Thomas Trotter: celebrating 40 years as Birmingham City Organist
Tuesday, September 19, 2023
The City Organist is uniquely placed to build a relationship with local audiences and introduce them to a vast range of music through original works and transcriptions. Thomas Trotter champions the role and argues that it’s worth maintaining
Proudly displayed in the foyer of Birmingham Town Hall are two impressive wall plaques commemorating former City Organists G.D. Cunningham and Sir George Thalben-Ball. They stand not only as a testament to two legendary organists, but also as a sign of the high esteem in which Birmingham has always held its City Organists. Whereas my immediate predecessors were at the height of their careers when they were appointed, in 1983 I was only at the start of mine. There was some adverse newspaper coverage (including an article in The Sun!), but they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity and it only served to focus attention on my appointment, which might other-wise have gone unnoticed.
At the time I was already organist at St Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey, and freelancing on piano, organ and harpsichord. I was becoming more interested in early repertoire and its attendant playing techniques, when all of a sudden I found myself preparing a weekly recital for an audience which couldn’t care less how many heels I used in Bach or how many times I passed my thumb under in Sweelinck – they just wanted to be moved and entertained. During my ﬁrst year the recitals were given at St Paul’s, Hockley, while the Town Hall organ was being rebuilt, and it was not until October 1984 that I took up residence properly at the Town Hall. In those days lunchtime recitals attracted huge audiences of 500 or more, although judging by the extraneous noise coming from the auditorium not everybody was there to hear the music. There were times when it was so noticeable that the stewards used to hand out free cough sweets. But there was no doubting the affection and loyalty of the majority, and those early years were exciting times. Then, at relatively short notice, in July 1996 the City announced the closure of the Hall for major restoration, and thanks to the kindness of the clergy and director of music Marcus Huxley I was able to relocate to nearby St Philip’s Cathedral. Due to several false starts the restoration didn’t even begin until 2005, and the Cathedral was to remain the principal venue for the recitals for the next eleven years.
Over the years the role of the City Organist has changed very little, and in fact my first contract consisted of a photocopy of Thalben-Ball’s original contract of 1949 with the names changed. The main responsibility is to present a regular series of organ concerts, and the absence of any administrative duties allows me to concentrate on the tricky business of planning programmes and the time-consuming work of preparing them. There is tremendous pressure on organists to present programmes that appeal to everyone, whether their listeners be purists or general music lovers, regulars or first-timers, not to mention anxious concert promoters wanting to sell tickets. It was W.T. Best who wisely pointed out that a programme should educate as well as entertain, and generally I intersperse serious works with lighter items. I often find programming ideas by listening to recordings or attending concerts. As organists we are exhorted to get out of our organ lofts and experience other music making, and of course it is very important to do this. But looking back at my student days, I regret not spending more time listening to other organists: it’s a great way of getting ideas about how and how not to do things, and the impetus for learning a new piece usually comes from having heard somebody else play it. Sometimes I theme programmes by composer, genre or nationality, or the theme might be derived from the title of a well-known book or film. This approach requires a large repertoire and can involve time spent on pieces that I wouldn’t bother with in any other context.
Thomas Trotter with his predecessor George Thalben-Ball and Joy Upton-Hun, celebrating GTB’s 90th birthday. Credit: Birmingham City Council
That tired old debate rumbles on about transcriptions, regarded by some as a scourge and others as a saviour of recital programmes. The great transcriptions of the Victorian era by figures such as Best and Lemare are part of our British heritage which, as a British organist, I am proud to draw on and indeed am expected to do so when playing abroad. But there should be a sensible balance between original and arranged music, and I regard transcriptions as just one of many repertoire strands available to the player. I relish the more challenging transcriptions that provide a welcome and often more sophisticated alternative to the usual showpieces audiences expect to hear. In the wider musical world there is an increasingly relaxed attitude as to what can be performed in a classical context, such as John Wilson and his orchestra appearing at the BBC Proms and Irving Berlin as Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, and I try to reflect this diversity in my programmes. Eric Coates and Leroy Anderson sit alongside Bach and Messiaen and as yet I haven’t been struck by a thunderbolt. But you can’t please everyone, and these days I am not so concerned with what I play but how I play it.
