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St David's Hall, Cardiff


Peter Clark

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Despite living in Cardiff for 17 years it was only last night that I got to play the organ in St David's Hall, rehearsing for a Mass on Sunday. Here's the NOPR entry:

 

http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch...ec_index=N09211

 

I understand there were problems when it was first opened and that a firm other than the original was brought in to sort things out, the 1990 rebuild being done by "unknown". Why the mystery, I wonder? Anybody know anything?

 

(Not to be confused with St David's Cathedral, Cardiff, which needs a lot of work.... but which can be heard on R4's morning worship this coming Sunday.)

 

P

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Despite living in Cardiff for 17 years it was only last night that I got to play the organ in St David's Hall, rehearsing for a Mass on Sunday. Here's the NOPR entry:

 

http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch...ec_index=N09211

 

I understand there were problems when it was first opened and that a firm other than the original was brought in to sort things out, the 1990 rebuild being done by "unknown". Why the mystery, I wonder? Anybody know anything?

 

(Not to be confused with St David's Cathedral, Cardiff, which needs a lot of work.... but which can be heard on R4's morning worship this coming Sunday.)

 

P

 

Hi Peter,

 

'Unknown' was J.W. Walker! They basically replaced the whole action and the console. I understand that there was a lot of embarrassment all round, as the organ had cost the then South Glamorgan County Council (who donated it as their contribution to the scheme which was promoted by the then Cardiff City Council) £168,000 in 1982. The action was fairly disasterous from day one, and I think the council wanted to keep quiet about the amount of money which needed to be spent on it only 8 years later. Whether there was a contractual obligation to anonymity I don't know, but Walkers make no reference to the job in any of their advertising material. Neither does it feature on anything from Peter Collins!

 

S

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Hi Peter,

 

'Unknown' was J.W. Walker! They basically replaced the whole action and the console. I understand that there was a lot of embarrassment all round, as the organ had cost the then South Glamorgan County Council (who donated it as their contribution to the scheme which was promoted by the then Cardiff City Council) £168,000 in 1982. The action was fairly disasterous from day one, and I think the council wanted to keep quiet about the amount of money which needed to be spent on it only 8 years later. Whether there was a contractual obligation to anonymity I don't know, but Walkers make no reference to the job in any of their advertising material. Neither does it feature on anything from Peter Collins!

 

S

 

I had also heard that it was Walkers. However, I think they did more than that as it is now possible to see pipes against the wall behind the organ on the LHS. (Is this new full length 32 reed resonators?). The tale I heard was that it was not until Dame Gillian Weir complained about the heavy action that Pennells from Walkers were approached. I think that Peter Collins originally had the design of the action checked over by a mechanical engineer to ensure that it was OK.

PJW

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I had also heard that it was Walkers. However, I think they did more than that as it is now possible to see pipes against the wall behind the organ on the LHS. (Is this new full length 32 reed resonators?). The tale I heard was that it was not until Dame Gillian Weir complained about the heavy action that Pennells from Walkers were approached. I think that Peter Collins originally had the design of the action checked over by a mechanical engineer to ensure that it was OK.

PJW

 

 

I think I'm right in saying the original architectural drawings supplied to the organbuilder understated the height of the ceiling above the organ, which why is the lower notes of the 32ft reed were made with half-length resonators.

 

JS

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Ralph Downes

 

Having been asked to tender for the original contract, I contacted the then conductor of the Welsh National Opera who said, "for goodness sake don't have a mechanical action with attached console. The organist will be sitting at the back of the platform and have to play with one eye in the mirror and there are very few who can do that. Imagine putting a concerto soloist right at the back of the orchestra. What is needed is a mobile detached console that can be placed in such a position, so that when necessary, the organist and a conductor can have proper communication and when you are thinking of the specification bear in mind the accompaniment of Welsh Choirs".

 

I discussed this with Mr Downes who simply threw out this line of thought (and me) as he did not seem to think the organ would be used for anything other than organ recitals and anyway that any organ (at this time) was not to be considered unless it had mechanical action. It is interesting to see times have changed.

