Birmingham City Organist Thomas Trotter Picture: Ibi Keita

A Celebratory 40th Anniversary Concert

Thomas Trotter

Symphony Hall


If anyone currently deserves to be honoured with the Freedom of the City of Birmingham, or by membership of the Freemen, it would surely be Thomas Trotter. He may perhaps have been granted both already.

The virtuoso organist, who was back at Symphony Hall at the weekend for a particularly special occasion, is devoted to Birmingham, having been appointed its City Organist exactly 40 years ago, in 1983, when he was still in his mid-twenties.

How many metropoles in Britain have a ‘City Organist’? One who gives regular recitals on the dazzling ‘King of Instruments’, infecting audiences with music they know and love, but also introducing them to unfamiliar or indeed new repertoire? Liverpool, Leeds and Nottingham, to their credit, have one. And Edinburgh. But not most.

There were wonders in store at this concert to celebrate Trotter’s 40 years in this prestigious post. Bach’s massive G minor Fantasia and Fugue is an absolute favourite to any organ fan, and a few may know a bit of Schumann; but it’s not every day you encounter Wagner’s Overture to his early opera Rienzi (about a Roman tribune), in the orchestra or even the opera house. Indeed no new (or revived) productions appear to be scheduled anywhere.

Some proficient players will have had a go at the rampant Prelude & Fugue based on the name of Bach (B flat-A-C-B natural) by Franz Liszt (who incidentally was Wagner’s father-in-law), but I guess Liszt’s Fantasia & Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ might be a little more daunting.

Birmingham’s Organ Recital series, shared across those two great venues, the restored Town Hall and Symphony Hall, is, we are told, one of the longest-running musical jamborees in the world. Maybe. But one of Thomas Trotter’s many excellent achievements has been his bold insistence on commissioning a mass of new organ solo works, many of which have entered the mainstream repertoire.

Magnificently assured, a teacher as well as recitalist, Mr. Trotter is a master of his trade. An absolute star. Mind you, he had to work hard for his celebration do, and perhaps for his supper as well. ‘I don’t know where the 40 years have gone’, he says modestly. ‘But for me, it’s been a dream job’.

The highlight, for him and perhaps for most in the audience, was a new piece composed for him by a spirited present-day composer, Cheryl Frances-Hoad. (As it happens, she has just topped those same 40 years.) The idea, not new but always yielding something fresh – certainly in this case – was to write a piece based on the name T-R-O-T-T-E-R (or Christian name as well as surname? No clue in the programme). How do you do that? Well, supposedly in what’s called ‘solfeège (do-re-mi, etc.) Don’t ask me how the jagged, almost Serialist-like phrase that resulted came about, but it was certainly more lively than mere plainsong.


Celebrated composer, Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Picture: Pamela Davis Kilveson

What about this ten-movement commission, so vividly premiered? It was riddled with variety, which gave it that special excitement – and unpredictability. One kept wondering what would come next. Quite often it was scampering, almost wantonly or naughtily, in the right hand, but there was much else besides. The most arresting section was, for me, right near the start, where an almost confidential, spiky, staccatoed, pointilliste sequence sounded like enchanting birdsong: not the only time when Messiaen’s music (piano or organ) came to mind. That was utter enchantment.

As if a kind of counterpoint, Frances-Hoad decided – a great idea – to encapsulate, in some way, aptly, ten events from the past four decades of Birmingham’s recent history. What were they? Well they included Trotter’s appointment, the opening of The ICC (International Convention Centre, including of course Symphony Hall), the opening of the bold new Library, and the unveiling of the city’s tallest building; and the today’s birthday.

But one lovely detail which produced a movement both Trotter and the composer were delighted about, dubbed an ‘Interlude’, set out to capture a leafy element: the famous University Botanic Garden’s unique, noble ‘Dicksonia x lathamii’ tree fern’s unfurling. It’s difficult to describe, so the picture below may help. But there’s no doubt it was another highlight.

Yet at the same time, it was perhaps difficult to understand how exactly the music picked out detail of the ten different events. Probably there were inspired hidden allusions – it’s not all that easy to pull off such a thing – but it’s no different from fanciful titles given to their works by, say, Liszt, or the Impressionists, or some other classical composers today.

Staccato semiquavers over legato chords, subtle or obvious parallellings, some terrific opportunities for Trotter to gallop across the pedals (as he had in Bach’s Fugue), as well as scamper with both hands – all brilliant demonstrations of his virtuosic and masterful manipulation of the instrument - several other points stood out when the nearest comparison might be with Messiaen Jean Langlais or any one of the French composers of that period (Trotter’s final encore was, of course, Widor’s best known, wedding-famous Toccata (the Toccata from his Symphony no. 5 for organ).


