Saturday, 17 September 2011

Majestic Sounds in the Inner City

Gordon Stewart
Gordon Stewart Gala Organ Concert
St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg
Linder Auditorium, Jhb
7 September 2011

I wish I had taken notes at this concert but as I can't find even the programme, I'm going to have to wing it. I have to say, though, that as enjoyable as the music was (a bit more on that later), I was more taken with the history and future of the venue.

The location of the cathedral can be best described as dodgy. When I attended a symphony concert at the cathedral about two years ago, the organisers were clever enough to arrange buses for the (mostly elderly) audience - it's a short but dangerous trip from Parktown to this part of Joburg - and they did so again for this performance. We were directed to the cathedral by security guards whose presence was most welcome but a sad reminder of what life is like in our city.

St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg's inner city has a fascinating history. According to an article by Lucille Davie (2007): "The church is famous for its strong ties to the struggle against apartheid. In the 1950s, it was one of the few non-racial churches in downtown Johannesburg, according to Luli Callinicos in The World that Made Mandela. The closing of St Cyprian's a few kilometres away forced the black congregants from that church to join the services at St Mary's. The adjoining Darragh House, which belonged to the church, was a venue for non-racial meetings and in the 1970s and '80s, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was dean of the church, services in support of the struggle were held."

A history of the cathedral and its congregation would make for intersting reading - are any enthusiastic historians or publishers reading this?

St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg
The organ has its own history, too. It was built, of course, in England and apparently delivered by ox wagon in 1929, the year the church was built. I believe the organ builders were Rushworth and Dreaper but don't trust my sketchy memory. The best person to ask would probably be Sidney Place, a big-wig in financial services and part-time organist, who has ensured that the organ has remained in excellent condition in recent years and who worked into the wee hours to make it concert-ready.

As my mom commented, one wonders who will take over this labour of love when Sidney is no longer able. I confess that I wonder about the future of the cathedral, too, although the renovation work is a sign of hope: the gorgeous parquet floors had recently been sanded and revarnished and one of the chapels was closed off by large plastic sheets because of the 'building work'. Sidney promised us that the fine dust on the organ pipes would be cleaned as soon as all the work had been completed. 

 The audience was smaller than I expected and we packed around the console (the contraption that houses the keyboards, pedals, stops and no doubt other things that are unfamiliar to non-players) in an L-shape. Gordon bounced in and gave a short and amusing introduction, then swung his feet over to start pedalling and plugging away at a series of well-chosen fugues, hymns and pieces written specifically for the organ. I particularly enjoyed his choice by Alfred Hollins, an organist and composer who was blind from birth. Hollins's Song of Sunshine was just that - a cheerful, warm piece that was the perfect counter to some of the more sombre fugues. (Hollins also designed the Johannesburg City Hall organ in 1916).

During his interview with Richard Cock on Classic FM's People of Note, Gordon mentioned that the pipe organ is the closest you get to having an entire orchestra in one instrument. I was reminded of that as I watched him co-ordinate the keyboards, stops and pedals - organ-playing is truly an impressive thing. Trying to imitate a Wagnerian orchestra is even more impressive, and the standing ovation for the final piece, an arrangement of Ride of the Valkyries, was well deserved. It is no mean feat to draw out all those leitmotifs without falling off the organ stool, I imagine.

During the short intermission, Mom and I wandered around the cathedral and at one point stopped and looked up at the pipes and mused about the power of this incredible instrument. My word was 'grand' but Mom's is better: the sound is indeed majestic.

As we walked out into the cleaner, quieter streets (service delivery not a problem tonight), I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear such beautiful music in my own city. The cathedral may have a wonderful history but its future is not entirely certain. For now, though, thanks to the efforts of people like Sidney Place, it is still a place of music and that is a wondrous thing. 

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