A king back on its throne

by Martin Setchell / 07 April, 2011
In 1911, Auckland Mayor Sir Henry Brett presented the city council with a personal cheque for £6500 to buy an organ for the new town hall. One condition of this munificent gift was that “a certain number of concerts be given to the public free each year”.

A hundred years on, that tradition remains but, like most organs throughout the world, the instrument has undergone significant change over the century. Restoring the Splendour is a fascinating documentary that focuses on the mission to recapture the spirit, if not the letter, of the original organ as part of the overall project to restore Auckland Town Hall to its Edwardian grandeur.

The chronological presentation begins with excellent stills of the building’s grand opening on December 14, 1911, and the installation of the original organ by the pre-eminent English organ-builders, Norman & Beard. We journey through the 1950s, when “modernising the hall” partially obscured the instrument with a wooden acoustic reflector and heavy curtains. The 1970 rebuild by Auckland firm George Croft & Son, inspired by the “Back to Baroque” organ reform movement, is sensitively contextualised, without lampooning those who merely followed the world trend at that time towards lighter and crisper sounding instruments.

We then fast-forward to the last decade and the commissioning of a “new organ recreating the original’s spirit, power and quality”. The most stunning footage takes us behind the scenes into the organ builder’s workshop in Bonn, Germany, showing the team at Klais Orgelbau at work on the new Auckland instrument. Personal commentaries by the key players, city organist and composerJohn Wells, builder Philippe Klais, consultant Ian Bell and Town Hall Organ Trust chairman Stephen Hamilton, are both sensitive and engaging for the non-specialist.

Finally, we turn full circle to the re­opening concert on March 21, 2010, demonstrating the organ in its fully restored splendour. There are generous extracts from the concert, featuring solo organ works (Bach’s D minor Toccata, inevitably, and Wells’s symphony specially written for the occasion), choral pieces by Parry and Brahms showing the organ in its accompaniment role, and Guilmant’s D minor symphony to show the restored organ can once again hold its own against a large symphony orchestra.

The DVD’s overall success owes much to Bill McCarthy’s long experience in directing arts documentaries and to producer Kerry Stevens’s beautiful voicing of the informative linking script.

This is a landmark production, one of only a select few DVDs featuring the “King of Instruments” in New Zealand.

RESTORING THE SPLENDOUR: THE KLAIS ORGAN IN THE AUCKLAND TOWN HALL (Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust, available from ­www.aucklandorgan.org.nz); also ­available is a CD, AUCKLAND TOWN HALL ORGAN: ­INAUGURAL CONCERT.

Concert organist Martin Setchell is curator of the Rieger organ in Christchurch Town Hall and Associate Professor of Music and university organist at the University of Canterbury.
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