On a rare sunny day in May, B:Music had the opportunity to sit down with Thomas Trotter, Birmingham’s City Organist at Town Hall before he rehearses for his upcoming 40th Anniversary Concert in October. He sits in front of the towering organ. The Hall is empty and sunlight streams through Town Hall’s large windows.
“I always wanted to play the piano, and my first introduction to music was having piano lessons at the age of five,” Thomas recalls with fondness. “Then I graduated to the organ when I was eleven. I've never looked back. I've enjoyed every minute of it.”
When asked what attracted him to the organ in the first place, he chuckles: “Well, first of all, you can make a lot of noise on it, and small boys always like making a lot of noise,” he says. “I think it was the different colour possibilities, the variety of tone. And I love the fact that there was more than one keyboard. This one's got four. I loved all that technical side of it, but I suppose ultimately it was the sound and versatility of the instrument that attracted me the most..
It is when we ask about the organ and its intricacies that Thomas becomes animated. “UntiI I pull out a stop, we don't get any sound. And then if I pull out that stop—"Thomas turns around to face the instrument, expertly pulls out a stop at random and the organ sings, echoing across the Hall. “I can add to it,” he reaches over, pulls another stop with expert precision and free-spirited nonchalance. “You've got a tremendous variety, and it's up to the organist to combine those sounds in the most suitable way for whatever music they're playing.”
Though the Town Hall organ is where he started, Thomas’ domain extends to Symphony Hall where on Fri 6 Oct he will celebrate his 40th Anniversary as the Birmingham City Organist with a captivating programme including an exclusive commission from Cheryl Frances-Hoad.
People ask me: what's the difference between playing the organ at the Town Hall and the organ at Symphony Hall? And I say, well, the Town Hall organ is like driving a vintage Rolls Royce and Symphony Hall is like driving a sparkly new Ferrari, if you like. They can do the same things, but the experience of playing them is different.
Thomas recalls the last forty years with fondness. “There’s never been a dull moment because although my job description hasn't changed— to present a regular lunchtime organ concert series— the situation itself has changed a lot. For the first 13 years we were in the Town Hall, which originally had many more seats and was rather claustrophobic. It was closed for 11 years for a big refurbishment, reopened in 2007, and it now looks visually spectacular. For me, the most important thing is that the acoustic has improved by about a hundred percent, and consequently, the organ sounds much better. In fact, I think today it sounds the best it's ever sounded in its history.”
The other big change is that, in 1991, Symphony Hall was built without an organ. In 2001, a new, spectacular organ was installed, and that became part of my kingdom as well as the Town Hall. Now, I give concerts both at the Symphony Hall and here, at the Town Hall.
hoosing a highlight in his formidable forty-year reign is difficult. “But I suppose the first highlight for me was when this organ was first refurbished in 1984,” says Thomas. “I gave the reopening concert in October ‘84. That was my first big concert as city organist. It was also the first time I performed with the CBSO with Simon Rattle conducting—that was a very special time. [Another highlight would be] the opening of Symphony Hall Organ in 2001 where I got to display the different range of colours with the CBSO in a solo concert.” But Thomas’ heart will always return to the hall he first started playing in. “The reopening of Town Hall in 2007. I did an afternoon and an evening concert back-to-back. The hall was packed. And it was just— it marked my homecoming. It was wonderful to be back in the Town Hall.”
At the time of the interview even Thomas himself had not seen the commission yet. “I won't be getting the piece until July, so I can't really tell you anything about it. You will just have to come to the concert to hear for yourself!”
Celebrate Thomas Trotter’s 40th Anniversary as the Birmingham City Organist on Fri 6 Oct at Symphony Hall. Check out B:Music’s full listings at bmusic.co.uk
Interview by Lerah Barcenilla, Marketing & Communications Officer
Photography and Filming by Ibi Keita, Digital Marketing Assistant