Michael Alexander hears how the 10th anniversary of the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ is being commemorated in Dundee – despite the challenges of Covid-19.
It is regarded as one of Dundee’s most prized cultural assets and acclaimed by experts as the finest concert organ in Scotland.
Now, the charity that was established to ensure the long-term care of the Caird Hall Organ is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The Friends of the Caird Hall Organ, which was established in 2009 and formally launched on March 2, 2010, had intended to hold a civic reception to mark the anniversary of its creation in July.
However, the impact of Covid-19, which forced the event’s cancellation, has not stopped the charity from reflecting on the last 10 years while working to ensure the long term future of the organ looking forward.
The organ, containing 50 speaking stops, was built for the Caird Hall by the distinguished firm Harrison & Harrison of Durham, the specification being drawn up in consultation with celebrated blind organist Dr Alfred Hollins, who gave the opening recital on June 27 1923.
In 1992 the organ was restored by the original builders and it possesses a Grade I Historic Organ Certificate from the British Institute of Organ Studies.
It features prominently in Fugue State Films’ recently-released multi-DVD production that showcases the world’s outstanding English-style organs: The English Organ.
However, Caird Hall manager Susan Gillan explained how in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, it became apparent that new ways were needed to safeguard the organ’s financial viability.
She told The Courier: “During 2009 it had become obvious to me that finances in local government were to become increasingly challenging in the years ahead and to try to preserve part of Dundee’s cultural heritage – The Caird Hall Organ – it was critical to look at ways to secure its future.
“Previously in 1992 we had successfully formed a short term trust to raise funds for the organ restoration so I was aware there was a number of people in the area keen to support the instrument.
“Following a conversation with the city organist – Stuart Muir – we decided to test the waters and held a meeting to gauge interest of which there was plenty – so we were off!
“Further meetings were arranged and then in 2010 the Friends of the Caird Hall was officially launched as a charitable organisation chaired by Dr Jim McKellican.”
The formal launch of the Friends in March 2010 featured a gala recital on the organ by the city organist Stuart Muir and Gordon Stewart, Dundee-born international concert organist.
Gordon, who is a former president of the Incorporated Association of Organists and has been awarded honorary fellowships including the Royal College of Organists and the Royal School of Church Music, has been President of the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ since the charity’s foundation.
Since 2010, the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ has supported and promoted the instrument in partnership with the city organist, Dundee City Council and Leisure & Culture Dundee.
They have raised substantial funds through concerts, events and grants.
Their financial assistance to the organ’s upkeep has enabled the installation of new humidification apparatus to protect the organ’s fabric and a state-of-the-art stop control system to aid players.
The Friends have also promoted recitals by internationally-renowned artistes including the late American virtuoso Carlo Curley, Carol Williams (civic organist of San Diego, California), Kevin Bowyer (Glasgow University organist), Thomas Trotter (Birmingham city organist), the blind international concert organist David Aprahamian Liddle, and Martin Baker (Master of the Music, Westminster Cathedral).
Silent movie shows with improvised organ accompaniment by stars of the theatre organ world Nigel Ogden, Donald MacKenzie and Richard Hills have widened the organ’s appeal to new audiences.
Other opportunities for the public to enjoy the instrument and its music have included several whole-day organathons with a relay of up to 19 organists, and popular ‘Come and Sing’ events with organ accompaniment.
Members of the Friends have also been entertained by Aaron Hawthorne, the Scot who was voted Young Theatre Organist of the Year by the American Theatre Organ Society in 2019.
The Friends are keen to introduce young people to the organ and to help them appreciate Dundee’s internationally acclaimed instrument.
Since 2011, over 4,200 primary school pupils from Dundee, Angus, Perthshire and North Fife have been entertained and educated at Keys, Hands, Feet & Pipes events led by the charismatic and dynamic recitalist and educator, Daniel Moult, Head of Organ Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
Under the supervision of Dr Jim McKellican, the Friends have established an archive and permanent exhibition of material relating to the organ and its designer, Alfred Hollins.
In 2015 the Friends published an illustrated booklet The Caird Hall Jewel, written by Jim McKellican, relating the history of the organ.
Susan added: “In the past 10 years the chair has been held by Dr Jim McKellican, Andrew MacIntosh, Sheriff Kevin Veal, Walter Blair and the Rev Marion Paton.
“Jim is still working for the Friends as their main fundraiser and archivist and has been the greatest supporter of the charity.
“Jim also wrote a book on the history of Alfred Hollins who designed the instrument.
“The secretary since inception is Dr Peter Thornton – how Peter manages to collate the information from the regular meetings is quite stunning and with what appears such ease.
“Peter has kept the charity running so smoothly due to his acute attention to detail.
“The main aims and objectives are the advancement of education in the field of organ music and the advancement of the arts, heritage and culture through the preservation and promotion of the Caird Hall Organ by fostering contact among all those interested in the instrument.
“Promoting the use of the Caird Hall Organ in recitals, concerts and other musical and educational activities, and increasing the financial security for the future.
“To say FOCHO have achieved this is an understatement and more!”