ARUNDEL FESTIVAL: Neil explores art of improvisation

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Farnborough Abbey organist Neil Wright celebrates the colours and richness of French organ music in an Arundel Festival lunchtime recital. Offered as part of The Plumley Collection series, Neil’s recital will be in Arundel Cathedral on Monday, August 29 at noon.

His programme will feature: Fiat Lux – Theodore Dubois; Cantabile; Piece Heroique – Cesar Franck; Piece en mode de Re; Te Deum from Trois Paraphrases Gregoriennes – Jean Langlais; Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d’Alain – Maurice Durufle; Piece d’Orgue – J S Bach; and Neil’s own Improvisation.

Neil will be hoping to tap into the rich colour palette of his home organ at Farnborough Abbey.

“There are two things that make it special. One is that it is an organ of exceptional quality, and the second is that it is from the French romantic tradition, which is very unusual in England.”

And yes, you really can hear the difference between French and English: “It is the sound, the tonal quality. The best way I can describe it is to make a comparison. If you compare the colour palette of Turner and the English pastel art with the art of Mondrian, of Chagall, of Degas, of Renoir, you look at the differences in the colour and in the intensity compared to the more washed-out subtlety and beauty of English art. You can immediately see that the colours of French music are much brighter.”

It’s a trait that you can even see if you compare French and English rugby, Neil believes: “There is a sense in the French character that they can come up with someone new at the last moment. It’s like being able to improvise the notes and the sounds. The English character is quite calm by comparison. The French is more passionate.

“It’s like if you are speaking to someone in this country and the person is getting very enthusiastic, you might say ‘You are getting very passionate about that’ almost as if passionate is a derogatory thing. For the French, it definitely isn’t!”

Like most organists, Neil began on the piano but was drawn to the organ for its seemingly-infinite potential and range of possibilities: “There is a greater sense of spontaneity. When you hear a piano, it is a piano you are hearing and that is that. In some ways, it can be quite monochrome, but when you hear an organ, it is like the whole orchestra you could be listening to there are so many possibilities. When you combine things on the organ, you can come up with something that is really quite strange. It is like when the rock stars started to use synthesisers in the 1970s, people like Rick Wakeman. You get all that potential, and that is so much more appealing…”

And for Neil, a big part of that attraction is the scope it gives him for improvisation: “If you are playing composed music, very often you are in the situation where it has already been orchestrated and you are playing something where the composer gives you the plan. His request is for certain colours, and what you are really doing is painting by numbers. You are following the directions of the composer, and creatively it is limiting in that sense because you are effectively reading someone else’s narrative. But when you are improvising, you are creating your own narrative. The structures are your own, the registration, the orchestration, the tones, the feeling. That taps into your own creativity, and it taps into your own psyche, and the most exciting thing for me is that I don’t know what I am going to do…”

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