The unique Dicksonia x lathamii at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and unfurling fronds of closely related Dicksonia antarctica at the gardens (see below)

Organ transcriptions of well-known orchestral works are currently not as in fashion, Trotter reminded us, as they were in the 19th century. One could point to exceptions – most obviously the British and International recitalist David Briggs, who does not qualm to arrange Mahler or Elgar for organ – most effectively, it must be said. But Edwin Lemare (1865-1934: not French, but English-American), an organ post-holder in Ohio, California, Maine and Tennessee, was one at the forefront of such activity. Sections from seven Wagner operas are among the most famous of his keyboard arrangements, much performed by himself; others included revampings for organ of Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Elgar; but but the fertile Lemare churned out many, many more.

Trotter is really into organ arrangements – he’s composed and recorded numerous of them himself., a wonderful feat. But his opting here for the overture to Rienzi was in ways the boldest choice of all. Wagner’s third opera, he told us, lasts for almost five hours. The audience in Dresden in 1842 must have needed some refreshment and loo breaks during all that. Wagner’s Overture itself is in length a very substantial piece, partly deriving from perhaps Weber (his long Der Freischütz or Euryanthe overtures) or Beethoven (Fidelio, or his non-operatic Egmont overture). It was a glorious, typical Wagner melody emerging, is rich in melody and colouring; and indeed, contrasting colours is what Trotter’s wide experience enabled him to achieve – possibly more in this contribution to this endlessly fascinating concert than anything else – bar the last.

For the Bach G minor, which is indeed, or can be, a pretty noisy work - based, we learned, on a Dutch melody - needs variation in timbre, normally achieved these days by switching manuals (although there is a large school which argues, or has argued, that switching manuals in Bach Preludes is wrong). It looked – perhaps I mistake - as if Mr. Trotter played the Fantasia almost totally on the Great (the main, essentially loudest, keyboard on this magnificent four-manual organ). It has just about everything going for it, though it lacks the resplendence of, say, the brass-enriched Coventry Cathedral organ - even with Symphony Hall’s amazing echo chambers, fourteen of them which, when opened (they were right through this recital), allow loud sounds to swish around in a vast hidden upper space, to enlarge and regurgitate ear-shatteringly into the auditorium. At least we didn’t hear, a lot of much clearly audible brass in the earlier stages of the concert at all. Maybe by design.

For, in utter contrast to a rather feeble piece of Schumann earlier (though it sounds akin to Schumann’s great friend Mendelssohn), came the inescapably wonderful climax of the concert. This was the Fantasia and Fugue on the melody ‘Ad nos ad salutarem undam, Liszt’s hugest work for organ, stupendous throughout, which Mr. Trotter delivered (in not 30 but 29 minutes) with all the marvellous finesse and superb articulation for which he has – and has had for many years - such a top reputation.

Liszt’s work – the tangibly religious melody stems from an acclaimed five-act opera, Le prophète, by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), a composer hugely admired at that time - is one of the supreme masterpieces written for the instrument in any era, right up there with Bach, Buxtehude and all the truly great Prelude & Fugue composers - Max Reger, Franz Schmidt – who themselves were inspired by or sought to emulate this knockout large scale work.

Trotter’s adroit use of instrumentation shone through very often. His choice of oboe and then, particularly, low clarinet produced some alluring effects, wholly apt to the piece, or the parts of the piece, that he sought to highlight. Duetting flutes were another. A passage devoted entirely, or almost entirely, to the string section: mesmerising. Probably above all in the constantly, enticingly fluctuating Liszt. Add some extraordinary points where this master-musician managed to wind the sound down not just to p (piano) or pp, but to quadruple piano (pppp). Amazing.

Or the very opposite: Liszt’s thunderous finale, almost half an hour in, where the hypnotising melody which has been deploying, in the main, the Minor mode throughout, blazes out in a scintillating peroration in the Major. This was truly great music, and truly great playing.

Touching encores from Trotter, too. The Widor, of course; but – was it preceded by the three-minute Adagio from Mendelssohn’s First Organ Sonata (in F minor)? I’m not sure, but it was a fine idea to place that lulling piece between the deafening Liszt conclusion and the explosive Widor. Good judgement (on most aspects) shown during this joyous display of one of Britain’s greatest musicians’ talents.

(Pulling out the stops: Thomas Trotter on CD and a bonus performance)

Roderic Dunnett


Dicksonia x lathamii a unique quirk of nature, the only known plant of its kind in the world, It is a hybrid between the familiar tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, found in many gardens in the UK and the rare and difficult to cultivate Dicksonia arborescens which hails from the island of St. Helena. The chance hybrid was raised and natured by Birmingham Botanical Gardens' then curator William Latham in 1873 and was named after him; 150 years later it is still growing strong and can be seen in the Botanical Gardens' sub-tropical house.

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