Now THAT’s a Big Organ

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I’ve had the good fortune to have rarely attended a concert that I did not enjoy. Last night’s performance by "Wayne Marshall Virtuoso Organist" was no exception. Unfortunately my enjoyment didn’t stem so much from the performance of the soloist as from the performance of the audience.

Was Wayne Marshall good? Probably. It was just too loud to be able to appreciate the finer details of the performance as I had to resort to sticking fingers in my ears. Quite frankly the multitude of overtones emanating from the 20 tons of pipes created a sound I find very hard to describe as harmony. I don’t know what to ascribe this to. Was the hall not tweaked correctly? Was there too much room for echo? Do I just not know how to appreciate good organ music?

I’ve enjoyed the Esplanade organ on several occasions. At Mahler’s 2nd, at a few Margaret Chen performances and even as music accompaniment to the silent film Faust in the opening festival – it was all enjoyable.

But why was this experience so unpleasant? Was it just too loud?

Is there a volume dial on the organ? If so it was up full blast. Before I chose to enjoy the concert through fingers, I was having flashbacks to younger days stumbling out of rock concerts with my ears ringing.

There is, however, upside to very loud performances: no matter how much the audience coughs, talks, rustles plastic bags or snores, it is not disturbing.

And snore they did. It is amazing what people can sleep through. After the intermission I moved to the back of the stalls (it was relatively quieter) and virtually everybody in that section was asleep. It occurred to me that the performance would have had particular appeal to people half deaf or with aspirations of such a disability. This is a marketing angle the Esplanade should explore in future.

So what made the event so enjoyable?

The final number was an improvisation on the theme of West Side Story. This was by far the longest piece of the evening (was it me or did it actually last longer than West Side Story itself?). About four people seated near me were riveted to the performance. The rest were out cold.

When the piece ended and the applause began, heads all around snapped up. After a quick reality check (“oh yes I’m in the Esplanade… looks like the concert is over”) the newly awoken began to applaud with enthusiasm. People clapped wildly. People for whom the music was nothing more than a backdrop to their dreams brought their hands together with such energy and acclaim of triumph that surely, in the end, theirs was the better performance.

Now that’s entertainment.