Wednesday, 23 February 2011

David Liddle plays the Alexandra Palace Organ

I went up the hill to Alexandra Palace tonight to see -  no - let me get this right - to listen to David Aprahamian Liddle, play Bach, Rheinberger and one of his own dark and strident Armenian compositions on Alexandra Palace's long-suffering, towering organ.
   I paused outside the 'People's Palace'. I recalled Winifred Edith, my grandmother, talking about her childhood days in the 1920s when she'd look up at the massive building hulked on the hill above her Tottenham home. "Ally Pally always looked spooky to me," Grandma Win would often say.
   I can remember my own shock and awe when I saw huge flames and belching smoke devour Ally Pally in 1980, the second catastrophic fire in the often unfortunate history of the so-called 'People's Palace'.
Nerves began jangling again tonight minutes before David Liddle's recital. Fire-fighters evacuated us from the Grand Hall. Apparently, a motor driving the shutters on a tea bar in the hall had over-heated, setting off a flashing fire alarm (above).
   The fire crew gave us the all clear after a short delay. We sat inside the Grand Hall, surrounded by its vast empty expanses and towered over by the organ pipes. The lights were cut. We were lost in the Grand Hall's darkness. 
   Liddle (top photo), educated at Worcester College for the Blind, wasn't troubled by any of these distractions. Liddle amazed us with his control of the organ's obvious power and demonstrated its surprisingly subtle capabilities. I'd half-expected to be blasted into some fearful state - the organ conjuring up images of The Hunchbank of Notre Dame with Ally Pally reminiscent of the Stanley Hotel in The Shining.
Happily, no such spooky thoughts arose. One large screen showed Liddle's fingers flying over the four-level keyboard. The other screen focused on his socked feet dancing over the foot pedals, drawing our attention to his incredible musically-driven co-ordination between mind, hands and feet. Liddle frequently toed pedals 1,2 and 3 but I wondered - in my woeful ignorance of organ organisms - if Ally Pally's reported structural weaknesses explained why he only hovered close to the pedal labelled 'Crescendo' but never tapped it.
   Liddle played with co-ordinated heart and soul too. His recital covered A Song of Sunshine, composed by Victorian musician, Alfred Hollins, who was also blind. Liddle even sent us off home with a short, quirky rendition of Handel's Departure of the Queen of Sheba
  Liddle brought honour and dignity to the organ which, like Ally Pally itself, has suffered a history of heaped misfortune and indignities. Henry Willis' original organ was completely destroyed by Ally Pally's first fire in 1873. British soldiers vandalised the re-built organ in 1918. Restored in 1929, one of Hitler's flying V2 bombs caused serious damage to the organ in 1944. 
It didn't end there either; that terrible fire of 1980 destroyed the organ's shell. But not its soul. Liddle himself enjoyed the merited distinction of giving the first recital on the partly restored organ in 1990. 
   The Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal, led by a determined corps of men and women, aim to ensure the organ is completely restored. They deserve much credit and ongoing support. 
   At the end, David Liddle fully deserved our hearty applause as it rattled around inside the Grand Hall. I wondered too if the sounds of Liddle's playing had echoed further around Ally Pally's maze of darkened halls, courts, corridors and nooks and crannies. I didn't dwell on that thought for too long.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2011

Photos: Paul Coleman (not to be re-used without permission).

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