The Peter Collins organ installed in Turner Sims in 1977 and removed in 2010 has been brought back to life. Concert Hall Manager Kevin Appleby tells the story of the instrument and introduces its new phase.
Of all the questions I am asked about Turner Sims one of the most frequent, particularly from those who have known the concert hall for a long time, is ‘Where is the organ?’ The stage backdrop which is now adorned by a curtain was, for many years, the location for a pipe organ built by renowned British organ builder Peter Collins.
Installed in 1977 the instrument was inaugurated by Dutch organist Piet Kee in October of that year. Subsequently the concert hall series featured recitals by a plethora of eminent artists, many making best use of the instrument’s prowess when performing baroque repertoire. The instrument was also used for University graduation ceremonies, student exams and solo concerts.
In 2007, we marked the 30th anniversary of the organ’s installation at Turner Sims with a recital by Stephen Cleobury, and a memorable afternoon of stories with ‘the three Peters’: Professor Peter Evans, Head of Music at the University from 1961-1990 and the driving force behind not only Turner Sims (check the plaque in the foyer) but the organ too; the aforementioned Peter Collins; and organist Peter Hurford, one of the frequent visitors to Turner Sims renowned for his performances of Bach.
Whilst use of the organ whether for rehearsals or performances declined over the years due to the increased pressure on the concert hall diary and opportunities for student organists to perform on instruments elsewhere in Southampton and further afield, a defining moment in the organ’s history within the building came suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly.
In April 2010 Turner Sims suffered a major flood backstage which, whilst not reaching the instrument itself, did sufficient damage to the parquet stage floor on which it sat that the decision was taken to remove it for its safely. Peter Collins and his team were employed to take the organ down piece by piece in Summer 2010 and store it safely while plans were discussed as to the best next steps for the floor and the instrument itself. Re-installation would take up to 12 weeks, and a combination of demands on the space, building work, and reducing numbers of students needing to use the instrument, led to explorations about alternative locations for the instrument to give it a new lease of life. The closure of Peter Collins Ltd in 2017 (two years after Peter Collins himself had died) meant that a decision on the destination of the instrument became even more pressing.
At this point of the story another unexpected – and ultimately fortuitous – thing happened. The director of music at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford, a Grade I listed medieval church in Suffolk, had for a while been exploring options for an organ. Being made aware of the potential availability of the instrument – and having known it from when it was installed in the concert hall – discussions began as to its suitability for the church space, and the fundraising required to make such a move happen. Fast forward to April 2019 and the instrument, having been moved from its storage locations in Bournemouth and Melton Mowbray to Cousans Organs Ltd of Coalville, Leicestershire, to be restored, was inaugurated in St Bartholomew’s Church.
Last month, I visited Orford Church for part of BBC Radio 3’s Chamber Music Weekend not only to see the organ in situ for the first time, but to hear it being played by Catherine Ennis, director of music at St Lawrence Jewry, London, and Patron of the Orford Organ Project. Her programme included Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, works by Frescobaldi, de Grigny and Handel to show off the organ’s Baroque credentials, music from the 19th-century Romantic movement, by Mendelssohn and Brahms, and from the UK and US courtesy of chorale preludes on hymn tunes by Sir Hubert Parry, the Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria by Benjamin Britten, and Dan Locklair’s The Peace may be exchanged. The recital, which was recorded by BBC Radio 3, ended with another Toccata and Fugue in D, by Max Reger.
Almost ten years on from when unexpected circumstances led to it being removed from Turner Sims the organ now has a new lease of life. If the experience of seeing it in a rather different environment was a strange one, I’m pleased to report that it looks and sounds very much at home, as well as being visually a lot shinier than I remember. And from talking to those involved in the fundraising project, it’s clear that there are exciting plans for its next phase, not only concerts but recordings and broadcasts.
Perhaps most poignantly of all is that the organ’s new setting has an unexpected link with Turner Sims. St Bartholomew’s hosted the premieres of Britten’s works Noye’s Fludde, Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, whilst Peter Evans was a pioneer in the field of analysis of Britten’s work. Writing in his definitive guide The Music of Benjamin Britten he declared ‘Orford Church made an excellent setting for Curlew River and the succeeding ritual pieces’. I hope that he, along with those who experience it from now onwards, would feel the same about the organ he enabled to be built, and that so many were and are passionate about.
Catherine Ennis’ recital on the Peter Collins organ at St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford can be heard on BBC Radio 3 here