 

FF

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Ralph Downes - a lovely man but somewhat misguided at times. Of his magnus opus at the RFH, I read in the new edition of GRAMOPHONE that the remainder of the organ is unlikely to be installed until 2011. Can this really be true?

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Guest Lee Blick
Ralph Downes - a lovely man but somewhat misguided at times. Of his magnus opus at the RFH, I read in the new edition of GRAMOPHONE that the remainder of the organ is unlikely to be installed until 2011. Can this really be true?

 

I really hope it isn't the case. Am I being cynical in thinking that the authorities don't want the whole organ reinstalled? Considering the amount that is being spent on the whole South Bank redevelopment, it does seem rather odd that the rebuilding of the whole is not beeing done all at once.

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Having been asked to tender for the original contract, I contacted the then conductor of the Welsh National Opera who said, "for goodness sake don't have a mechanical action with attached console. The organist will be sitting at the back of the platform and have to play with one eye in the mirror and there are very few who can do that. Imagine putting a concerto soloist right at the back of the orchestra. What is needed is a mobile detached console that can be placed in such a position, so that when necessary, the organist and a conductor can have proper communication and when you are thinking of the specification bear in mind the accompaniment of Welsh Choirs".

 

I discussed this with Mr Downes who simply threw out this line of thought (and me) as he did not seem to think the organ would be used for anything other than organ recitals and anyway that any organ (at this time) was not to be considered unless it had mechanical action. It is interesting to see times have changed.

 

FF

And repeated at Birmingham in Symphony Hall. I've been to a number of concerts there with the organ; solo recitals, duos, with choirs, with the orchestra, and the only one that didn't use the detatched console was a Songs of Praise event (sorry to have to admit that!) where they didn't want the organ cluttering up the stage. Money wasted on the console at the back.

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Having been asked to tender for the original contract, I contacted the then conductor of the Welsh National Opera who said, "for goodness sake don't have a mechanical action with attached console. The organist will be sitting at the back of the platform and have to play with one eye in the mirror and there are very few who can do that. Imagine putting a concerto soloist right at the back of the orchestra. What is needed is a mobile detached console that can be placed in such a position, so that when necessary, the organist and a conductor can have proper communication and when you are thinking of the specification bear in mind the accompaniment of Welsh Choirs".

 

I discussed this with Mr Downes who simply threw out this line of thought (and me) as he did not seem to think the organ would be used for anything other than organ recitals and anyway that any organ (at this time) was not to be considered unless it had mechanical action. It is interesting to see times have changed.

 

FF

 

How different things could have been. Obviously I never knew any of the politics that went on before the contract was awarded, but it has to be said that the WNO conductor was absolutely right, and Ralph Downes almost totally wrong - not only in what sort of organ he thought the hall needed, but also in its uses.

 

The organ has never been a very successful recital instrument, and has done a great deal more accompanimental work than solo. Having said that, these days it doesn't seem to do a great deal of either.

 

Since the acoustic of the hall does about as much for the Collins organ as the RFH did for the Harrison, and that the same consultant was involved, it does beg the question of who chose the consultant for the Cardiff job, and by what criteria?

 

S

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Guest Barry Oakley
How different things could have been. Obviously I never knew any of the politics that went on before the contract was awarded, but it has to be said that the WNO conductor was absolutely right, and Ralph Downes almost totally wrong - not only in what sort of organ he thought the hall needed, but also in its uses.

 

The organ has never been a very successful recital instrument, and has done a great deal more accompanimental work than solo. Having said that, these days it doesn't seem to do a great deal of either.

 

Since the acoustic of the hall does about as much for the Collins organ as the RFH did for the Harrison, and that the same consultant was involved, it does beg the question of who chose the consultant for the Cardiff job, and by what criteria?

 

S

 

There seems to have been controversy surrounding most of the organs that Ralph Downes was ever connected with. Were there any that have not been found wanting insofar as all-round suitability was concerned?

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There seems to have been controversy surrounding most of the organs that Ralph Downes was ever connected with. Were there any that have not been found wanting insofar as all-round suitability was concerned?

 

 

===========================

 

 

At risk of repeating a great deal of that discussed over a year ago, it may well be that there are not-so-much ill-judged organs contained in concert-halls, but ill-judged concert-halls containing otherwise good instruments.

