Prom 58’s afternoon concert of light organ music was created to showcase the Royal Albert Hall’s enormous Henry Willis organ. It was the largest of its kind when it was originally built in 1871 and although now only the second largest in Britain, the instrument still consists of 9,997 pipes and 147 stops.

Richard Hills © David Reed
Richard Hills
© David Reed

Organist Richard Hills is an enthusiast for what he describes as the “golden age” of the theatre organ: the 1930s to the 1950s, when melody was of key importance. Introduced to the stage by presenter Christopher Cook, Hills was bouncy and smiley as he bowed to the audience for his BBC Proms debut performance. His light-hearted nature prepared the audience for a host of delights and nostalgia at this bank holiday matinee concert, as we were encouraged to conjure up images of Blackpool tower and Brighton Dome. Hills said that “light music is having a resurgence”, and that “hopefully people will be able to discover it with fresh ears.”

Despite this genre of music being described as light, this was not a small feat for Hills. With such a huge range of stops to choose from, each arrangement has to be carefully worked out in accordance with orchestral scores and rewritten for two hands and two feet. Hills’ talent as an arranger was demonstrated in a medley of themes from Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado, aptly named Mikado Memories. A huge variety of textures was displayed – from solo moments to a creative use of stops, where brass and woodwind sounds were heard.

He made each piece he performed look effortless and was confident in the spotlight. As the concert progressed and he warmed up, Hills seemed to be wading through progressively more difficult musical material, but he never tired of energy. The final piece of the afternoon was certainly the most challenging. Quilter’s A Children’s Overture, infused with nursery rhymes, was far from an easy piece to play. The stops were diverse and included tubular bells for Oranges and Lemons and percussion stops throughout. He told us in an interview with Cook during the concert that this had taken him a considerable amount of time to prepare for the performance.

There was a punchy moment at the beginning of Fats Waller’s A Handful of Keys where the stops were pulled out and a powerful chord blasted from the pipes between the catchy fast-paced rhythms. A single bell (tubular bell stop) was played at the end of Billy Mayerl’s Ace of Hearts from the Four Aces Suite to great effect. Edward German’s Three Dances from “Nell Gywn” felt a little slow-paced for the first two dances, but sped up to the same pace as the rest of the concert with its final Merrymaker’s Dance which Hills described as “finger-busting fast”.

The encore played by Hills was humorous. He played his own version of the famous jazz standard Tiger Rag with a series of well-known classical tunes interjected, including Land of Hope and Glory. The opening of Widor’s Organ Symphony no. 5 in F minor received a huge laugh and applause from the audience as he managed to work it in to the jazz standard. This showed Hills’ true mastery of the bridge between classical and theatre organ music. Having that flexibility to make musical jokes by mixing the genres was a witty way to end the evening. The scales played all the way up and down the different keyboards were impressive to watch as were the hops between keyboards. At one point, Hills was playing all four keyboards in four beats of music.

He turned round in some of the pauses, making a face at the audience and used the percussive stops of the Royal Albert Hall’s organ to create honks and beeps. This Prom suited the British summer vibe of a bank holiday Monday perfectly and was received with a great applause. Not only did Hills bow several times, but also gestured up to the organ and ensured that the gigantic instrument received full credit for this wonderful event.

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