The Big interview: THSH organ scholar changeover

The Big Interview: Paul Johnson and Alex Jones

Wednesday 18 July saw the culmination of two of our major outreach projects here at THSH; Tiny Tours and Sound Bounce. Both are key parts of our organ education work and so heavily rely on the involvement of the THSH organ scholar. Fortunately, we had two very talented organists to hand, as the day also marked the official handover of the Percy Whitlock organ scholarship.

While Paul Johnson, our outgoing scholar, performed his final recital to 60 school children at Town Hall, Alex Jones – Paul’s successor – was finding his way round the Symphony Hall organ for the first time, in preparation for his first ever early years workshop.

After the excitement had died down, I caught up with them both in Symphony Hall’s Cafe Bar to find out more…

AS: Paul, what has been your most memorable experience as the THSH organ scholar?

PJ: Probably the first Science of Sound Discovery Day I took part in. Performing to 800 school children was very exciting. It was the first project I was ever involved in and, to date has been the largest audience I have played to at Symphony Hall.

AS: Alex, tell us a bit more about how you became an organist.

AJ: I first got into the organ when my grandfather gave me one of his old cassette recordings of Bach organ music. I fell completely in love with the music. I was lucky enough to attend Chetham’s Music School in Manchester for my last two years of school and received the junior organ scholarship at Manchester Cathedral. This led to my acceptance at the Birmingham Conservatoire where I have just finished my first year of their four year BMus Hons course.

AS: In one word Paul, how would you sum up your time at THSH?

PJ: That’s easy. INVALUABLE!

AS: And what have you learnt most from your time with us?

PJ: Probably how to expand myself as a musician by having to think outside the box all the time. Quite often when you see a concert hall you just think of the venue and the paying audience but the scholarship has made me realise how much outreach work goes on behind the scenes. Doing a two hour rehearsal and then performing an evening concert is great but it’s the outreach projects where you have a chance to build a relationship with the participants that are the most rewarding. That was most evident in our Stops and Stories project this year, it was great to see the transformation that the group made over those five months we worked with them.

AS: Alex, who is your favourite organ composer or what is your favourite organ piece to play?

AJ: That’s really tricky! For organ and orchestra it would have to be Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva op. 36 because the organ has so much more involvement unlike perhaps Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony or maybe even the Poulenc Concerto for Organ. I’m not just a fan of classical organ music though so for an organ solo I might choose something from the theatre organ repertoire. The genre was primarily an American movement in the 1920s. Theatre organs were designed to imitate and replace pit orchestras in the heyday of silent movies. Unlike a classical symphony organ, theatre organs use vibrato and often have extra gadgets to create lots of different timbres. Two of my favourite theatre organists are Simon Gledhill and Jelani Eddington.

AS: Paul, having played both organs, which is your favourite to play?

PJ: It would have to be Town Hall for me. The instrument has so much history. Knowing that you are playing the same organ that Felix Mendelssohn once played is a fantastic feeling. The two really are quite different. Symphony Hall organ is much bigger and has lots of bright colours that can produce lots of characters. The Town Hall organ is much more English and more reserved. You can create smoother crescendos because the stops are perfectly coloured to one another and it’s also a perfect fit for the hall itself, it really does fill the building perfectly.

AS: Alex, what are you looking forward to most in regards to the scholarship?

AJ: The chance to work with lots of different audiences in different contexts. I applied for the scholarship because you have two brilliant organs and I believe it’s really important that they get used in a positive way. I have also worked informally at Bridgewater Hall in the past and I really wanted to gain more experience of working in, and being an active part of, a professional concert hall.

AS: Are there fewer organists around now compared to 40 years ago?

PJ: Unfortunately I think yes there are fewer organists about. However, I’d say that the standards of those who remain are still very high and we’re lucky that we have institutions like the Birmingham Conservatoire that are providing lots of opportunities for young organists to develop their skills. I think the issue is the stigma that exists. Being an organist is still very much associated with practicing alone in a cold parish church or playing along to hymns but as the THSH organs demonstrate, there are so many more possibilities than just church repertoire.

AJ: We need young people to take an innovative approach to playing the instrument. I’d advise any young organist to learn a wealth of repertoire from orchestra transcriptions to film music because as a medium for general music making the instrument has a huge capacity.

AS: Paul, if you could give Alex one piece of advice as the outgoing scholar what would it be?

PJ: You will probably be asked to do things that you will never get the chance to do again such as dress up as a wizard and play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star! You learn something new from each project so I would say; seize every opportunity that’s thrown at you.

AS: Now that you have finished your scholarship did you ever get lost when turning pages for Thomas Trotter?

PJ: I didn’t have any panics at all until the very last concert which was Thomas Trotter’s recital for Symphony Hall’s 21st Birthday. He had decided to play his own arrangement of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. I have never seen anyone play the organ quite like that before and I doubt I ever will again. It’s very difficult and fast and it was all hand written by Thomas himself. I must admit, there was a moment when he had to give me the nod to turn the page!

AS: Finally, have either of you had a strange dream about a THSH organ?

PJ: I have had panic dreams where I’ve been at Town Hall ready to page turn for Thomas Trotter and he’s failed to turn up! I have had to play the recital instead with the knowledge that I can’t possibly match his virtuosity!

AJ: I have had a dream where I am about to walk onto Symphony Hall stage to play the Samuel Barber piece with full orchestra. Hopefully that dream will be realised one day!

We thank Paul for all his work with us over the last year and wish him the best of luck as he embarks on a new phase of his career in London where he has secured the post of Director of Music as St Martin’s Church in Epsom. We also offer huge congratulations to him and his girlfriend Natalie for their recent engagement!

The Percy Whitlock organ scholarship is offered in partnership with the Birmingham Conservatoire and is open to all Birmingham Conservatoire organ students. Applicants are chosen after an audition and interview stage. The scholarship is supported by the Percy Whitlock Trust.

Words: Annie Sheen, THSH Project Manager (Children and Young People)