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Organists' Review
November 2003
CLIVE DRISKILL-SMITH at home with Shirley Ratcliffe
Before Clive Driskill-Smith went as organ scholar to Christ Church, Oxford, it was suggested that he use his gap year 'learning the trade' at a cathedral. He went to Winchester because the post was combined with that of assistant organist at Winchester College.

"My year at Winchester gave me the freedom and time to learn a lot of repertoire. When I left Eton I only had enough pieces to cover two weeks of Evensong," he explains. "While I was there David Hill introduced me to choral conducting and I gained so much experience. I was very lucky to be working with David. In my first year at Christ Church I don't think I learnt more than a couple of pieces because I was studying for my degree and practising accompaniments for the choir."

"When you decided to make the organ your career, did you have a specific objective in mind?" "I didn't decide until I was in my third year at Oxford. I started the organ at Eton when I was 15. The director of music, Ralph Allwood, suggested I get my Grade 8 piano before I started the organ. At the time I was annoyed but in retrospect I think it was excellent advice. You can pick up the organ very quickly with such a good manual background. I treated the piano and organ equally until I began to realise that it's almost impossible to do both. It was a very difficult choice to make." Shrewdly realising there were far more pianists than organists he opted for the latter although he was undecided what route to take at that stage.

"What was particularly valuable about your three years as an undergraduate?" "Everything one learns for a degree: history of music, harmony and counterpoint counts for so much in one's own performance. I can look at a piece of music and make decisions based on knowledge, which will carry me through for the rest of my life."

Driskill-Smith went on to take an MPhil in Interpretation and Performance. When the sub-organist's post fell vacant Stephen Darlington offered it to him. "It's been absolutely ideal. It gives me a lot of flexibility to do concerts and recitals because of the set-up there. I try to fix my performances in my vacation times but if it doesn't work out I ask Stephen and he always says 'yes'. It's been brilliant working with him and again I have learnt so much. Christ Church is a very good base and from there I'm hoping to build a concert career."

"Do you think you would ever want a top cathedral job?" "I love what I'm doing here, not only playing but also conducting and training the choir. I can imagine it would be a wonderful life to be in a cathedral somewhere in England."

"But your recital career would certainly be curtailed."

"Yes. At the moment I don't want to lose my playing but I can't predict what I'll be doing in ten years time. I would really like to be giving recitals around the world like Thomas Trotter."

"How did your recital career start?" "I entered a lot of competitions and I'm convinced this is the way forward. The minute you're a prizewinner you win some recital engagements. This helps you to make contacts and you start to play at different venues - you can't get that experience too early. Making contacts is absolutely essential and it's important to get to know a lot of people. My first competition was in Freiberg, Germany, in 1999. The repertoire was all Bach and I thought I needed more experience but my teacher, David Sanger, rightly insisted I do it. Although I didn't get past the second round I'm so glad I entered. Not only did I meet people but I played on the wonderful Silbermann organs, which are fantastic and that opened my eyes." He continues to have lessons with David Sanger and also with Hans Fagius in Copenhagen. People often ask him why. "I intend to go on having lessons until I'm 70 because you never stop learning," he replies.

In 2001 Driskill-Smith won the audience prize at the St Albans international organ competition; he was a gold medallist at Calgary in 2002 but the prize that launched his recital career like a rocket was winning the RCO's Performer of the Year competition in 2000.

"I hadn't thought about this before but I suspect it was this that made me realise one could make a career giving organ recitals. I was given a lot of recitals and this led to other engagements, so it made a huge impact. If I hadn't done these competitions we wouldn't be sitting here now, would we?"

"Absolutely true! What was it about your playing that gave you the audience prize at St Albans?"

"I suspect it was the programme. I played five shorter pieces in different styles from different nationalities - it was very varied."

"Are you very audience-conscious and does this effect your choice of repertoire and presentation?"

"I'm very aware that Classic FM has a vast audience because they play what the majority of people want to hear. That connects with one's choice of music. I agonise over programmes and it takes me ages to decide. I like to start with a bang to grab people's attention. If I'm going to include Hindemith or Reger then there must be lighter pieces to balance it out. I try to choose music the majority of people will enjoy but that doesn't stop me putting in the big pieces I love to play."

Nor does Driskill-Smith shy away from playing contemporary music. In the summer he performed a very unusual and interesting programme with percussionist Colin Currie in Westminster Abbey. The pieces were by William Bolcom, Petr Eben, Sofia Gubaidulina and a commissioned work by Dave Maric.

"The programme took me a long time to learn. The Bolcom is probably the most difficult piece I've ever performed. Technically it's extremely difficult: very fast and complex. The new Dave Maric piece focused mainly on marimba and organ but other percussion instruments were used. Everybody was talking about it afterwards."

"Did you have any logistical problems in the Abbey because of the acoustic and the position you were both playing from?"

"We had a microphone by the percussion and a speaker putting the sound through to me. We also had a camera and television so there was a lot of communication going on. Either I had to play a bit ahead or Colin had to play a bit behind. Gradually we jelled without either of us having to think too much."

Driskill-Smith is in the process of performing three short organ pieces by a contemporary of his at Christ Church, Jonathan Pitkin. As Pitkin hadn't written for the organ before "we spent a lot of time at the organ discussing what the instrument was capable of and what effects you can get. It's brilliant music and I am really enjoying it. When I played the first piece at St John's Smith Square nobody talked about the rest of the programme, they were talking about how they loved the new piece." Two of the Pitkin pieces were performed in Edinburgh in July but the Suite of three pieces will be given its premiere at 1.15pm in the Temple Church on 15 October 2003.