A visit to the Royal Academy of Music on 04/07/2015 by David Sutton
Eleven of us arrived at the end of a very hot day (and, consequentially, sweltering conditions on the underground!). Whilst we recovered in the entrance hall, David our chairman very kindly located cups of water which were very welcome. The Dukes Hall however, by comparison, was deliciously cool and we gathered around the console of the organ situated at the rear of the concert platform. Jemima Stephenson was our host for the evening and a student at the RAM.
After a brief introduction, she played some pieces which displayed the extreme versatility of the organ from fortissimo to pianissimo. In recent years I have not come across such an effective swell-box. The sound of the soft registers was reduced to almost a whisper – so unusual from continental instruments in my experience. The forte choruses, on the other hand, were very grand but not overwhelming. Kuhns have been very skilful in getting the voicing just right for the space which, although large, is not particularly reverberant. Jemima played Bach and Tournemire finishing with a masterly extemporisation on Ave Maris Stella ending in a blaze of glory.
After this, the console was open for our players. Yours truly opened the batting with his usual exploration of the tone colours. Immediately I was struck with the beauty of the various stops and the marvellously light yet positive touch. There my reverie finished. As the console was not built using what we call ‘British Standards’, the traditional layout of the manuals was not followed, the draw-stops were set on jambs square to the manuals, the pedal board was not of the normal concave/radiating dimensions, and the expression pedals (swell pedals and general crescendo) were not quite where you might expect - I kept on confusing the Swell box with the General Crescendo! The labelling of the departments on the jambs (‘I’, ‘II’, & ‘III’) were logical, but it was not clear which one was which when it came to what is understood to be Swell, Great, Choir, Positive, Solo etc etc (in British terms) as the traditional (British) siting of the manuals was not followed. The usual registration aids for each manual did not seem to exist but you did have a set of generals and a stepper. All this makes things very difficult for the new-comer. I know we got some things terribly wrong in the 20th century but the establishing of standard console dimensions and conventions was, in my opinion, an absolute god-send for organists who have to step in at very short notice often without practice or a chance to find their way around an unfamiliar instrument. St Paul’s with its five manuals and 120+ stops is a doddle compared with this!
Anyway enough of the gripes! What the Academy has is an instrument of great versatility which sounds really good. In the hands of someone who knows it well – i.e. Jemima – it does everything that is required of it. Our time there was well spent and CLESO is indebted to the Royal Academy of Music for allowing us access to such a prestigious instrument and to member Ed Kemp-Luck (immediate past chairman) for arranging things. Finally, a huge thanks is due to Jemima who demonstrated and introduced the organ so well. We feel sure she is destined for great things in the future and we wish her well in her studies in France and future career.