'My word - it is a mighty beast!' - Sir Henry Brett

By Dionne Christian

Henry Brett discovers the hidden world behind the Auckland Town Hall organ, originally a gift to the city from his great uncle.
Henry Brett discovers the hidden world behind the Auckland Town Hall organ, originally a gift to the city from his great uncle.

And with those words, visiting Englishman Henry Brett stepped on to the stage to look more closely at the Auckland Town Hall Organ - New Zealand's largest musical instrument and one he has a special connection to.

Brett is the great nephew of Sir Henry Brett, the former mayor of Auckland who donated the original 1911 Town Hall Organ. Brett was making his first visit to New Zealand to learn more about his ancestor's life here.

Sir Henry, also known for the stunning gardens at his Takapuna estate, gave £6500 to Auckland City Council to buy an organ for the town hall. He stipulated that space equal to that in Wellington Town Hall be provided for the instrument and there be regular free public performances. These continue 89 years after his death.

Regarded as one of the greatest organs in the Southern Hemisphere, it was shipped in pieces to NZ from organ builders Norman and Beard Limited, of Norwich and London.

Kerry Stevens, of the Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust, provided Brett with a guided tour of the instrument - replaced in 1970 and 2010 - which included sitting at the central control console to learn more about how to master an organ, a tour inside it and the chance to hear young Auckland organist Nicholas Forbes play.

Brett was amazed to find hidden behind the 1911 façade of the 40 ton behemoth an almost otherworldly arrangement of pipes (around 5000), numerous bellows and a complex network of wires and associated technology.

"It is quite simply stunning!" he declared, marveling at how anyone learns to play an instrument which has five keyboards, including one which has 32 peddles played by the feet.

Paul Chan, of Botany Downs, knows the challenges of mastering an organ. This month, Chan shared with Australia's Edith Yam first prize in the National Organ Performance Awards held in Christchurch.

The senior organ scholar at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell and college organist at King's College in Otahuhu, he says the biggest challenge about studying how to play was learning to put hands and feet together.

Chan says finding a venue with an instrument to practice on can also be tricky. After all, it's not as if you can pack up an organ and take it to classes and even scaled-down digital organs can be out-of-reach of most households. He counts himself lucky to have one at home which he practices daily on.

"There are quite a few young people who may want to learn, but the challenge is the availability of practice instruments."

From a musical family, he started learning the piano when he was just 5 years old and became interested in organ playing while serving as a church organist in his teens.

Arriving in NZ from Hong Kong, Chan was taught by renowned tutors Sherry Shelton and Dr John Wells who was Auckland City organist from 1998 to 2012.

When his family returned to Hong Kong, he opted to stay saying the availability of organs and chance to build a playing career were among the lures which kept him in NZ.

"I enjoy playing and having people singing along with me," Chan says. "I enjoy the music itself because of the deep, rich sound of the organ stirs my soul every time I listen to it."

He reckons the revival of interest in organ music is possible and considers it to be a motivating challenge: "I am trying to make this happen by learning and playing it myself as a young organist."

He hopes to start teaching some King's College students who say they want to learn and plans to give a recital next year.

In the meantime, those who want to learn more about the Auckland Town Hall Organ can take a guided tour on Saturday, 9 July or attend one of the free concerts held there.

• Bookings are essential for the tours which are usually limited to four people. Contact richard.leigh@aucklandorgan.co.nz for more.

- NZ Herald

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