Piping hot

When it comes to the Last Night of the Proms, Wayne Marshall will be pulling out all the stops.
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The Independent Culture
What's your image of the archetypal organist? Mine is a spidery figure hunched over the console, hands and feet flying in hyperactive ecstasy, Doctor Phibes on speed. The ecstasy is solitary and unseen - high in the loft, in communion with stained-glass windows and vaulted arches. For it goes without saying that this creature's natural habitat is a church.

This is a necessary reflection of history. The organ was for centuries every church's resident orchestra, all packed up in one neat box. Patrons paid composers to write for the liturgy, and organ-building developed in response to their demands. No reverberant space allowed music to echo as the organ's did through the greater and lesser chambers - the nave, aisles, and transepts - of a church. Organs and churches were made for each other.

The Royal College of Organists is a staunch preserver of this link, damping down the secular spirits among its ranks. As a concert instrument, the organ has not yet got out from under: the best recitals are still given in church. So it's nice to find one of the RCO's more rebellious members officiating at The Last Night of the Proms tomorrow, and playing the music of Olivier Messiaen.

That's before the interval: after it, he will sit down at the piano and hammer out some Gershwin. And on Monday he will be found at the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, playing Gershwin again. Meet Wayne Marshall, with a record to sell, and a mission to spread pleasure. And meet a boy who loves playing in church.

He's crammed a lot into his first 36 years, but got off to a very quick start. His Barbadian parents had settled in Oldham on their arrival in the Fifties, and Wayne went to the local primary school where, as the only child able to play the piano, he was pressed into service for assembly. At the age of five, he had outstripped his mother's efforts to progress through the musical grades; perfect pitch was diagnosed.

He began to learn the violin, but with no pleasure - "I didn't like having to tune my instrument before playing it" - and he joined the local choir. His defining moment came when he was asked to play a few chords on the organ at a carol rehearsal. "It was amazing, and I instantly knew what I wanted to do." Like any other musically-talented young Mancunian, he entered Chetham's, the city's 344-year-old music school, at the age of 11.

"That was a shock, because I realised I wasn't the only person who could play a musical instrument, so I concentrated on football instead." He didn't start organ lessons till two years later, but from then on it was plain sailing. From organ scholar at Manchester Cathedral to organ scholar at Windsor Castle; accompanying hymns and psalms; getting Stanford, Elgar, and the rest of the English repertoire under his belt; and finally plugging into the magic of the repertoire on the other side of the Channel.

The English choral tradition is one thing, the English organ tradition is quite another, and he's no fan of it. "It's too similar, too simple, too green. It's like Anglicanism compared with Catholicism - it's got no guts. I was always accused of playing too fast and too loud. What excited me was the French Romantic stuff - Widor, Dupre and Vierne - with its fantastic colour and drama." Standing in as organist at Worcester Cathedral, he was told by the dean that, as he was now in Elgar country, he should tailor his voluntaries accordingly: his response was a torrent of Widor.

If the organ repertoire is vast, so is the range and variety of organs. "No two instruments are the same. Each is a different challenge, and each building has an acoustic which has to be learnt. My aim is to make whatever I am playing sound as good as possible, and as much like the orchestral instrument which in reality it is." One of his current posts is as organist- in-residence at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall: advising on the design of its big new instrument, he pushed the sound towards the cinematic end of the spectrum. Magnificent though this organ is, he can think of better: his favourite is in Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. He defends the much-criticised Bridgewater acoustic, but prefers an ecclesiastical one. "In the vastness of a church, the sound can move. Concert halls tend to diminish it."

As his Gershwin records attest, he's a superbly accomplished pianist, but watching the young meteors at Chetham's cured him of any desire to enter the lists with Liszt. "There are too many pianists in the world. But the organ itself demands a virtuoso piano technique, so mine has come in handy." He was a late convert to jazz, propelled towards his heroes, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson by - of all things - a Stevie Wonder record he chanced to hear when he was 16. "But as I'd been improvising since I was four, the jump was easy." Tomorrow's Prom underlines a connection he wants people to realise: "Some of Messiaen's harmonies are very Gershwinesque."

But his biggest hero is the American organist Virgil Fox, who toured in the Fifties with his own light show, and prefaced his performances with talk. Marshall also likes to talk, and to have the Bridgewater's movable electronic console placed in the middle of the stage - partly to gauge the instrument's effect, partly to see the people he's playing to. He's a dedicated populariser, an unashamed tonalist, and a deflater of avant-garde hubris. As an audition-accompanist at Glyndebourne, he once confessed to Harrison Birtwistle that he didn't know much of his music. "He looked at me witheringly and just said two words - `Your loss!' My loss? I'm not so sure about that."

Glyndebourne launched Marshall on the conducting career which he now pursues in tandem with his keyboard one, though its course has been less smooth. He was a miserable associate conductor for Simon Callow's Carmen Jones - whose alternating pop and classical casts he regarded as a directorial folly - and he has just finished an equally miserable stint in a similar job with Porgy and Bess in Bregenz. He likes to be in control. And to take risks, as witness his Stravinsky improvisations, his crazily-complex Fledermaus transcriptions, and his live recording sessions at night - "with just one lamp, at two in the morning. I do my best when it's still and quiet, and I have clarity of mind."

He's a cool dresser, a fast liver, and suffers more nerves in thunderstorms than he does on stage. He has no false modesty, no pretension, and a curious diffidence when he is asked about his long-term goal. His reply to that is unhesitating, and has nothing to do with music: now still a bachelor, he wants to be the father of a family.

At no point does he make any reference to the difficulties he may have met in a sub-profession known for its tight, all-white insularity. He often goes back to play in Barbados. How Barbadian does he feel? "I don't really think about it. Don't forget I was born here. But I'm not English in spirit." What is he then? "Free." And that reply comes quick as a flashn

Wayne Marshall plays at the Last Night of the Proms, 7.30pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall (sold out) and live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC2 (Part 1), BBC1 (Part 2)

`I Got Rhythm: Wayne Marshall plays Gershwin' is on Virgin 7243 5 6147829

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