Scarlet, not grey should be the colour of Roy Thomson Hall’s organ


The big pipe organ at Roy Thomson Hall is 30. It had it’s first moment in the spotlight when the new building opened in Sept., 1982, but musicians were busy inside the auditorium over the summer, checking and adjusting the acoustics, so Gabriel Kney’s Opus 95 was already at work.

In my time in Toronto, the instrument has sat desperately underused and underappreciated.

Part of the problem may be the plain box it sits in, high above the stage. Architect Arthur Erickson wanted it to blend in with his grey-on-grey aesthetic. It’s like an interior designer insisting a book lover organize their shelf by colour to streamline the look of a room (I wish I was making this up).

But a pipe organ in a concert hall is — or should be — a diva, a outrageous prima donna. It should be the Measha Brueggergosman of musical instruments, with hair out to there.

Fortunately, once or twice a decade, an organist comes along who knows how to treat this musical star, metaphorically painting the grey box a shocking shade of scarlet.

Sir Andrew Davis, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the time the organ was commissioned and inaugurated, trained as an organist, so he appreciated what it could do. He frequently sat at the console himself, and even made a CD of organ solos.

The player who has impressed me most with his ability to style and colour the sounds of this complex beast is Olivier Latry, the titular organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Here is American master Diane Bish with a minute of background on the organ (before Roy Thomson Hall was renovated), followed by the performance of a transcription of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. Succeeding Bish are Davis, from his solo album, playing Sir Ernest MacMillan’s Cortège académique (written during the time he was chief organist at University of Toronto), and, finally Olivier Latry, having some extemporaneous fun:

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As an historical aside, this is probably the first recording of Andrew Davis in action, at the organ of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, accompanying the choir in Herbert Howells’ Collegium Regale setting of the Te Deum canticle, in 1967. David Willcocks (now 92) conducts:

John Terauds

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