A wonderful new CD from Wolverhampton-based Regent Records brings together the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Conservatoire (music faculty of Birmingham City University) in the person of Henry Fairs, head of organ studies at the Conservatoire as well as organist to the University of Birmingham.
This release features Henry performing on the new Garnier organ installed in the Elgar Concert Hall within the Bramall Music Building at the University of Birmingham, an instrument of which he is curator, and whose capabilities, including its extra “chair organ”, are excitingly displayed on this disc.
The offerings range from Bach and his predecessors, through to contemporary composers exploring all the possibilities of the modern organ.
Perhaps most treasurable are Schumann’s Four Sketches For Pedal Piano, and Henry was most excited when I told him I was sure I remember the Conservatoire possessing such an instrument.
Henry was born in Hereford, and has since progressed to starring on the world stage, giving recitals in glittering venues. How has the journey been?
“Well, I’m not sure that I see myself as starring on the world stage,” comes his modest reply.
“Yes, I travel, play and I love music but I try not to take myself too seriously. The journey’s been varied, with many high and low points along the way. I started out singing in a local choir and attended a comprehensive school. I’m very grateful for the start in life that they gave me.
“From there, I moved to Birmingham Conservatoire to study.
“To find myself among people from all over the world who were interested in the same things as me was a revelation.
“I immediately recognised music college for the great opportunity that it was and decided to make the most of every minute of it.
“I practised a lot and went on to study in France and Germany.
“Studying abroad was a hugely valuable experience that challenged many of the preconceptions I had about life, music and my home country.”
And now Henry has come full circle, back to the Conservatoire. He tells me about his reactions.
“Strange at first. I remember returning after about ten years away and being struck by how young the students looked; that was the moment I realised I was no longer young!
“Birmingham – and the conservatoire in particular – has always been somewhere I’ve felt at home.
“The Conservatoire is a great environment in which to work, with a wonderful team and a friendly and open atmosphere.
“There are challenges as in any job (musicians don’t always make the best administrators) but I’m incredibly fortunate to have fantastic, supportive bosses who put up with me – Paul Bambrough and Julian Lloyd Webber, as well as David Saint before them. Above all, it’s an absolute privilege to work with the students.”
How did Henry’s career develop after graduating?
“Slowly. One of the hardest things was practising for many hours a day while not having any money and without any guarantee of success. I realised fairly early on that church music wasn’t what I was best at and that I wanted to try to pursue a career as a teacher/performer.
“Competitions provided motivation to improve my playing, as well as opportunities to make contacts and to become established in the profession. It took a long time, a lot of effort and perseverance and there were many moments when I felt defeated.
“Gradually things began to fall into place when some teaching work became available at the conservatoire and I secured the position of Birmingham University organist.
“Together with some competition successes, these provided the platform on which to establish the career I’d been aiming for.”
Henry’s particular interests include the music of Bach, Messiaen, Schumann and, more recently, Max Reger.
He adds: “Finally, I believe that, for many reasons – not least the future of the organ and classical music – it is extremely important to play new music.
“I’m currently learning a piece written for me by the Austrian composer, organist and live-electronic performer Franz Danksagmüller (it arrived late and I’m performing it next week in Germany...)”.
What will the organ-teaching accommodation be like at the new Conservatoire?
“Fantastic! We will have our own performance and teaching space in the new conservatoire building and are in the early stages of commissioning a new organ to go in it.
“Given the proliferation of eclectic instruments in the city, I took the decision to commission an uncompromising instrument in Central European baroque style.
“This will allow students regular access to a type of instrument that behaves appropriately in music of the baroque period (a ‘golden age’ of organ music), as well as speaking with an accent and spirit of that time and region.
“This is currently something not available in the Midlands and that can put UK students at a disadvantage when performing and competing abroad. Fundraising for a second new organ is also under way.”
Henry finds it hard to relax, but pays touching tribute to his home life.
“My work is life-consuming and, to be honest, I find it very difficult to fully switch off from it. I enjoy having time to reflect and to be with family and friends. I also like beer.
“I’m married to Sonja, who hails from Stuttgart in Germany. She is an organist, teacher of music and German and a recently qualified curative hypnotherapist. She is the best thing in my life.”
- VERSUS: The Garnier Organ/Henry Fairs is released by Regent Records REGCD516.