Autumn 2001 saw the arrival of the spectacular Klais organ at Symphony Hall, Birmingham’s new concert hall opened ten years previously. This created an additional venue to the Cathedral and helped to extend my outreach as City Organist. The daunting task of fundraising for the new organ was expertly handled by Paul Keene, who was subsequently appointed organ projects manager. Paul’s sterling work has enabled me to commission new works from Michael Nyman, James MacMillan and Judith Weir among others. It’s always interesting to work with composers unfamiliar with the organ, and the more diffident they are the better the work they seem to produce.
In October 2007 the City celebrated the long-awaited reopening of the Town Hall. Entering the building for the first time after its restoration was for me like coming home. Gone were the municipal carpets and drab paintwork, replaced with a colour scheme of soft blues restoring the original Georgian elegance to its interior. The biggest change was the acoustics, dramatically improved by the removal of the upper gallery which had been added in 1927. The organ, formerly stifled in rather airless acoustics, now sings in a way it didn’t for decades. The opportunity was taken to make a few minor adjustments and additions, including a set of Whitechapel bells, thereby restoring to the organ a feature which had existed for a time during the 19th century. For novelty value alone these bells are worth their weight in gold, and I take great delight in giving them an airing whenever I can. Other than that, the Mander restoration of 1983/4 was of such a high standard that very little else needed to be done. Town Hall and Symphony Hall are now jointly managed by one company appropriately named TownHallSymphonyHall. In the restructuring process the Town Hall has lost a little of its human face, with ‘branding’, USPs and a price tag on everything being the order of the day. But the upside is that organ concerts are marketed and publicised in the same highly professional way as any other classical music event. Over the years my presentation has become less formal, and giving short verbal introductions often allows the listener a greater understanding of the music. Average audience attendance stands at a respectable 400, although maintaining that level of interest becomes ever more challenging. Highlights have included the inauguration of the Klais organ, a special concert in at the Town Hall marking the start of the restoration in which I played to a standing audience all wearing hard hats, duo concerts with Nigel Ogden, Catrin Finch, Crispian Steele-Perkins and others, and the popular carol concerts with some of our ﬁnest cathedral and collegiate choirs.
High hat: Thomas Trotter playing the organ in the Town Hall just before it was closed for restoration. Credit: BPM Media
Despite drawing excellent audiences, the recital series has not been immune to recent budget cuts and now takes place fortnightly rather than weekly. There will always be an audience for high-quality organ music, and the organ has a repertoire as rich and diverse as any solo instrument. It can be a symphony orchestra or a chamber ensemble; it can move you or put a smile on your face; it’s been described as the Voice of God but it also has the common touch. In short, it speaks to the listener on so many different levels, which is what these lunchtime concerts are about and precisely why they are worth ﬁghting for. I’m fortunate not to have had a ﬁght on my hands thus far, but it would be naïve to suppose that this will always be the case. I sometimes wonder whether there will still be a Birmingham City Organist in 30 years’ time. If there is, it certainly won’t be me! I will be an old codger by then without the willpower to maintain a strict regime of several hours’ practice each day; and it’s important to know when to give way to a younger person. Attendance ﬁgures are much more closely scrutinised now than ever before, and it’s much easier for a young organist to create a following than for an old one to maintain one, as I discovered myself 30 years ago. I have a wonderful following and two great instruments to play in two beautiful Halls. When the time comes it will be a lot to give up, but while I am still ﬁ t and up for new challenges I won’t be handing over the reins just yet. Besides, I want to make sure I get one of those plaques …
Thomas Trotter has an international reputation as a concert organist, having performed and recorded around the world. He was appointed Birmingham City Organist in 1983 in succession to Sir George Thalben-Ball, and is also organist at St Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey, and Visiting Fellow in Organ Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music. Awards include the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious Best Instrumentalist Award, the International Performer of the Year Award 2012 from the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and a Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of music by Liszt.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Choir & Organ to mark Thomas Trotter's 30th anniversary as Birmingham City Organist.