Organist interview: Gillian Ward Russell

We interviewed organist Gillian Ward Russell in advance of her Moot Hall recital in November 2016.

When and where did you start playing the organ? Was your organist ancestor William Russell part of the inspiration?

I started to play the organ at the age of 11; my parents regularly took me to church and I had always enjoyed listening to the organist play. One day, as I say, when I was 11 I said to my parents, “I’d love to play that organ.” My father promptly marched me up to the console and asked if I might be allowed to have a go. I remember it so clearly: the organist put the hymn book on the stand, opened it at number 197 and said, “play that,” indicating the middle of the three keyboards. Well I’ve never looked back since!

William Russell didn’t come into my life until I began searching for a topic for my PhD, when I discovered that he was a highly respected composer whose life straddled the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him when his contemporaries spoke so highly of him. I soon discovered that he was an innovative composer, especially for the organ. I could go on at length but I’ll just say that I haven’t lost any of that early enthusiasm. It was a bonus to discover the family connection.

Had you ever played the Moot Hall Organ prior to its restoration? What place does – or should – this particular instrument have within the Essex organ scene and the wider region?

I did play the Moot Hall organ before its restoration: it was in the days when Colchester Choral Society performed its concerts here; I accompanied the choir, sometimes as part of an orchestra and sometimes as a soloist; I remember in particular playing the Poulenc Organ Concert. In those days, of course, the organ was very different in terms of the sounds it produced. Now that it has been restored to its original glory it is hugely important both in Essex and beyond. Another important feature is the fact that the organ is in a hall and not a church; the Moot Hall is a beautiful room with the organ as its focal point; it’s an inspiring space in which to perform.

At your November 2016 Moot Hall recital you will be presenting your ‘Ten pieces for organ’ programme, designed to inspire young people with the sounds of the organ. How did you decide what to include in it?

In selecting my programme (for children) of Ten Pieces for Organ I recalled the music which enthused me as a youngster. I chose pieces from different styles and mixed fast with slow and loud with soft. The key to success is in the presentation, and in these programmes I speak directly to the young people in a way which I believe is engaging and dynamic. Experience indicates that the more mature members of the audience also appreciate this approach.

Why has there been a declining interest among young people in taking up the organ? Is it helpful to for them to encounter it more often in secular contexts – for example accompanying silent films?

As an organist, I feel passionately that I must share my love of the organ and its music with others, and young people in particular. I feel there are several reasons why few children learn about the organ: the major barrier is the lack of opportunity to hear the instrument since most are in churches, and a minority of people attend services; there are so many different calls on youngsters’ time nowadays, and experiencing organ music largely depends on getting to venues with an organ and hearing them live. The present generation is much more visual than in the past; if we are to gain new organists and new audiences we must provide opportunities for hearing organ music played superbly and presented imaginatively. This is my aim in establishing Ten Pieces for Organ.

In June 2016 you retired from the Presidency of the Essex Organists’ Association after 30 years in the position. What role should such an organisation play in the lives of local organists, and what challenges and opportunities await your successor Richard Brasier?

I have recently relinquished Presidency of the Essex Organists’ Association, a position I’ve enjoyed for 30 years. The membership has gradually changed over the years and whereas we had good attendances at events, this has diminished, partly due to, as I said earlier, the demands on people’s time is greater now. My successor, Richard Brasier will have to find a way to get younger members involved and to keep up the interest in the King of Instruments.

Over all these years of playing many organs around Essex, have you discovered a particular favourite, or favourites?

I have been fortunate (and still am) to play many wonderful organs; my favourite is often the one which I am currently playing, and I am certainly looking forward to returning to the Moot Hall again.

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