The magnificent ‘King of Instruments’ pulls out all the stops

The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra rose to the challenge at the annual Pipe Organ Concert at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Thursday night, together with world-renowned British conductor, organist and pianist, Wayne Marshall. The majestic German-built Klais Concert Hall Organ is rolled out once a year to impress the public with its breadth of timbre and wide dynamic range. Thursday surpassed expectations with four fine organ works, three of them involving the home-grown ROSO.
The programme opened with fireworks: Organ soloist extraordinaire Wayne Marshall performed J.S. Bach’s iconic tour de force, the “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” by heart, demonstrating his brilliant virtuoso technique and mastery of the instrument. The organ has over 4,500 pipes, 4 keyboards no less, and a reverberation chamber. ‘Solo Royal’ stops include one with 37 tubular bells. The work provided an exploration of all the organ’s magnificent colours, from woodwind stops (stop 70 is one of the finest flutes ever made) to its massive, resounding bass voice – which would have shaken the House down had the foundations of ROHM not been so well built!
The main piece in Part 1 was Widor’s “Symphony no. 6 for Organ and Orchestra”, though in reality it is more of an Organ Concerto. Widor is well known for his famous 1879 ‘Toccata Finale’ from “Symphony no. 5”, a 6-minute musical cliché loved for weddings, but this was a relatively unknown oeuvre, well worth an airing and enjoyed for its vitality and contrasts. Italian conductor, Roberto Misto directed both ROSO and Wayne Marshall – best known for his interpretation of American composers Gershwin and Bernstein – as soloist in this huge conception for what amounts to two orchestras. The Organ in the Royal Opera House is an orchestra in itself, and here the opening ‘Allegro maestoso’ pitted its rumbling volume and wealth of effects against the percussive and brass elements of the orchestra. The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra has gone from strength to strength over the past 10 years or so, and under Misto’s meticulous attention to fine detail they sounded more confident and in control than ever. The result was tremendous; highly romantic in style and sometimes filmic. The audience was surprised at the sheer power of the instrument combined with ROSO. The second, ‘Andante’ movement presented a contrast in mood with the melos of a more sympathetic, equal balance between the forces, creating a beautiful, tender quality to the performance. Fireworks returned in the short fanfare-like Finale which brought the first half to a rousing conclusion.
Part 2 opened with a rare glimpse at Marcel Dupre’s popular 1920 “Cortege et Litanie for Organ and Orchestra” in a French genre reminiscent of Poulenc or Roussel. It featured solos from the ROSO harpist, Badar Al Busafi, in a beautiful work which uses repetitive phrases to give a gently propulsive character, with sensitive organ obligatos from Mr. Marshall. It was technically quite difficult yet harmonically lush, reaching a spectacular conclusion with a double pedal line which dissolved at the end into tumbling chords in the manuals, suggesting a joyful pealing of bells.
The main focus and weight of the night’s programme came in the form of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Symphony no. 3 in C minor” with changed artistic roles. Wayne Marshall took up the baton to conduct a work with which he is clearly familiar and confident, drawing from the orchestra a musicality which is not always heard. The organ was played by the technically proficient, British-born Iain Simcock, now a Director of choral music in France. The organ part is integrated into the orchestral texture and the whole score is fiendishly difficult, with foxy rhythms and tricky chromatic lines for the brass, horns and woodwind. It was a hard choice of programming, yet ROSO rose to the challenge and gave a sterling performance after just a week of rehearsals with maestro Marshall, who brought strong leadership to Muscat’s favourite orchestra. The result was a credit to its ensemble work and reflected commendable development since ROSO’s first performance in 1987. Especially notable was the ‘Poco adagio’ section towards the end of the first part. It produced an almost Rachmaninov-like sonority from the warm, rich strings – a section of the orchestra showing much improvement in intonation and tone quality recently under their able leader, Violinist Mohammed Al Hashmi.
Unfortunately, no programme notes or dates were provided in the souvenir brochure which would have helped in the appreciation of the less familiar composers and their unusual works. However, for one who grew up to the sound track of the fine organs of Norwich Cathedrals and churches, it was a nostalgic experience, providing a performance of the highest artistic merit from world-class musicians and an enriching start to the Muscat weekend.

Georgina Benison