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News: Organathon Report

Thank you to everyone who supported last weekend's fantastic organ marathon. Organists past and present played from 8pm on Friday, through the night to 8pm (or just after) on Saturday. We are delighted to announce that over £8000 has been raised for the Cathedral's Music Development Foundation to help build an endowment for the Lay Clerks.

Here is a selection of photographs taken during the event.

Head Choristers preparing for the Gala Opening

11pm to midnight - The Precentor at the controls

Canon Sporty (Frost) listening to the Precentor

Midnight to 2am - Alex Berry (Organ Scholar)

Midnight - a request for Alex Berry to play Jerusalem (the 'overnighters' couldn't help but join in

An appreciative audience

A branch of the 'overnighters' trying to sleep in the West Gallery

Others in the Sanctuary!

2am to 4am - David Davies obviously enjoying himself

and the slippers ...

4am to 6am - Brian Cotterill (Director of the Occasional Singers) see report from his scrutiniser/page turner below

6am to 8am - The Organist and Master of the Choristers takes over

Following 'Morning has Broken' at 7am, Katherine proceeded to play Messiaen's L'Ascension

8am - Over to the Refectory for a Full English Breakfast

The 'overnighters' enjoying their breakfast

The Finale Concert - Land of Hope and Glory!

An astonishing £1000 was bid for the Organist to play Widor's Toccata blindfold - she felt very sick but played magnificently

Well deserved applause from the Dean

24 hours later and a standing ovation

The Dean with his special slippers at the party afterwards!

The Page Turner's Story (by a Chorister Parent, one of the 'overnighters')

Admit it. You too have gazed up to that little gallery just above where the Dean sits during a service and wondered what goes on behind that little half curtain? What happens there that is deemed better screened off from view? In the same way that economy passengers have a curtain whipped across in front of them to prevent them seeing the largesse being dished out to business class passengers, ("more Champagne, sir, another hot towel") are we being denied a peek at a more cosseted existence? Or is it for our own safety? Recognition, perhaps, that the less contact organists have with the congregation the better for both.

You may say it was a ‘pipe dream' of mine to find out. You may say it but it's far too corny for me, so I won't. Suffice it to say, organists do not give up their secrets easily.
Not only did I have to part with hard cash (all in a good cause, I was assured), I also had to agree to be locked in the Cathedral overnight and rendezvous with an organist between the hours of 04h00-06h00 in the morning. Then, and only then, would the ‘secrets' be revealed.

When my time came, I was ushered up a very steep and winding staircase to that little celestial gallery to find Brian Cotterill, Director of Music at Lanesborough already well into his first piece of his first two hour stint (hmm, or should that be set or gig? Oeuvre even?)

The first thing that struck me was that - well - it could have done with a jolly good tidy up. No, not Brian, the organ. This was clearly a tool of working men (and women). This was not some electronic keyboard that sits in the corner of your Auntie's house forever muted by its plastic cover. This one had old coffee cups on the top, yellow post-its all over it (the equivalent of an organist's fridge door - "DD your turn to get milk") and orders of service from months ago. Biros and pencils lay in every nook and cranny ready to annotate, be sucked upon or launch a missile attack on the choristers below. There was even a blindfold...

It's only when you looked beyond the hubris that you start to admire the organ itself. This is the one of the last great machines - the traction engine of the musical world - evoking similar devotion by its band of followers.

The Guildford Cathedral organ has 4 keyboards, 100 drawstops, including 76 Speaking stops, 22 Couplers and 2 Tremulants, and 63 thumb and toe pistons (I know I counted them during one of Brian's longer pieces). It has more buttons than a cockpit of a Boeing 747 and - get this - no computer. Not one. Not even an autopilot to glide you through a turbulent piece by Bach. Nor, amongst all the pistons and stops was there button to push to put a simple ‘Bossa Nova' beat under the hymns. This is truly a manual system. My digital watch seemed to jar in its presence.

The only ‘optional extra' was a mirror just above the organist's head. Naturally, I assumed that this had been installed for Mrs D-W to help with powdering and make up etc before descending to conduct the boys. Brian laughed at this, "No" he said, "it was installed for David Davies...!" I left it there; I didn't wish to enquire further.

"Ah", said Brian, this is a beautiful piece". "I'll need you to turn the pages, though." I'm not sure he saw the colour drain from my face. Was this the moment to admit I can't read music? Or should I try and bluff my way through? I looked at it. Three staves! And the notes! So many notes! Were they all strictly necessary? Surely Brian wasn't going to play all of them? We'd be here all night. Come to think of it, we were here all night.
And then there were the instructions written at the top of the music just like pre-fight checks. "Set Nazard to off, open the Flageolet (I kid you not, there is a stop with this written on it - I thought it was a bean best served with lamb) and pull out the Sesquialtra. Roger and out." Checks complete, Brian placed his left hand on the uppermost keyboard, right hand on the middle, his feet now working the toe pistons - and we were ready for take-off.

Oh, and how the music soared. The pipes, all 4,398 of them (I counted them too, I was locked in all night remember) are directly behind the organist's gallery giving a ‘Dolby surround sound' feel. I can see where they got the idea for that famous Maxell tape ad now - I was literally blasted out of my seat.

But to get the sound out of this leviathan (no, not Brian, the organ) requires a physical and mental co-ordination unknown outside of "Strictly Come Dancing". I don't mean the simple ‘being-able-to-rub your-tummy-and-pat-your-head-at-the-same-time' kind of coming togetherness, more the type of dexterity that got Nadia Comaneci 5 Gold medals at the '76 Olympics.

Nothing prepared me for how physically demanding organ playing is. Everything is in motion. It cries out ‘multi-tasking'. My presence required a further contortion from Brian as he soon realised he was ‘flying solo' without the competent co-pilot who could perform a simple page turn without instruction.

"TURN NOW!" he pleaded, his fingers and arms otherwise engaged translating all those crotchets and quavers into masterly key strokes. I tried not to let the hurt show that I had been shouted at by my son's teacher. Would I get through the two hours without being given a yellow card and sent to see Mrs Turnbull in the morning?

But I'd like to think that, as in all the great musical partnerships, by the time the sun was beginning to rise, we were beginning to ‘gel' . I now knew that a nervous look by Brian in my direction meant ‘page turn coming up ... NOW' and he didn't seem to mind too much when I accidently rested my foot on the Sub Bass pedal top F, thereby adding an extra note to a work of Rutter that the composer might have added himself if only he had thought of it...!

Approaching the end of two hours non-stop playing (note to boys - it may have given Mr Cotterill ideas about lengthening practice times), the physical demands were beginning to take their toll. I was on my inhaler (brought on by dust, altitude sickness and exhaustion at watching Brian) and although tired, he was still going strong, knocking out "hit after Organathon hit". Not even the donning of a ‘Partonesque' wig (which some sadistic colleague of Brian had insisted him wearing before agreeing to cough up sponsorship money) slowed him down.

As we came into the final piece, Brian once again pulled out the stop bearing the legend ‘Swell to Great' before playing the final few chords. Yes, I thought, a perfect summary of my experience - a swell time in the presence of a great player.

I am proud to say ‘I was there' at the 24 hour Organathon 2008 as Brian Cotterill's ‘personal' page turner! I have had the T-shirt made up already.

Gentlemen (and lady) of the organ, don't be shy. Pull back that curtain, the congregation should not be denied the spectacle that is the organist in full flight.

Play on, play up and play Toccata again!

Added Wednesday 1st October 2008