“When I came to the UK to start my PhD research on the Town Hall organ, I was vaguely aware that the tradition was still going strong in Birmingham,” says Mie Othelie Berg, the current Organ Scholar at Birmingham Town Hall and Symphony Hall. “But it wasn’t until I was invited to audition that I realised it was much more than just a tradition that had managed to survive for close to a hundred years – it was a living tradition at the heart of a dynamic cultural organisation.”
The B:Music Organ Scholarship is one of only a handful of secular organ scholarships in the UK. For a 2-year period, the organ scholars will support Birmingham’s City Organist, Thomas Trotter, at his lunchtime organ concert series, work with the Development and Impact team on opportunities for communities and young people to engage with and improve awareness and access to the organ— all alongside having access to two world-class organs at Town Hall and Symphony Hall.
“Throughout what ended up being about two years with B:Music, I have enjoyed the full spectrum of musical activity that the scholarship can offer,” says Mie. “[This includes] demonstrating the mechanics of the organ to school students; taking part in various musical projects, one highlight being improvising space noises with a stage full of young people for the excellent Generation Ladywood; providing musical backdrop for numerous graduation ceremonies at the Symphony Hall; planned musical events and formed new organ concert concepts; and assisting Thomas Trotter, the City Organist, in his regular recital work, including his grand 800th Lunchtime Recital. The list could go on.”
Some may not be aware of one of the most unique aspects of the B:Music organ scholarship, which is that it is one of vanishingly few scholarships not tied to a church or cathedral.
“This provides an extraordinary platform for the scholar to experience and learn about the organ in a secular setting, which naturally focuses on different aspects of the instrument and its use compared to a scholarship at a religious institution, and brings with it different responsibilities and opportunities. The scholar not only gets to interact with world-class instruments, but also get to experience the workings of a large cultural institution and work with the many wonderful people who make B:Music go around week by week.”
Originally from Norway, Mie has a long background in organ performance, having studied at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, before moving to the UK for her PhD studies. She is passionate about showcasing the organ as a musical instrument and a marvellous machine and making it accessible to those who may not have any prior experience or knowledge of it. “For me, the historical aspect of the scholarship was what initially attracted me to it, as it closely aligned with my PhD project. I wrote my thesis at the University of Birmingham on the civic organ tradition in England, which actually began with the construction of Birmingham Town Hall and the William Hill organ in 1834,” says Mie. “To be working in the very same building where the tradition originated, with the same instrument I’d read about and the seventh City Organist still performing similar duties as his predecessors, was a very special, somewhat surreal experience, and one I will treasure for a long time.”
“The origin of the Lunchtime Recitals, which are still being played every other week, stemmed from a wish to bring the organ within reach of Birmingham’s working classes, at a price they could afford and a time they could attend, and succeeded in making a wide repertoire of music accessible to them, much of which they would otherwise have had limited opportunity to experience. Times have perhaps changed a little since the 1840s, but I think there is still much value to be found in these recitals and the ideas that shaped them.”
Mie’s passion for the instrument really shines through when talking about her time doing the scholarship. “I am passionate about communicating the wonderful, strange machine that is the organ to the wider public, and particularly to those who may have limited experience with the instrument. An important part of the scholarship has been working with the Head of Programme to develop the “Meet the Organ” family concert concept. This resulted in a concert-lecture aimed at families and included explanations and demonstrations of the various elements that make up the organ, some familiar and not-so-familiar tunes, a cartoon of a giant spider with live accompaniment, and an opportunity for anyone, young or old, who wanted to try playing the Town Hall organ themselves.” Mie adds: “I hope this concert will become a fixture of the organ scholarship and something future scholars will be as invested in as I have been, with ample room for them to shape it according to their own talents and interests, with a core aim of bringing the organ out to families and young people in an engaging manner.”
“Looking back at my time with B:Music, I hope the new organ scholar will have as fruitful and exciting a time as I have had, and will continue the work I have done, promoting the organ and showing the public what a fascinating instrument it is, and what a vital role it has played in the musical life of Birmingham since it was first heard in 1834 – and will continue to be heard to be heard for, hopefully, many more years to come.”
Mie Othelie Berg’s successor is Colin Lapus. “I am ecstatic to be the new organ scholar at B:Music and I am very grateful to those who have made it a reality!” says Colin. “I've been in Birmingham now for just over two years since beginning study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and have since become super passionate about music and the promotion of the organ in the region. The recital series, alongside other events and activities that B:Music hosts, are so unique in the organ world and platform the organ on a mainstream and accessible stage, which is invaluable for the education and advancement of the organ.”
B:Music is excited to see and hear about Colin’s ambition for the organ and as the new Organ Scholar. “In short, my ambitions for this scholarship are to grow and assist initiatives that showcase and demonstrate the organ's wide capabilities and beautiful versatility to people who may not have really come across an organ before or have never seen it presented front and centre. I have been playing organ for the better part of ten years. I come from Boston, MA in the United States, where I was introduced to the organ in a cathedral choir setting. Of course, from there, I became interested in the organ's great repertoire and after having great mentors and encouragement, fulfilled a huge dream of working and studying in the UK.” Colin adds. “Birmingham, so far, has treated me great! I’ve been able to grow as a musician greatly thanks to the team at the Conservatoire and begin to look at future career opportunities by working playing the organ in churches, and conducting choirs.”
As far as exactly what the future holds, all I know is that it revolves around music - and the organ! I'm hoping to really help people fall in love with the instrument the way that I have during my term here and hoping to gain a greater knowledge and love for it myself along the way!
“We're extremely grateful at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for all that that the organ scholarship will offer our students,” says Daniel Moult, Head of Organ at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. “It's a unique opportunity for students to gain an understanding of modern concert life, get a feel for how events are created and promoted, and share their own expertise with enthusiastic members of the public. Such experiences are becoming increasingly important, as the organ continues to regain slowly its place at the heart of UK secular musical life. Thomas Trotter, as City Organist, has been an internationally revered champion of the Town Hall organ and its wonderful past. Colin will be extremely fortunate to work alongside Thomas and gain invaluable insights and inspiration from him and his colleagues at B: Music.”
Don’t miss the next great organ concert Thomas Trotter: Celebrating 40 years as Birmingham City Organist at Symphony Hall on Fri 6 Oct.