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Pull Out All The Stops

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by Bryony Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
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Pull Out All The Stops

Pull out all the stops, south bank, international organ festival
Lots of wacky interactive machines to try out.

If you were in the Royal Festival Hall on the 24th March 1954, then you would have been one of the first to hear the sounds of the newly installed organ. The organ remained in place for half a century, until in 2005, when the concert hall needed to be refurbished. The organ was removed during this time, but when work was completed in 2007, only part of the organ was put back, as it was decided that the old gal was also in need of a touch up.

With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and sixty thousand sponsors, the twenty-four tonne organ was restored to its former glory. The Southbank Centre wanted Pull Out All The Stops to celebrate its triumphant return on the eve of its sixtieth birthday. So here is a festival that will appeal to scholars, enthusiasts, and children alike.

You want it, they have it: talks, tours, workshops, films, concerts, and exhibitions, all taking place inside the Royal Festival Hall.

The Exhibition

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ

If you walk in through the side entrance, then the first thing you will stumble upon in the Royal Festival Hall is an installation by school children. Made up of drain pipes, plastic cups, rope, and other recycled material, the interactive sculpture is a higgledy piggledy organ that twists can turns in all directions. You can make strange noises by hitting it with soft batons, which sound similar to if you were blowing into an empty bottle.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, ship

Take a few steps down and you'll enter the exhibition area full of steam-punk machines that look as though they have just popped out of The Golden Compass or one of Terry Pratchett Discworld books. Four wacky devices were designed by Manalo & White Architects, and were extremely popular with the public. So much so that I didn't get a chance to try any of them out. Since I didn't get a hands on experience, I'm not exactly sure what they all did, but my favourite was the one that looked like a ship, with loads of cogs and pulleys. There was also a stairway of musical keys, and some kind of cycling device.

pull out all the stops, south bank, international organ festival

Step behind a translucent screen, and you enter the more factual side of the exhibition that tell you all about the organ's history and mechanics.

Austerity and shortages during the Second World War, and years, thereafter, meant very few musical performances took place. The arrival of the organ was a welcome breath of fresh air.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes

Ralph Downes was the draughtsman who designed the organ, and he was inspired by two people. First, a Benedictine monk called Dom Bedos, who published a detailed organ designs in 1748. Second, Albert Schweitzer, a scholar, whose study of European organ construction lead him away from Romantic styles to Baroque ideals.

Not everyone supported Downes's design; the composer Vaughan Williams was concerned that it was too far removed from Romantic traditions. Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, was excited by the imaginative new look, believing it would create a huge repertoire. Eventually a compromise was met, and construction went ahead.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes
Organ pipes made from lead-tin alloy.

The organ's opening concert took place on the 24th March 1954; with its grand scale, and chamber exposed to view, it championed the power of science and logic that heralded an innovative future of British building.

Royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes

Harrison & Harrison, the company that originally built the Royal Festival Hall rogan, also led its restoration. Many of the people employed there in the fifties, were still there today to oversee what went on. The specialists involved need to be well verse in working with leather, metal, wood, and electrical equipment. To make its unique sound, every organ is handcrafted, including the tools used to build them.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes
School Children's Organ Restoration Project

The school children from Telferscot Primary School in Lambeth and Annfield Plain Junior School in County Durham documented the Royal Festival Hall organ's restoration for two years. They visited the Harrison & Harrison workshop, met the organ builders, and worked with filmmakers, artists, and animators to learn new skills.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes
Add your memories to the wall.

In the centre of the exhibition, is a large yellow wall full of quotes by people who have shared their memories about experiences they had with the organ back in the day. One organist recalls a time, when his music sheet didn't match that of what was being sung, so he had to try and play it by ear. You can also watch a documentary about the restoration, which is on a continuous loop.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, pipes
Listen to previous concerts played in the concert hall.

Behind the wall, are a number of headphones that allow you to listen to recordings of various concerts held over the years. These include classical favourites picked by the staff, school children's favourites, and pop-rock music. That might sound unconventional, but the fourteen metre organ can play lower, higher, softer, and louder than any orchestra; its colossal range means it can recreate sounds for anything from Bach to Pink Floyd.

