2023 has been a very encouraging year. The effects of the pandemic seem now to be truly over with our important church customer market back at full throttle. Possibly even at an elevated rate as the high cost of repair of pipe organs seems to be tipping the decisions in favour of a lower cost digital organ solution.
This leads me into what many will consider a controversial area of debate. Many times I see the suggestion that a pipe organ is an investment that lasts a life time while a digital organ will last perhaps 15 years and thereafter is destined for the scrap heap. Both statements are heavily layered with bias by those who dislike hand crafted instruments replaced with a production line product perhaps felt devoid of any musical merit.
Starting with a major Cathedral Organ Hire
2023 started with yet another major cathedral hire to cover a pipe organ rebuild, this time at Winchester, some 40 years after it last received a major overhaul. Our instrument which had previously done 2 years service in Canterbury Cathedral was booked for the year ahead in Winchester. Based on these recent rebuilds its probably fair to say these huge instruments generally require a substantial overhaul after 30 years of use.
Copeman Hart Organ Rebuilds
It is readily accepted that pipe organs, especially large ones with many electrical components need major work from time to time and are lovingly rebuilt. It seems that the same approach is now being taken to quality digital instruments, built in the 1980s and 1990s and we are receiving our share of that new customer base.
Many will recognise the name Copeman Hart. Ernest developed the reputation for building digital organs of the highest quality of console build and sound quality eventually retiring from the business about 10 years ago.
A number of his older instruments have been rebuilt in 2023 with our Regent Classic division undertaking two of these at All Saints Wokingham and Denstone College near Uttoxeter. Denstone is actually the largest instrument we have done in the UK with 28 external speaker cabinets placed high in the chapel roof.
So it seems the decision to rebuild digital instruments now follows the path well established in the pipe organ world for decades and perhaps this story helps contradict the rhetoric, if I may by paraphrasing George Orwell,- ’Pipes good- Speakers bad’.
Organ Tutorial Series at Old Royal Naval College
Our year began back at The Old Royal Naval College Chapel Greenwich with Ralph Allwood and the Trinity Laban college choir who in a single afternoon created 9 performances of choral works accompanied by Jonathan Ayre on our temporary instrument installed 2 years earlier. The whole Trinity Laban operation is extremely professional as is testified by their ability to deliver such an extensive programme in so short a time.
No sooner was this completed than the Winchester hire instrument was set up with speakers high on the north and south triforia but with swell and choir departments very close to the choir stalls with speakers in the organ loft directly above on the south side. We had to return shortly after installation to remove cables so they were not visible for a recording of ‘The Crown’. The building I think being used as a stand-in for Westminster Cathedral.
Another large Organ Installation
Our next large installation was at Stonyhurst College near Clitheroe. The church on campus which doubles as the college chapel is independent of the school and is part of the Jesuit Foundation. Funding responsibility for the building is shared between the College and the Jesuit Foundation.
At one time by all accounts the west end instrument was a fine example of the work of Willis but like too many British organs it was molested with ill-planned restoration work in the 1980s and by 2020 had fallen into near total collapse. It also presented significant dangers for the tuners and so to have a reliable future necessitated major investment approaching perhaps a £million to do a thorough and proper job.
Any prospect of spending this was trashed by spiraling energy costs facing the school just to keep the buildings warm and so the pragmatic decision was taken to move forward with a digital solution until a funding plan could be made to secure a future for the pipe organ.
Not long after we had the pleasure of working in All Saint’s Fleet, a church requiring near total rebuild after a fire. This has a wonderful interior in decorated brickwork and finding speaker locations that respected this interior was challenging.
Eventually, after much experimentation using scaffold structures the organ was split between north and south sides with speakers high on the north and south side aisle walls. When presented with challenges such as this, the flexibility of the Viscount sound architecture to direct any stop to any speaker comes into its own, and a lovely balance of sound was achieved after the voicing visit made in conjunction with Rev Roy Woodhams, their formar vicar and an FRCO.
A year of changes
2023 was expected to be a year of technology change with the introduction of an improved version of the physical modeling sound generation developed by Viscount Italy. As it happened this ran late and our first technology change came with a new phone system. Our phones now run on an internet-based platform and if we are not in the office then the call goes directly to our mobile handsets. As you can imagine I was nervous about the switchover day. Much to my surprise it was seamless and we now are liberated from our desks in the ability to respond to customer calls. If we are not careful, we will truly be a 24/7 response culture but I do leave my mobile downstairs and not in the bedroom.
Physis +, the evolutionary development of the Physis sound generation developed first 12 years ago arrived in late autumn, so we are just getting to grips with what it offers. The consoles have much better pistons and rocker tabs and all benefit from two independent bass channels adding to the bottom end tone that is such an important part of the organ soundscape. The range will not be fully completed until the middle of 2024 so I will leave the full explanation of the changes until later this year.
2023 was also a year of staff change. Our long serving accountant Chris retired and for the moment I have added those duties to my own work schedule. Our young warehouse assistant Hugh also left us for a totally unrelated job in the food industry. We consequently recruited a second service engineer with 7 years’ experience working in the musical instrument sector anticipating that our colleague Peter will be starting to work on a part time basis later in 2024.
Supporting Young Organists across the Country
Our work with the RCO foundation was also significant this year seeing 8 instruments placed by them in schools around the UK. Working with generous personal benefactors this takes to well over 20 schools we have jointly helped with subsidised or gifted instruments. Schools adding the instrument to the music department resources can only be a good thing to help capture the curiosity and enthusiasm of potential devotees in later life.
And of course I could not end the year without mentioning Anna Lapwood’s incredible work promoting the organ through social media which no doubt played a part in her award of the MBE, and only 28 years old. We see more young musicians as customers today than ever before. It is difficult not to link this with her efforts in making the instrument more appealing and widely seen outside its more restricted secular role. Well done Anna who by coincidence also has a Viscount home practice instrument which she can be seen playing on some of her videos posted during pandemic.
Video of Anna Lapwood playing her Viscount Organ in her house:
We end the year with probably the largest forward-order book we have ever had. The first major Physis+ church instrument will arrive in St Mary’s Beverley in February. Both our pre-owned Regent Classic instruments have found new homes, one in a church and one with a private client. We have another rebuild of a 1980s instrument in hand and our first ever 5 manual digital instrument to be delivered in the second half of the year. We anticipate this will be the largest UK digital instrument with the equivalent of 130 individual ranks of pipes.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.