A special occasion for the king

November 29, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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French organist, Olivier Latry, treated last Friday morning’s Emirates ‘Tea & Symphony’ full capacity audience to a unique concert, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The Sydney Opera House organ

The Sydney Opera House organ

Solo recitals on the Opera House organ are rare enough, without the technique and inventiveness of one of the world’s finest organists. Put them together and you’ve got a treat for the ears and the soul – plus the visual splendour of the organ fully lit in an otherwise dark concert hall.

This has been an organic week. Latry appeared as soloist with the SSO for a three concert, six performance stint beginning last Wednesday, interposed with his solo recital yesterday. From all appearances, he revels in the workload.

Latry, whose is career straddles organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral and Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire, planned his concert on an upward incline of excitement, culminating in his improvisation.

The program began relatively low-key with three typical 17th century church organ pieces by Couperin, Raison and Bach. But the king had just been warning up, it turned out, when Critical Mass by James Mobberley (born 1954) arrived. This combined a pre-recorded organ – using the immense power of the concert hall’s suspended speakers – with Latry in a startling duet. That was followed by another relatively recent work, Suite pour orgue, Op.5 by Maurice Durufle, which presented rich but more ‘full frontal’ organ sounds.


Olivier Latry

The finale blew me away. Latry called for a couple of tunes from the audience and was handed ‘Click go the Shears’ and “Tea for Two.” After a minute of contemplation he combined the tunes in a breathtaking improvisation that you’d want to hear again, but never will. It pushed the organ to its limits of power and sound variety as Latry employed his peerless technique and gift of spontaneous creation.

                                    About the Opera House organ

I admit to loving this instrument. When in full flight it evokes matchless grandeur. In its role as an additional instrument to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra it is restricted to the score it is given. But when it goes solo in the hands (and feet) of a master musician and improviser like Olivier Latry, you get some idea of its potential which, in turn, is all about its essential elements.

The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall organ is the world’s largest mechanical action organ. It has 10,154 pipes, 200 pipe ranks and 131 speaking stops with electrical stop action. There are five manuals, Brustwerk swell pedal, infinite speed and gradation crescendo pedal, 172 stops, 107 Thumb pistons, 43 toe pistons, 12 MIDI pistons. The organist, who faces away from the stage, has in front of him two closed circuit TV screens showing the front view of the stage and a close up view of the conductor.

The electronics of the organ were updated in 2002 with the installation of a multi-system high-speed, bidirectional network (including MIDI compatibility) designed specifically for pipe organs.

The Opera House organ was designed and built by an Australian, Ronald Sharp of Sydney, with the help of a group of organ experts.

Sharp began his planning in 1967, when the concert hall was under construction and intended to be a multi-purpose theatre. He was awarded the contract to build the organ in 1969 and completed the work 10 years later, almost six years after the concert hall had opened. It was budgeted at $400,000, but by the time the organ was handed over to the care of the Sydney Opera House management, the cost had blown out to $1.2 million.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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