Organ music can be wacky

North London isn t short of organs, but some are more distinguished than others. And one person qualified to know is the eminent British organist Jennifer Bate. She was virtually born and raised at the console in St James s Muswell Hill – a great beast of

North London isn't short of organs, but some are more distinguished than others.

And one person qualified to know is the eminent British organist Jennifer Bate.

She was virtually born and raised at the console in St James's Muswell Hill - a great beast of an instrument which features, along with that of St Dominic's Priory, Belsize Park, on her

new CD.

"My father was the organist at St James's for 54 years and, as he was my teacher, it was the instrument I learned on and first grew to love," she explains.

"At his invitation, some of the greatest figures in the organ world came to hear me play at St James - including Olivier Messiaen.

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"He came to Muswell Hill in 1975 and was interested in the way this very English Harrison organ could deliver the French colouring required for his music."

That visit began a friendship between Bate and the French composer which lasted until his death in 1992 and propelled her to world acclaim as one of the most authoritative and insightful of Messian interpreters.

She has recorded his complete works and he remains a central figure in her musical life - the subject of endless recitals, lectures and projects.

"But I do play other things as well," she pointedly reminds me, "anything with five lines and notes on a page."

That includes the music of composer Peter Dickinson, which is the subject of the new CD.

Dickinson occupies an interesting niche in the British contemporary arts.

Born in 1934, he spent a formative part of his early life in America, which left a transcultural imprint on his work.

Quirky, clever, tunefully appealing, much of it mixes genres, including blues and jazz.

Those elements even creep into the organ pieces which, along with piano music, account for a good proportion of his output.

Having been a Cambridge organ scholar, he now calls himself a "lapsed organist".

But as the spread of music on this disc shows, he's been writing for the instrument consistently for half a century.

His best-known piece on the disc is a fiendishly difficult score, written for Bate in 1985, called Blue Rose Variations, which parades its allegiance to popular music way beyond the traditions of English organ writing.

"I've arranged the pieces on this disc in order of writing," says Bate, "and anyone who follows it through will hear how Peter's work starts conventionally but gets progressively wackier - to the point where it rips the organ out of its familiar place in the church loft and presents it as a purely concert instrument with no obvious ecclesiatical connections."

Attempting to remove the organ from its church context is an activity that mirrors Bate's own life as a musician.

For all her father's influence, she had no desire to sit in a loft, playing choral evensongs and Sunday morning masses.

In fact, for the first part of her life, she had no desire to be a full-time professional organist at all.

"It didn't occur to me. I didn't go to a conservatoire. With my father teaching me everything he knew, there didn't seem much point.

"So I went to university and after that I became Shaw librarian at the London School of Economics, using my annual leave to give concerts."

It was only after some years in academia that she decided she was in the wrong job.

She says: "So I left the LSE and took the risk of relying on the organ for my income - though still with no interest in a cathedral appointment.

"When you have a job like that you're not free to travel, play where you want or take on projects. I wanted that freedom - although economically, of course, it's difficult."

Setting out on her own as an "unattached" player involved a steep learning curve through which she had to absorb a lot of repertory fast. But fortunately it was programmed into her to learn at speed.

"My father used to give me a new concerto to study every month and very often it really was new. He had an interest in contemporary music and, having given me these impenetrable scores to master, he would then ring up the composer and ask him to come to Muswell Hill for a working session on the score."

The problem was that, having learned these pieces, the opportunities to perform them weren't great.

And that was partly how she got involved with Dickinson, whose organ concerto she had learned but never played in public before she gave it a world-premiere recording on the organ at the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall.

Another potential problem was that women tend to get a raw deal when it comes to the organ.

Despite the existence of star virtuosi like Gillian Weir, there remained until recently a lingering belief that this was a man's world - largely because of the church tradition.

And it's why Bate now spends part of her year running an annual organ academy for girls, based near Guildford but with participants from far and wide.

"The idea is to give the girls the all-round disciplines they need to be real contenders for organ scholarships in Oxbridge colleges, cathedrals and the like," she says.

"It's a project close to my heart and we've had some notable successes in the five years that it's been running."

A project even closer to her heart is the restoration of the organ at St James's.

Bate still lives in Muswell Hill and her involvement with the organ that her father not only played but helped design is hands-on.

"For years, the St James's organ has needed an overhaul and we've been raising money.

"It's a slow process - but we've now got �160,000, which is enough to sign a contract for the work to start next year.

"Meanwhile, we have to raise the remaining �60,000 it will cost - and these aren't good times to doing it. But I'm hopeful.

"St James's is an important instrument, not just for me but for the musical history of north London. So I'm saying to everyone: please be generous."

o Jennifer Bate's new CD of Peter Dickinson's complete solo organ music is out now on Naxos.