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Introducing Toronto's 10 million dollar man: organist David Briggs

By John Terauds on December 18, 2013

One section of the pipe organ at St James Cathedral.
The antiphonal (rear) section of the pipe organ at St James Cathedral.

David Briggs is the hands, feet and face of a $10 million wish list that includes a significant rebuilding of the interior of St James Cathedral and its pipe organ. The plan is to transform the corner of King and Church Sts from a piece of history and temple for Toronto’s dwindling Anglican faithful to a thriving music and arts hub.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

To be fair, the overall vision of this improbable-in-21st-century-Toronto project belongs to the cathedral’s spiritual head, it’s dean, the Very Reverend Douglas Stoute, and the congregation’s secular masters, its wardens.

Briggs, born and bred in England and currently based in New York City, was brought in last year as artist-in-residence, in anticipation of the grand vision coming to pass.

briggsBriggs is here to make music — not just for the faithful, but for the whole city. His last big concert of the year is on Saturday at 4 p.m.: a performance of the full La Nativité du Seigneur — a nine-part cycle composed in 1935 by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Messiaen was deeply spiritual (as opposed to merely religious), and his music is at once otherworldly and colourfully evocative.

Messiaen supplied short Scriptural texts to illustrate each movement, but the music can be appreciated without those references. This is one of the great pipe organ works of the last century — and it takes two dexterous hands and two nimble feet to make it happen.

Ironically, Briggs is having to present the music on the cathedral’s existing pipe organ, which was built primarily as a service rather than concert instrument.

Thanks to a condo-development deal worked out a decade ago, the cathedral and diocesan offices at the corner of Adelaide and Church Sts have already received a thorough makeover, which included building a penthouse with apartments for key staff.

Now, the cathedral has enlisted some people from Bay St to look for a professional fundraiser to kickstart the $10 million dream.

Over a recent lunch, Briggs described some details of the grand plan.

If all the money gets raised, the many interior walls will get rebuilt so that they reflect sound instead of absorbing it — a very expensive undertaking that, in the end, is supposed to be invisible. But there is a strong link between the heard (or unheard) and the invisible.

“Right now, that building doesn’t sound the way it looks,” says Briggs of the surprisingly dry acoustic inside the impressive, Victorian Gothic decor.

Briggs ran around collecting all of the pew cushions one day. Even that small change added one second of reverberation time to the space.

Installing air conditioning is also on the list, he reveals — a move sure to be applauded by anyone who has spent time in a Toronto church in midsummer.

Then there’s the pipe organ. Like most older instruments, it has been modified and added to and bandaged and repaired many times over the past century. In their book Organs of Toronto (published by the Royal Canadian College of Organists), James Bailey and Alan Jackson list work by organ builders S.R. Warren (in 1853 and 1889) and Casavant Frères (1936 and 1966-7). The console dates from 1979.

If we look at the spread between those dates, it makes sense that someone would come along right about now with a list of changes and additions.

Briggs has an international reputation as a fine creator of organ transcriptions. One of his more recent recordings (from 2011) captures the full, epic sweep of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in his two hands and feet. His imagination is equally sweeping when it comes to St James: “I want this to be the biggest, finest pipe organ in Canada,” he insists.

His favourite pipe organ in the world? The magnificent instrument at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

Despite being contracted for 20 weeks in Toronto and having a home (and wife) in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, Briggs says he loves this city, and sees tremendous potential for growing pipe-organ concert audiences here.

Briggs says that more than 400 people came to one of the cathedral’s regular Tuesday midday recitals two weeks ago — largely because of a relationship he has built with an English-as-a-second-language school. We can assume that most of this audience had never heard an organ in concert before.

The British organist is also known as a remarkable improviser. So I can’t help asking him if he will keep his Toronto connection if the cathedral’s fundraisers fail to rustle up the $10 million.

“That’s a very good question,” he replies. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he says Yes.

Despite the organ’s handicaps, Saturday’s recital is a great opportunity to leave the pre-Christmas hubbub behind and spend some time in the beautiful confines of St James to hear a masterwork being played by one of the masters of the genre. You’ll find the concert details here. Admission is by freewill offering.

For more information about David Briggs, including his many recordings and compositions, check out his website here.

Here’s a little clip that allows us to hear Briggs at the organ, accompanying one of his own compositions, the Marcel Dupré-like Kyrie from Messe pour Notre-Dame, sung by the Académie vocale de Paris led by Iain Simcock at Saint-Merry Church in Paris:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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