Organ Society 2018 report – Back in Business

Last year’s report to this magazine brought the news that the organ, built in 1923 by Hill Norman and Beard, would undergo some serious work to prepare it for continued and improved service as it approaches the start of its second century. I am delighted to return and relay the great success of this and indeed all areas of the Organ Society’s activities for this issue.

It’s been fantastic to see and hear the organ revitalised with much-needed modern keyboard and stop action, allowing the organist to control the greatly-increased number of stops (now totalling 27 up from the count of 17 of recent years, and 9 back in 1923) with a set of programmable buttons (called thumb and toe pistons). The blower (a motor and fan assembly providing wind for the pipes which had failed, initially causing the organ to fall silent) has been completely overhauled, and the vast array of pipes (now totalling 1228!) has been adjusted to produce a result which augments the great foundations of the original instrument, retaining its grand and bold character while adding extra buzz and brass for the strongest moments, and also more subtle string sounds for the softest.

Such a result is the inspiring combination of many skills: woodwork and metalwork, fine tuning and voicing (a very good ear is needed for the highest notes!), musicianship, electronics, mechanics, and more...

As the organ emerged through the year, different aspects of these skills were demonstrated. In time for the 2017 Remembrance service, the organ case pipes were in place, resprayed by the pupil-led Organ Team in brilliant gold. By this point, the organ console, complete with new keyboards, refurbished pedal boards, and the extended number of drawstops had been brought back from the workshop too, providing the aesthetics back in time for the important services. Later on, as connections and testing started, the raw sound of the organ gradually returned as each pipe was installed. But this was only mechanically satisfactory, with the organ’s tonal qualities coming into evidence only as the long process of specialist voicing and tuning began.

This “pipedream” concocted from the combination of the minds of the school staff, organ society committee, and The Village Workshop organ builders has only become a reality thanks to the extraordinary generosity of our supporters. Together, this mix of concert-goers, Old Southendians, friends, members, memorial donations, pipe sponsors and others have brought in excess of £50K to the organ fund. To each and every contributor, many thanks for your support.

While the school’s instrument was out of action, in September the society went out for its autumn concert which was kindly hosted at St Augustine’s Church, Thorpe Bay. Here, a diverse mix of music entertained a large and appreciative audience. Performers included current students such as Thomas Stanford (playing flute and recorder including music by Berkeley), Old Southendians (including the writer on the piano and organ), current staff (with Warren Symes demonstrating the church’s Norman and Beard organ with some fun Lefébure-Wély), and guest performers (including Southend High School for Girls’ premier unaccompanied chamber choir, Novem Consort, who rounded off the evening with a magnificent rendition of Sullivan’s “The Long Day Closes”).

The rebuilt organ now features an impressive console
Performers at A New Southendian Showcase

The first preview of the organ to the public came in the form of our next event in April, with “A New Southendian Showcase” giving a particular spotlight on senior musicians from the School and the choirs run under the expert direction of music department, particularly Peter and Rachel Worth. The programme included music for oboe by Poulenc (played by Samuel Willsmore), traditional choral music by the Chamber Choir (including Taverner’s “The Lamb”), plus the organ featuring in choral accompaniment (expertly executed by Warren Symes in Shepard’s “Easter Song of Praise”), solo accompaniment (including Vikki Symes singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum”), and solo roles (with past school organist Christopher Burt exerting the full power of the organ with the Langlais “Acclamations”). A full return to school assembly duties for the rebuilt instrument followed, marked with a rousing rendition of “Jerusalem” for St George’s day!

Students in the School have continued to benefit from the expert tuition available in music, with Warren Symes taking the lead on nurturing potential organists. With the assistance of the electronic organ donated some years ago by Tony Hill, a group of enthusiastic players has been maintained. Beyond the usual duties, the School Organist for the year, Thomas Stanford, has now left behind a carefully engraved manuscript of the School Song after several rounds of editing with Gerald Usher, which will be made available on the Organ Society’s website for all to enjoy. Now returning for the Upper Sixth, it has also been a pleasure to see Mia Wells be appointed to the role of School Organist for the coming year - becoming the first female School Organist in post! The opportunities open to pupils will continue to expand as the rebuilt instrument provides extra inspiration, and further activities and excursions to recitals are arranged, supported by the Organ Society.

School Organist for 2018-19, Mia Wells, with Adrian Lucas in June 2018
Time for an Adrian demonstration!

The stand-out moment of the year, however, must go to the recital by Adrian Lucas in June. A busy hall of approximately two hundred excited audience members awaited the moment for which some had flown across the world (including from Canada and the U.S.A.), as our virtuosic and engaging performer, demonstrator and OSOS President started the evening with Guilmant’s “Grand Choeur”. A full variety of traditional, modern, entertaining, robust and gentle followed with a programme of Bach (including the famous “St Anne’s Fugue”), Widor’s “Toccata”, Howells’ “Rhapsody No. 1”, Franck, Andriessen and more. This was punctuated by insights and demonstrations on how the organ works, how the organist works the organ, and the functional impact of new playing aids and the extra tone colours provided for the player. A large-screen projection of Adrian’s hands and feet at the keyboards and pedalboard provided everyone with a special “close-up” understanding of the organist in action.

This was an event for all - organists, musicians, those who appreciate music, or indeed the very craft of building such a versatile “machine”, and it was great to see many donors and sponsors present alongside new and returning faces.

Ahead of the recital, in rehearsal, Adrian’s charismatic and educational approach came through again in an interview covering his time at the school, his career since then, and the recent work and activities of the Society, including some comments on his programme for the evening. We are excited to have started our YouTube channel with these videos, and look forward to adding more demonstrations and performances on the organ during the year - do subscribe for updates!

We are looking forward to another successful year, with much more for the hardworking committee to put their minds to including a “Concert for Remembrance” at the School on Friday November 9th 2018, 7pm. If you haven’t yet heard the organ but want to understand properly what has been compressed into the words above, do come and hear for yourself! Please do also get in contact whatever your interest in the organ, and keep in touch with us at

To finish - in Robin Bevan’s word of thanks during the closing moments of June’s recital, he recounted the wonderful experience of walking in for his interview at the school to hear the organ being played, with a piece that resonated with him. Through all of the above, I hope we can feel assured that the organ at Southend High School for Boys will continue to play a part in the School and its community - everything from the quiet enjoyment of the sound of music flowing down the corridors, to the hearty singing of the ever-popular School Song.

Joseph Zammit (Tuscany, 2004-2011)
OSOS Publicity and Communications