 

Controversy is nothing if not controversial, but we may talk away forever and never find the truth of the matter, unless we go back to first-principles, and begin to appreciate what buildings can do to, as well as do for organs.

 

MM

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Guest Cynic
There seems to have been controversy surrounding most of the organs that Ralph Downes was ever connected with. Were there any that have not been found wanting insofar as all-round suitability was concerned?

 

Some are very effective and rarely moaned about. My list would include:

Fairfield Halls, Croydon

St.Alban's Abbey

Paisley Abbey - a very fine instrument (if you like that sort of thing)

 

Not forgetting - Brompton Oratory, surely! This is (according to some high-minded know-it-alls in the trade) very poorly built, but it still makes an exceptional fist of a vast swathe of repertoire, considering how modest-sized an instrument it actually is.

 

 

An alternative question (relating to St.David's Hall) might be, what early Collins organs have not already received replacement actions? There are a number that have.

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An alternative question (relating to St.David's Hall) might be, what early Collins organs have not already received replacement actions? There are a number that have.

I don't know about that, but I know that Richard Bower recently had to completely reconstruct the Collins at Brasenose Coellege, Oxford

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Guest Barry Williams
There seems to have been controversy surrounding most of the organs that Ralph Downes was ever connected with. Were there any that have not been found wanting insofar as all-round suitability was concerned?

 

 

Mr Downes' design for the Fairfield Hall is probably the least successful of all his instruments. The location makes accompaniment difficult and often impossible. The multiple chests and underactions caused 'chattering' - improved somewhat with the installation of solid state, but the tonal design is lamentable. For example, many recitalists have been reduced to coupling the Choir mixture to the Great to achieve an ordinary level of brilliance for Bach, because of the incorrect design of the Great mixture. This is but one fault in an instrument riddled with many such errors. I doubt if H & H were responsible for the design faults. Having listened to the instrument for almost forty years I respectfully disagree that the Fairfield Hall organ is effective.

 

John Degens told me that H & H was the only organ builder that would permit Mr Downes to be in the voicing shop whe the RFH was being voiced. I do not know whether he was in fact in the shop at any time. However, I learned that he had no hearing on one side and only a very limited range on the other. It is quite likely therefore that he did not hear organs as others hear them.

 

Barry Williams

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However, I learned that he had no hearing on one side and only a very limited range on the other. It is quite likely therefore that he did not hear organs as others hear them.

But as that is true not only of the organs he was working on, but also of the models he was trying to emulate, it could well be less of a disadvantage than at first appears. My wife has limited hearing, but is still very well able to make comparitive judgements.

 

Paul

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A bit expensive for 2 pages but might make interesting reading for those who have been active in this topic.

 

http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0027-4666...%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B

 

 

Anyway, I got to play it for a Mass yesterday - the Archbishop presiding - and I think it did well to support a completely liturgical programme given that it is essentially a concert instrument. The actual programme was quite modest:

 

Ecce Sacerdos - Elgar

Laudate Dominum - Mozart

Ave Verum - Elgar

Panis Angelicus - Franck

The Lord Bless you - Rutter

 

(this last was the least succesful because the deacon announced the dismissal while I was playing the introduction! He didn't read his order of service properly.)

 

Plainsong Kyrie and Sanctus with a modern responsorial Gloria by Peter Jones (used when the Pope came to Britain in 1982), Psalm, Gospel Greeting and hymns.

 

Mind you, the crescendo pedal is dangerous! :)

 

 

BTW did anybody hear the broadcast from the other St David's in Cardsiff yesterday? The Arch was at that too. He had a busy Sunday but I saw him sneaking off for a quick fag after Mass - in the pouring rain! :lol:

 

Peter

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BTW did anybody hear the broadcast from the other St David's in Cardsiff yesterday? The Arch was at that too. He had a busy Sunday but I saw him sneaking off for a quick fag after Mass - in the pouring rain! :)

 

Which bears out the piece of sage advice I was once given by the priest at St. Joseph's, Cardiff - "Never trust a man who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't swear!" :lol:

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Guest Cynic
Which bears out the piece of sage advice I was once given by the priest at St. Joseph's, Cardiff - "Never trust a man who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't swear!" :)

 

 

I think you missed something off your list.

