The launch of the Royal Festival Hall's newly refurbished organ has been dominating the Southbank Centre all this week, with a no-holds-barred festival called Pull Out All The Stops. My old friend and colleague Clare Stevens was at the recital by the distinguished French organist Olivier Latry last night and she reports on an incident that has implications far beyond the sound of the mighty "king of the instruments".
Latry had planned to play a transcription of The Rite of Spring, apparently originating in the composer's own version for two pianos, four hands, but the programme was changed to Widor's Fifth Symphony. What happened?
Clare says: "In addition to referring to his disappointment in very strong terms in his pre-concert talk, Latry read a prepared and clearly very impassioned statement at the start of the second half apologising to the audience especially those who had booked tickets in order to hear the Rite, and explaining that Stravinsky's publishers had withheld permission, on the grounds that it would be an infringement of Stravinsky's intellectual property to play it. Apparently it is OK to play it in the US where the publishers' writ doesn't run. Latry added that he still hoped to be able to come back and play it at the RFH one day, if the rules change."
As a TV presenter once said to a tattoo artist, where do you draw the line? On the one hand, it is vitally important to uphold those laws; otherwise it is artists/creatives who lose out. On the other hand, it would also be nice to think there could be some two-way traffic and that an arrangement could be reached whereby an artist as stupendous as Latry could indeed be heard performing a work like Rite, especially for such a special occasion (apart from anything else, imagine all the work he must have put into learning the thing). Where dedication and tribute is surely a motivation, in the context of the very top level of the world's organs and organists, shouldn't the situation be rather different from the more widespread acts of piracy, cheating and unauthorised exploitation? But meanwhile this Rite - with a certain irony - had to be sacrificed.
The organ festival - which runs til June - continues this weekend with Cameron Carpenter (yes, that guy) improvising a live sound-track to the 1920s German Expressionist film classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari tomorrow night, plus fun and games all around the centre including free taster organ lessons. Check it out here.