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One of UK’s best-known organists, Gordon Stewart, is in Joburg to give two concerts at the St George’s Anglican Church in Parktown.

SCOTSMAN Gordon Stewart put on his “dancing shoes”, and proceeded to make glorious music. Not with his shoes but with his hands and feet on the newly installed organ in St George’s Anglican Church in Parktown.

Gordon Stewart doing what he loves best – making glorious music on the organGordon Stewart doing what he loves best – making glorious music on the organHe explains that tap shoes, without the metal taps underneath, are ideal for playing an organ. They are slightly adapted, with a layer added to the heel, allowing each foot to play two different notes, using the toes and the heel.

Stewart is one of the UK’s best-known and exceptional concert organists and is in Joburg to give two concerts in the church. He has played on organs across the world, including the one in St Mary’s Anglican Church in the CBD, the biggest cathedral organ in the southern hemisphere.

Stewart says that the organist is the only musician who uses both his feet and hands to play his instrument. He says he once asked a brain surgeon about playing the organ. “He said that there is no instrument that uses so much of the brain.” In some pieces the feet are playing both the base and the tune.

He has his own modest 4-stop organ at home on which he practises, but he usually pops into his local Derbyshire parish church to do more serious practice. But even more fun is travelling the world and exploring organs in different countries.

“Everywhere I go, I meet a completely new instrument,” he enthuses.

He will be spending a next few days getting to know the 33-stop Parktown organ, and will be playing a varied programme on Sunday and Monday evenings, covering several centuries of music, from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Many visits to SA
He has visited South Africa many times over the past 20 years, performing in concerts, teaching, directing choral events, and even getting the BBC to film Songs of Praise in St Mary’s Cathedral in 2004.

For his present concerts he aims to use every stop on the organ to indicate what the organ is capable of, starting with trumpet tunes by Henry Purcell. Also on the programme is music by blind composer John Stanley, Bach, Festing, Lefébure-Wély, Mendelssohn, Charles-Marie Widor, Best, Bernard Johnson, and Louis Vierne.

He has played in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, both in London, the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, and throughout Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand. After this visit he will be leading a tour of all the historic organs in the Netherlands, following a similar tour in Germany previously where he played on organs that JS Bach, the most prolific organ composer of all, would have known and played.

He teaches organ at Cambridge University, and has played concertos with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and other significant UK orchestras. He has broadcast as a soloist and conductor on BBC radio and television for over 20 years.

Started playing at 7
Stewart, the son of a Presbyterian minister, says he started playing the piano at the age of 7, moving on to the organ at 12 years. He was fascinated by the workings of the organ – the St George’s organ weighs 8,5 tons and its 1 984 pipes take up several small rooms. “The organ is like a giant building set, and in those days I spent more time inside it.”

By 16 he could repair an organ, and about the same time he realised that he could make money from playing the organ, and his career was born.

He contends that an organist has to know how an organ works, to play it successfully. And that often means that the organist has to have a maths background.

“There is a close link between science and music – music is seen as a science,” he says.

“I have never had a successful student who wasn’t a mathematician,” he adds.
His composer of choice is Bach – “I could happily live with only playing Bach” – but he recognises that his repertoire must be wider than that.

Stewart says that he learns as much about a composer as possible, to “bring his music off a page and into life”.

But when playing, the only people that matter are the audience. “It is a total giving of yourself – there is nowhere to hide your emotions”.

And where does he go in his head when making beautiful music? “I am never far from the dance, the rhythmic sense of the dance.”

He says too, that enthusiasm is the secret. And he has buckets of that.

Ordering the organ
Sidney Place, the St Mary’s Cathedral’s Diocesan Organ Advisor, says St George’s Church parish council decided to replace their 86-year-old small organ with something bigger in the year of their centenary, 2004.

Nicky and Strilli Oppenheimer, who attend the church, got involved, and ended up donating the funds for the organ.

“In September 2008 a decision was taken to appoint Rieger-Orgelbau of Austria to build an organ of 33 stops with 1 984 pipes,” says Place.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. Rieger had several orders for large organs already on their books, so St George’s order went into the queue. They waited for three and a half years, and it was eventually delivered in January 2012.

It took Rieger staff three months to install the organ, with most of that time spent by two “voicers”, who spent their time adjusting the pipes to get the perfect sound. “They have done a phenomenal job,” says Place.

“Planning, building and voicing the St George’s organ took us more than 9 000 hours of labour, always with the objective in mind of meeting our stringent criteria and your expectations,” indicates Wendelin Eberle, the owner of Rieger-Orgelbau, in the programme. “Building this organ for you was, in equal measure, both an honour and a pleasure. Through it, we are leaving a part of us with you, albeit in the knowledge that, in so doing, we have found new friends!”

This week’s concert is one of four planned in the church. Other organists are John Scott, who will play in August; Olivier Latry, who will make music in November; and Nathan Laube, who will hit the keyboard in February next year.

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