Dame Gillian Weir Farewell Concert

After a long and fruitful career at the keys, the grand dame of organ music bows out of live performance with one last fling at the Ulster Hall

‘Oh, it’s the travel, really!’ It’s not the answer I’m expecting when I ask Dame Gillian Weir why she has decided to make her final public appearance, after a hugely successful career as a concert organist, spanning five decades, and including a host of awards, accolades, and honorary doctorates from prestigious universities.

Travel, it turns out for the jobbing organist, is tougher than it used to be. ‘You have to sort of fight your way on to planes nowadays,’ she mulls, ‘and hotels are more difficult. I love the playing, that’s the easiest part of it, instead of wondering whether I’m going to get there on the train, or be shouted at by security again!’

Dame Gillian’s has, by any standards, been an incredible odyssey – including 2,000 solo concerts, 300-plus concerto performances, and numerous recordings, drawn from the immense repertoire of organ pieces she has taken with her on her global journey.

And in a year packed with farewell performances on favourite organs in Germany, Luxembourg, England, Denmark and the Czech Republic, there are just two recitals remaining: Westminster Cathedral, London and, four days earlier, on Saturday, December 1, the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

It’s no accident that Weir has allotted Belfast such a prominent position in her year of leave-taking from the public platform. ‘I feel I have a special connection with Belfast,’ she comments. ‘I’ve been many, many times, and have played with the wonderful Ulster Orchestra many times. Belfast I’m really, really going to miss, I can assure you.’

Central to Weir's affection for the city is the instrument she will be playing on during her final visit, the famed Mulholland Grand Organ, built by William Hill & Son, and generally rated one of the finest civic organs in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Weir is in no doubt about the Mulholland’s elevated status. ‘It’s a typical town hall instrument of a very good quality,’ she explains. ‘It has quite a history. It was built by Andrew Mulholland, who was both a very successful businessman and a wonderful philanthropist.

‘So the connection of that with the very lovely Ulster Hall – it’s marvellous to see it all rejuvenated and re-built – that makes it tremendously special for me. I’m really looking forward to seeing my friends in Belfast again, and to playing for them.'

The Mulholland organ was one of only six specifically chosen by Weir to feature in King of Instruments, her pioneering BBC television series (available on DVD) on the history of the organ and its music, a remarkable accolade given the number of outstanding instruments potentially at her disposal.

‘It’s powerful!’ says Weir, explaining her decision to use the Ulster Hall Mulholland. ‘And it has loads of colour. It performs all sorts of functions, as a town hall organ should. It can accompany a great body of singers, it can play its part as soloist with an orchestra, it’s a soloist as well. It can do all these things, and basically it has a very strong personality.’

That personality will be expressed in Weir’s Belfast recital primarily through the main piece she has chosen for the occasion, César Franck’s 'Grande Pièce Symphonique', a mighty composition that will undoubtedly set the extensive pipework of the Mulholland Grand rumbling and roaring.

Franck’s work is one of many that Weir has committed to disc in her long career as a recording artist, and it’s worth noting that both her two-disc recital of short pieces played on the Mulholland organ, and her acclaimed recording of Saint-Saëns’ popular 'Organ Symphony' with the Ulster Orchestra, are still available in the CD catalogue.

It’s with the music of the great 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, however, that Weir is most closely associated. Her complete recording of his organ output is widely regarded as definitive, a project prompted by the composer’s own interest in her playing.

‘I became associated with Messiaen very early on,’ she recalls. ‘And people had not played his music virtually at all really, even in France. I met with him, and played for him a couple of times. He’d heard some of my LP recordings.

‘When I encountered him at a big festival in Australia,’ she continues, ‘where they performed virtually every note he’d ever written, he said to me, “Oh you must record everything again on CD. It’s all the rage, you know!” So I was very happy when I eventually did that.’

Only rarely did Weir and Messiaen actually study the technicalities of his scores together, a tribute to the implicit trust that the composer placed in Weir’s instinctive understanding of his music. Weir does, however, wryly recall one occasion when they did, with unexpected consequences.

‘He did go over a few things before one concert I gave at a festival in Wales, just a few hours before,’ she remembers. ‘Which was slightly disconcerting, because he changed some of the music! So I said, “Well, that’s not what you’ve written”. And he said, “Well no, it’s my fault, I’ve made a mistake, that’s what I’d like now!” Which was rather amusing really.’

As a lifetime dominated by professional concertising comes finally to a conclusion, it’s natural Dame Gillian should be taking leave of her worldwide audiences with mixed feelings. ‘It’s been 48 years of constant playing, so naturally I’m wondering just how it will feel on December 6, when I wake up and think that I’ve stopped playing...

‘I do think the last concert at Westminster Cathedral might be quite an emotional evening,’ she says, reflectively. ‘A lot of wonderful friends are coming, there are people coming from America, I gather, so the responsibility is enormous. I’m extremely touched by it.’

One thing is certain: after a lifetime of incessant musical activity, there is no danger that Dame Gillian Weir will suddenly find herself struggling to fill an idle moment. She already, as it happens, has numerous plans to fill her diary.

‘I want to listen to a lot more music,’ she enthuses, ‘and I will probably eventually do a little more recording. And I’m starting off with a semester as artist-in-residence teaching at Oberlin, the famous conservatory in America. So I think I’m going to be pretty busy at any rate!’

Dame Gillian Weir performs in the Ulster Hall on Saturday, December 1, 2012, featuring a pre-performance talk.