By Morwenna Brett
Editor, StopPress, the RCO’s online magazine for organists and choral directors
Even in a big city like London, it can be difficult to find organ practice facilities, particularly if you are trying to fit organ practice around the day job. The United Grand Lodge of England have recently restored and enlarged the 1933 Henry Willis organ in the Grand Temple at Freemasons' Hall, and also installed a new three-manual and pedal Viscount Classic digital organ in one of their meeting rooms there. They are generously offering practice time on these organs free of charge to RCO Members.
Freemasons' Hall is in Great Queen Street, WC2, and is well-staffed – so you can book your practice from 7am in the morning if you like, or up to 9pm in the evening, subject to availability.
I booked a session on both organs. The Willis is a joy to play, though it took some getting used to, after my small, bright, mechanical action parish machine. Plenty of warm 8' options all round as you would expect, with a pretty Cor de Nuit and Sylvestrina on the Choir. The reeds are mellow, and blend rather than stick out – apart from the 8' Grand Tuba (with its own blower in the basement) which would awaken the dead. The Crescendo pedal will take you by surprise if you confuse it with the Swell – Choir and Swell are both enclosed (though as with many English instruments, the action only really happens on the top third of pedal travel), and there is an abundance of couplers and accessories to explore.
I began with playing Bach, and of course it lacked the snap and sparkle that we have come to expect from modern organs. But try repertoire contemporary with the instrument and all makes sense. After years of trying to coax Stanford and Parry out of my own church instrument, suddenly I was doing their music justice: cruising over the keyboards in an easy legato, with loads of appropriate registration possibilities.
Freemasons' Hall is one of the finest Art Deco buildings in London, and the Willis fits the solemn and opulent surroundings – note that the gilded case above your head is new, designed for the Grade 2* listed interior by Harrison & Harrison when they enlarged the instrument in 2015.
There are regular public tours of the Grand Temple, so organists are asked to play quietly while these are on. If you want no disturbance, then book the 2017 three-manual Viscount Regent Classic which has everything you might need for a peaceful practice session.
It’s in a meeting room, but don’t be fooled – this is a large space (and the instrument is voiced accordingly), and it's warm and comfortable too! Just watch the roll top as it comes back down with a snap that could end your organ-playing career if you’re not careful.