Carmen Carpenter: The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ, the cabinet of dr caligari, german expressionism

Out of all the shows to choose from, a musical screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari intrigued me the most. I had seen this 1920 silent black and white film while studying film at university some years ago, and enjoyed it very much. As a piece of German Expressionism, it is one of the early Gothic horror film with obscure sets and camera angles.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, organ
The organ in all its glory.

When silent films were screened in the twenties, they would always be accompanied by a live pianist, who would play a background score. Here, that tradition was brought back, but with significantly enhanced surround sound. It is all very well reading facts and figures about how big the organ is, and how many pipes it has, but statistics easily wash over me. It was not until I saw the organ face to face that I really understood what all the fuss was about. Because the projection screen was hiding the organ, I had to wait until the end of the show to get a good look, but it was truly magnificent. The organ took up the entire stage, and to bring things into context, bigger than an IMAX cinema screen.

royal Festival Hall, pull out all the stops, box seats

The concert hall itself is impressive too. The ceiling is made from overlapping panels that look like waves, and the box seats that jut out like cabinet drawers has a 3D art deco quality.

Carmen Carpenter does not look like the type of person you would usually expect to be sitting behind an organ, but with his mohawk, almost Vulcan eyebrows, and black leather attire, he certainly fit in to the Gothic theme of the evening.

Taking his seat, Carpenter began to create his lively improvised soundtrack of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Although he was hidden behind the projector, there were two accompanying screens that showed the maestro at work.

Until then I had thought that an organ was really just a piano with pipes, but it is so much more than that. There are are more stops, cocks, keys, and pedals than even an octopus could handle. Carpenter's fingers so dexterously that sometimes I wasn't sure if he had sprouted another hand. You could also see close-ups of his footwork - sparkly shoes and all. He would switch between gentle tip-toes to abusive stamping.

To be honest, at first, I had trouble connecting the film and music together; I saw them as two separate entities. But as I got more immersed in the story, the music began to blend in to the scenery. For the most part it was flawless; I loved the sharp Psycho-esque notes that depicted insanity and increased the tension. There were a few exceptions, however, and this came when he tried to introduce a bit of humour. For example, Carpenter occasionally 'let rip' some very low trumpet-like notes, that sounded a bit as if a character were passing wind.

Apart from those few odd moments, it was a magnificent performance, and the audience applaud lasted for several minutes after the final note was played.

Future Dates

Although at the screening, I was told that it was the penultimate night of the festival, the website states that Pull Out All The Stops lasts until the 7th June. And indeed, there are many more upcoming events. Not only are there still activities for Pull Out All The Stops, but there are also other series that are soon to be making full use of the Organ, including the International Organ Festival that begins in autumn. Here's a sneak peak at some of the future events:

Pull Out All The Stops

Kit Downes & Tom Challenger's Wedding Music - 4th April
Darkness & Light - 11th April
Philharmonia Orchestra - 13th April & 26th June
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - 7th June


Simon Bolivar National Youth Choir of Venezuela - 4th April
Find Your Voice Workshop - 4th April
Singing The Shows Workshop - 5th April
Camil Menjura: Exploring Latin American Song - 5th April
Artist Training Workshop: Streetwise Opera - 5th April
Artist Training Workshop: A Surgery With Mary King - 5th April
The Estonian TV Girls Choir Workshop - 5th April
The Bach Choir: St Matthew Passion - 6th April
The Chorus Big Family Workshop - 6th April
The Festival Finale: Durfle & Tavener - 6th April

International Organ Series

Jennifer Bate - 29th September
Carmen Carpenter - 18th October
Martin Baker - 10th December
Ann-Elise Smoot - 2nd February
Thomas Trotter - 27th April
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*Bryony Harrison was invited as a guest
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Why? Fun for music lovers
When: Pull Out all the Stops until 7th June 2014, International Orang Festival 14th Sept - 27th April 2015
Phone: 44 (0)20 7960 4200
Where: Southbank Centre
Cost: Free - 47.50
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