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Magical milestone's a key moment for city organist

As concert number 750 looms, city organist Thomas Trotter reveals how he keeps track of his plethora of programmes.

Thomas Trotter(Image: Adam Fradgley/Exposure Photography)

Monday sees an important landmark in Birmingham’s long run of lunchtime recitals by its city organist, a sequence which began back in the mists of time not long after the opening of the Town Hall with its impressive instrument in 1834.

Thomas Trotter, who has held the position since 1983, reaches number 750 in his sequence of performances.

Birmingham’s city organists have a habit of going on forever. Thomas Trotter tells me where he stands in the pecking-order of longevity.

“The longest serving city organist was James Stimpson at 50 years, although we have no record of how many concerts he gave. Then comes my predecessor, George Thalben-Ball who played for 34 years, but I’m now in my 34th year so I’m catching him up! The concerts aren’t quite so frequent these days, so I have a bit to go before reaching his tally of 900 concerts.”

Surely the mere process of coming up with fresh programming fortnight after fortnight is a challenge?

“I’ve built up a large repertoire since I came to Birmingham,” says Thomas, “but there’s always more to discover.

“The secret is to always be learning new pieces and setting oneself new challenges. The real issue is finding the time and energy to maintain and expand the repertoire I already play.”

Thomas then lets me into another secret, revealing how he keeps a tally of all his performances.

“I keep a little black book in which I note all the pieces I play and when I have programmed them. The entry for J.S.Bach runs to several pages so he scores the highest marks on the clapometer, but then he wrote more organ music than any other composer.

“Once a year I play a requests programme in which the audience can choose pieces I’ve played during that particular season, but the choices are so different from year to year that it’s difficult to know what the favourites apart are from the obvious ones like the Toccatas by Widor and Bach. Birmingham audiences have a very broad taste.”

Monday’s programme is a lovely, seasonal one, featuring Eastertide works by Howells, Bach, Mascagni and Wagner, and it ends with two movements from Marcel Dupre’s Passion Symphony. Thomas tells me the history of this fascinating work.

“Marcel Dupre was organist at St Sulpice Paris, and toured the USA many times during his career. On one of his visits he played at the Wanamaker Department store in Philadelphia where the owner had installed a huge organ down one side of the building.

“Dupre ended the concert (as he always did since he was an incredible improviser) with an impromptu improvisation on themes that he’d just been handed by a member of the audience. As they were all religious (plainsong) themes he decided to create a symphony based around key events in the life of Christ and this subsequently formed the basis of his Symphonie Passion. It’s been in my repertoire for many years and an appropriate choice for a concert that falls in Holy Week.”

I have heard Thomas give the premiere of many newly-composed pieces. What is the proportion of contemporary music in his repertoire, and how does he go about commissioning new works?

“It depends how you want to classify contemporary music. If we are talking of music written since 2000 then the proportion is a small but very important part of my repertoire. I draw mostly from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with a few earlier pieces.

‘‘Commissioning a new work is always an exciting prospect and the first step (apart from getting the funding!) is to ask a composer whose work you admire.

‘‘Sometimes the result can be more interesting by asking a non-organist, but any composer needs to have an empathy with the instrument or at least be prepared to learn about the things that it can and can’t do.

‘‘It’s always a gamble as you never know what you will get, and occasionally I wish I’d never asked! But in general I’ve been delighted with the commissions I’ve played.”

A few days ago Thomas celebrated his 60th birthday. But he’s still a youngster compared with many other organists, who seem to go on forever. Is it thanks to all the exercise?

Thomas has his own thoughts on the subject. “It’s true that organists, like conductors, seem to go on forever, and a certain level of fitness and agility is required to cope with the physical aspect of the organ with its pedals and multiple manuals. But mastering any musical instrument is more about maximum effect for minimum effort and I’ve never believed that organ playing per se is good exercise – I wish it was!”

* Thomas Trotter plays his 750th recital as city organist at Symphony Hall on April 10 (1pm).

Upcoming Concerts

* April 7: CBSO Centre Stage features the premiere of Ivor McGregor's Guitar Quintet (CBSO Centre, 1.10pm).

* April 7: Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony as well as a rare performance of Roussel's Evocations, featuring the CBSO Chorus (Symphony Hall 7.30pm).

* April 12: The Orchestra of the Swan is conducted by Julian Lloyd Webber in Mozart and Tchaikovsky, with Laura van der Heidjen soloist in the latter's Rococo Variations (Birmingham Town Hall 2.30pm).

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