Arts: Pulling out all the stops

Men are no longer the only masters of the organ.
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ONCE UPON a time there was a fanciful-looking Italianate building opposite the ticket office of the Royal Albert Hall in London. Behind its narrow, mullioned windows toiled Dickensian clerks in rusty suits, and within its gloomy chambers pallid young gentlemen and fewer young ladies submitted to examinations in which most were found wanting, at least the first time, and, in many cases, the umpteenth. It was called The Royal College of Organists.

Eight years ago the College moved its headquarters to the spacious, rebuilt Wren church of St Andrew, Holborn, and dusted down its image. The exams are no doubt as demanding as ever, but the college now has a senior executive who is young, wears suits that are sharp enough to notice, and talks business in a purposeful way.

Last May the college also launched a series of public recitals at St Andrew's, called "Young and Gifted", as all the players were under 30. They were also all men. Rather surprisingly, the second series, which starts on Thursday, has been chosen by a woman - who never took the college's exams, although she is a brilliant player.

Catherine Ennis is organist at St Lawrence Jewry, where she gives weekly recitals herself as well as inviting guest players. It was her wide range of contacts and, as co-ordinator of an organ concert guide in London, her knowledge of who was playing what and where, that recommended her for the job.

The point about sex is fair, because there are almost as many brilliant women organists today as there are men. Catherine Ennis has chosen three women out of her total of six players. The first, Ann Elise Smoot, organist of St Luke's Chelsea, has just won the biggest organ competition in the US, at Denver. Sarah Baldock, who plays on 29 October, was recently appointed assistant organist at Winchester Cathedral and is in charge of the new girls' choir there. Anne Page, who moved from Australia nearly 20 years ago, lives in Cambridge and runs the city's Summer Festival.

One of the refreshing aspects of Catherine Ennis's choice of players is that she has made neither youth nor formal appointments a qualification. Most important to her is each player's ability "to make music at the organ", which is not the same as the capacity to bring off brilliant performances of individual big works.

And Ennis wants to show that the organ is not just a historical phenomenon; it is alive and kicking, with a constantly growing repertoire. Which is why she has called the series "The Personal Touch".

Each player is free to include any kind of music playable on the instrument at St Andrew's - which, as a two-manual organ of relatively modest scope, has its limitations - but each has also been asked to include something recent, preferably by a composer whom the organist knows personally.

Perhaps the most striking example is the programme offered by Patrick Russill in the last recital on 26 November. Russill, organist at Brompton Oratory and head of the church music course at the Royal Academy of Music, intersperses the sharply focused Baroque music of Francois Couperin's Messe pour les Couvents with the lusher, splashier sounds of Francis Grier's Te Deum, which breaks up into sections, like the canticle it's based on.

David Gammie, on 22 October, promises a rich blow-out of Romantic music, including a Prelude and Fugue by Franz Schmidt and more recent pieces by Dick Koomans and Peter Lawson.

Martin Baker, currently in charge of music at Westminster Abbey, includes not only pieces by Dan Lockair and the American Pamela Decker, but also his own improvisation. He declined Ennis's suggestion to write it down beforehand. He is fiery, dynamic and above all, a "live" player. St Andrew's ought to be full for his recital on 12 November.

`The Personal Touch', a series of six organ recitals at St Andrew's Holborn, 15, 22, 29 October, 12, 19 & 26 November at 6pm. Tickets pounds 3 at the door, or call 0171-936 3606