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At The Console

Simon Lindley on a quarter of a century
as Civic Organist

Recollection suggests that it all came about as the result of an exchange of correspondence between members and officers of Leeds Organists' Association and the City Council. Richard and Anne Wilson of Roundhay were integral to it all. It remains a matter of surmise as to whether I would have secured the post in open competition!

At any rate, early in January 1976 the writer presented himself at the space-ship like offices of the then new Civic Hall annexe [now demolished] to be interviewed by Raymond Anderton, senior administrative officer in the City's fledgling Leisure Services Department then headed up by Michael Palmer-Jones. The basis of the interview made it clear that I was going to be appointed the fourth City Organist; no money would change hands and the duties were minimal. I was, however, to be consulted on all matters relating to the organ and its welfare. A couple of very milky cups of civic coffee later I departed into the chill of the early evening. And there it rested.

As far as could be ascertained, the only duty involved playing the loyal air a sufficient number of times to enable the procession of Judges at the beginning of the Crown Court term in October to move from one end of the Town Hall to the other – and even that was abandoned after a year or two.

The City had had the good sense to obtain Dr Donald Hunt's services as consultant to the organ project and it is greatly to the credit of my distinguished predecessor as organist of the Parish Church that the Town Hall organ had been magnificently rebuilt in 1972. It is well-known that the active support of Walter Hart, then Music Advisor to the Education Committee and the presence in Leeds of a thriving organ building firm (Wood, Wordsworth & Co) were other hugely influential factors in the equation. Although there had been much discussion of the possible merits of an electronic replacement,  ultimately common-sense and artistic integrity prevailed over short-term financial economy.

The rejuvenation of the Town Hall organ was a considerable triumph. To be brutally honest, the vast five-manual instrument installed originally by the London firm of Gray & Davison in 1858/9 had not proved an enormous success. At the turn of the last century it had been subject to no less than two rebuilds in a decade (1898 and 1908) by the acclaimed Leeds firm of Abbott & Smith.

By the 1920s it had become almost impossible to tune the instrument with any degree of success, so overcrowded had the organ chamber become. Apart from decades of filth, Wood Wordsworth's hard-working craftsmen were confronted by vast amounts of frankly mediocre pipework – much of which had been altered beyond recognition since its original installation. Nothing but a complete re-casting would work. The organ was reduced to a three manual, with a detached console raised and lowered from crypt level on an hydraulic apparatus. Solid state printed circuitry was used, for the first time in Britain, on a major instrument and the organ as we know it today was born.

Leeds Town Hall organ is an eclectic artistic resource capable of providing suitable timbres for organ music of all schools. The Victoria Hall is particularly kind to organ tone, and its rich resonance is an enormous asset for the player. The celebrations at its re-opening included a number of full length organ concerts held in the evening at which the instrument was put through its paces by Flor Peeters, Dr Francis Jackson and Donald Hunt himself.

A gradual burgeoning process involved the presentation of occasional lunchtime recitals as part of the longstanding  Wednesday Art Gallery series.

By 1978 regular recitals on Tuesdays had become an established feature of Leeds' musical life, only to be disrupted during the following season owing to the closure of the hall for re-plastering, redecoration and repair. The organ was cleaned and recitals returned from the Parish Church during what had become a memorable period of musical chairs in and around the West Riding. During the 2004/2005 season and the major Town Hall refurbishment, all recitals were transferred to Leeds Cathedral [St Anne's RC] on the corner of Cookridge Street and Great George Street, where performers and audiences alike were the recipients of a very warm welcome from Cathedral Dean Father Michael McCreadie and Director of Music Benjamin Saunders.

From 1979 onwards, the number of recitals increased in tandem with additional financial resource provided by Leisure Services. By the time the City Organist joined the department's staff on a full-time basis at the end of 1987 the lunchtime concerts numbered between 25 and 30 each season

Since 1990 there have been recitals weekly each season from early Autumn until Holy Week. The move from Tuesday to Monday has been generally accepted, though resulted in the loss of a number of very regular audience members which has taken a season or two to redress. Quite simply, the day change made thorough commercial and logistic sense. The number of mid-week conferences needing the Hall on a Tuesday and the relative rarity of enquiries for Monday bookings made a change inevitable. The great sadness of that transposition for the lover of organ music nationwide has brought about an exact calendar congruence between Birmingham, Huddersfield and Leeds audiences; just a few years ago, it will be remembered that Huddersfield on Monday, Leeds on Tuesday and Birmingham on Wednesday made for a pleasant organ-crawl during the early part of a week.

The use of the instrument by visiting artists is always a joy and immensely stimulating for those of use who play it regularly. Francis Jackson makes it speak like no-one else and the relationship over the years with regular guests of the calibre of John Birch, Peter Hurford, Jane Parker-Smith, Gordon Stewart, Ian Tracey and Thomas Trotter has been immensely fruitful and beneficial for our "regulars". 

For the larger-scale concert, the organ has been and is played regularly by artists of the calibre of Professor Graham Barber, Darius Battiwalla, Peter King, Bernard Robertson, Jonathan Scott and Simon Wright as well as by the incumbent city organist.

For myself, there have been many memorable highlights including Handel Concertos with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Albinoni Adagios, Enigmas, Planets and Poulenc Concertos in some profusion. There was also, in 1993, a somewhat terrifying baptism of fire in the form of a live recording of the fiendishly tricky Khachaturian organ symphony with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos. A particular ambition is to be able to programme, and perhaps play, the wonderfully evocative Whitlock Symphony for organ and orchestra which had been performed at Leeds in the 1930s by the composer himself.

Less auspicious have been the times (mercifully, rare!) when the organ developed a mind of its own – most embarrassing of all being a fine recital by Margaret Philips when the action cut-outs on one of the keyboards all blew at once leading to open season in the cyphering department. Nothing daunted, Miss Philips sportingly switched the organ on and off twice in as many minutes and continued with her programme, cool as the proverbial cucumber, as if nothing were amiss – a true professional taking everything in her stride.

In terms of audience development, the regular scheduling of Meet the Town Hall Organ sessions, normally programmed for the Saturday morning of a concert-day at around the school half term(s) seems to continue to find favour. A recent collaboration with the Orchestra of Opera North included two schools' concerts with the organ featured in such diverse repertoire as Banjaxed, a Lord of the Rings medley and a Harry Potter fantasy.

The instrument features invariably early each autumn in the International Day of Older Persons civic celebration held on the most convenient weekday nearest to October 1st. At the IDOP events our regular guests have included Dr Arnold Loxam, doyen of English theatre and cinema organists and Opera North stars Victoria Sharp and David Owen-Lewis.

The writer's tenth season was marked by a special recital of music for flute and organ with special guest soloist Miss Mary Ryan of the Tilford Festival and London Festival Players, and in January 2001 the 25th anniversary of my appointment was marked by a lunchtime concert attended by Lord Mayor Councillor Bernard Atha OBE – a souvenir programme was produced and coffee and cake were available afterwards. In January of 2006 there will be a similar recital, but one held in the early evening to enable those to attend whose commitments make a lunchtime visit to the Hall impossible. This will be one of a very small number of evening organ concerts held over the years, the most memorable of which was undoubtedly the Leeds Summer Heritage Festival appearance by Khazakstan violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev.

Marat, David Greed [the indefatigable and brilliant leader of the Opera North Orchestra] and cornet virtuoso Phillip McCann are among the most regular guest instrumentalists in the lunchtime organ concert series.

Other elements remain focused on eagerly awaited visits each season from the Choirs of Leeds Parish Church and Leeds Cathedral and from Huddersfield University Brass Band and the Sellers International Band.

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