Celibacy?

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Guest Patrick Coleman
BTW did anybody hear the broadcast from the other St David's in Cardsiff yesterday? The Arch was at that too. He had a busy Sunday but I saw him sneaking off for a quick fag after Mass - in the pouring rain! :)

 

Peter

 

Was the broadcast recorded?

 

The cathedral Compton did not sound impressive - gather Roger Taylor is making a professional job of keeping it in one piece!

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Guest Barry Williams
But as that is true not only of the organs he was working on, but also of the models he was trying to emulate, it could well be less of a disadvantage than at first appears. My wife has limited hearing, but is still very well able to make comparitive judgements.

 

Paul

 

 

Yes, but with what was he making his comparative judgments? His instruments bear no resemblance to anything from known history and many are still in dispute as to their musical effectiveness. Some are undoubtedly oddities. Yet it cannot be denied that without this rather rude 'kick start', organ building in Great Britain would have remained in the doldrums.

 

Perhaps we owe much to this man who had an idea but did not realise what he was acheiving.

 

There is no doubt that the success of modern instruments is more related to their tonal integrity than anything else. Queen's College Oxford is a classic example, but the earlier instruments of Degens and Rippin, for example, St John's Fareham, exhibit an artisitic integrity that is significantly lacking in others' later instruments, even when the tonal disposition is not to everyone's liking.

 

Barry Williams

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His instruments bear no resemblance to anything from known history

But did he actually intend his organs to bear a resemblance to anything from known history? Wouldn't everything from known history be nearer the mark? As I understand it (though I've not read his book), Downes invented the concept of the eclectic organ. This was uncharted territory at the time, so there was bound to be a large element of pioneering. In that context, that much of his experimentation (which is really what it was, whatever convictions he may have felt) ended up in blind alleys is not so very surprising and not necessarily reprehensible, IMO. The rest of the then-still-nascent early music movement was similarly groping in the dark. To watch the tremendously charismatic David Munrow juggling with his vast array of medieval and renaissance wind instruments in the late 60s was rivetingly entertaining and I would venture to suggest there has been no one to match him since, but his kaleidoscopic "orchestrations" are no longer accepted as having any basis in historical accuracy. Both early music and organs have come a long way since those days and it's easy for us to criticise from a position of greater knowledge.

 

I would suggest that Downes's legacy lies in the opening of organists' eyes to the possibility of designing an organ that could render any given piece of organ music with some elements of the right sort of historical sound - a concept that I rather doubt had previously existed in an era that, four years after the RFH organ was built, could still produce an octopdian sludge-bucket like our local IV/P foghorn. When an organ builder today builds an all-purpose organ of unified integrity, is he not actually building on foundations laid by Downes?

 

I may be entirely wrong, of course, but, having spent five years in London or within easy reach of it during this excitingly fertile era of discovery when Downes's work was still reasonably new (and the man still very much in evidence), that is certainly my impression.

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Guest Barry Williams

Indeed and would we have had Coventry Cathedral without the refining fire of the RFH? I doubt it, though it does not make the RFH any more likeable.

 

The Fairfield Hall organ is, however, another matter. By then things had moved on significantly, but the design of that instrument exhibited no lessons of the past nor any innovation. It lacks tonal integrity and cohesion - the characteristics of organs that stand out as fine musical instruments.

 

Neither the RFH nor the Fairfield Hall organs are in places with half-decent acoustics. Many a poor organ sounds well in a big building. Would the defects of these organs be less noticeable in a cathedral or a large and reverberant hall? Is this why Mr Downes' ecclesiastical jobs seem to be less controversial?

 

Barry Williams

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Was the broadcast recorded?

 

The cathedral Compton did not sound impressive - gather Roger Taylor is making a professional job of keeping it in one piece!

 

It's on R4 listen again, that's how I heard it Sunday afternoon. Beieve me, the cathedral Compton is NOT impressive! I've had to play it many times....

 

Which bears out the piece of sage advice I was once given by the priest at St. Joseph's, Cardiff - "Never trust a man who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't swear!" :)

 

He likes a G&T as well -but I've never heard him swear! :D

 

Peter

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