Keyboard Scholar programme, together with others in their cohort, were recently delighted to participate in a workshop with Dr Donald Nicholson. Donald, featured previously in a Showcase article, is a client of Principal Organs who is renowned for his radical projects. As Michael Bradshaw explains, the CHS strives to develop well-rounded musicians with a broad musical experience.
‘These days, to be a successful musician—both in terms of the industry and in terms of personal fulfilment—you really need to be an expert in a particular area as well as a jack of all trades. Donald Nicholson really encapsulates that, in the sense that he’s a musician who is obviously very expert, and his specialty area is French baroque and so on, but he plays organ, he plays harpsichord, he also does electronic music, so this was someone that essentially is the sort of musician that this Keyboard Scholar programme will help produce.’

What really caused the CHS students to open their hearts to Donald Nicholson, even on the last day of term, was his exuberant energy. ‘These Keyboard Scholar students were there ready to go, and the energy—you would have thought that it was day one of the term!’ They didn’t even seem to mind that the workshop lasted two hours.

‘Some of that workshop was to do with improvisation; some students were on the harpsichord, some were on the organ, some brought compositions that they had written. Donald was very comfortable just moving in between all those different styles. Our young musicians saw that he’s someone who’s comfortable in a wide variety of settings. We teach that kind of model, but we’re always going to be the boring teachers. When they have somebody from outside who is engaged in music professionally come in, they just sit up and listen, so that was wonderful.’


We teach that kind of model, but we’re always going to be the boring teachers. When they have somebody from outside who is engaged in music professionally come in, they just sit up and listen, so that was wonderful.


We are delighted to have helped introduce Donald Nicholson to the CHS keyboard scholars. But Michael Bradshaw isn’t resting on his laurels: he wants to develop further training opportunities for his organ students, and for one of those he’s seeking help from Sydney church organists. ‘One of the things that we’re hoping to do is to make connections with some of the churches that are close by, so that there might be opportunities for students to play for services. Church music is to be a wonderful opportunity for a lot of musicians. I’m hoping that some students might be inspired by this programme to take up organ as a serious primary instrument study, so we’ll see!’


AUTHOR – Richard Flynn

If you, your organists or your ensembles are in need of an organ, get in touch with Principal Organs today to discuss how we can help.


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