Visit to St Bede’s Chadwell Heath on 30/05/2012 by David Sutton
When is a pipe organ not a real pipe organ? I haven’t got an all-sufficient answer but I’m sure the purists would! If you cross the threshold at St Bede’s when the organ is being played you could be forgiven for thinking there was an instrument of some size within. But, your ears are deceived. There is a just a modest two-manual sited at the back but all will be revealed eventually.
Sometime ago CLESO received an invitation from Richard Nott, the organist and director of music to investigate and enjoy the new instrument in St Bede’s. It was an intriguing and fascinating prospect because the instrument is a hybrid combining natural pipe sound with electronically produced sound. The writer has seen various articles about such things but had never heard any examples. So, with excitement (and some trepidation!) a visit was arranged. The evening we had was a revelation.
We were welcomed by Richard who gave us a brief history as to why matters evolved as they did and, at the end, he gave us a short demo of the instrument showing off its capabilities. One of the pieces featured was the Festive Trumpet Tune – one of the writer’s favourites – where the solo reed was used to great effect. This is where the electronics came into their own. There are several 'fixed' voices. The most convincing for me was the Great 4’ flute, where you really couldn’t tell the difference. The Swell 8’ Diapason was to me not quite right but personal preferences always rule the day, especially when you can tweak the tone at the twist of a knob. The real eye-opener comes with the MIDI facilty – two for each manual and two for the Pedal. Here you have multitudes of voices which can pulled off the shelf at will from the library available – mixtures, reeds of all kinds, etc etc. This meant you could tailor your specification to your style of music - pedal department included. How about a magnificent Tuba, a juicy Vox Humana (with tremulant) or a rich set of 16/8/4 strings (American style)? You have it. Richard jokingly let me know he can now mow a visiting cleric down with a withering blast of machine-gun fire if he goes on too long with his homily!
The electronic input is via two Rodgers MX 200 units with one covering the Great and Pedal and the other the Swell. The Swell speaker is in the box and the volume is therefore governed by the shutter openings, and there is a separate woofer to cope with the bass notes in the pedal department. I tried the 32’. It was remarkably effective. There is also an auto-tuning unit to cater for changes in temperature so the electronics always keep in step with the pipes. So if the temperature sensitive trumpet keels over in the heat the electronic equivalent can take over (until its pipe cousin recovers).
As for managing all this, the organ is liberally provided with registration aids, including no less than 10 general pistons. The drawstop console is attached so you do get the 'full monty' in your right ear if the more loud tones are in full swing as both of the speaker cabinets are on this side and quite close. The totally convincing tuba is shattering for the player although when heard about 30 feet away is truly exciting. The church is quite reverberant, although not over large, and a full congregation (normally experienced at mass) would soak up any 'extra' quite well.
The players (half a dozen or so) all managed to have an adequate go. Richard was on hand to set up and alter the various MIDI settings so we had access to the vast library of tones from a manual full-diapason chorus topped with a 4 rank Mixture and equivalent pedal (also with a mixture) – to play Bach - to a very convincing romantic sound (with that Vox Humana) to portray some Karg Elert. Ed Kemp-Luck somehow pulled a lively Cornet out of the bag to play some De Grigny in the authentic tones of the early 18th century. There seemed no end to what it could do.
Reluctantly we had to call it a day and wend our respective ways home. Richard is very keen for this instrument to be more widely known and issued a generous invitation for anyone who wanted to have a chance to explore things in their own time to contact him. Fr Martin, the parish priest, was also there and it is wonderful to have such support and enthusiasm from the clergy. The music in the parish is thriving and a visit to the church website bears this out. CLESO is very grateful to Richard and Fr Martin for the warm welcome we received (and we were experiencing our summer then!). We are indeed privileged to have such dedicated folk in our churches showing us what vision and perseverance can produce. We should also thank Michael Young and Peter Wood the organ builders who worked together to produce an instrument of such interest and quality. As I said at the beginning the purists would pour scorn on such an organ but really the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. So purists go and starve yourselves!