Concert Reviews
CD Reviews
Choir and Organ Cover Story
May /June 2009
The international career of CLIVE DRISKILL-SMITH
The gifted organist on the importance of new compositions and broadening horizons, and what he learns from teaching.
At only 30, Clive Driskill-Smith has reached a peak in his career with his work at Christ Church, Oxford, and as an international concert organist. Despite this, he still has an insatiable thirst for learning and exploring.
Shirley Ratcliffe meets him ...

It's this all-embracing approach to his profession that has enabled Driskill-Smith to fit in with ease at Christ Church, Oxford. Over a period of twelve years he has been first organ scholar and then sub-organist working alongside Stephen Darlington - choragus of the University of Oxford and director of Christ Church Cathedral Choir - who himself has an eclectic approach to music making. 'Oxford is a wonderful place to work and live,' says Driskill-Smith, 'and there are many opportunities to develop different aspects of my career. I've been sub-organist for seven years, and my job has evolved in exciting and new ways. I'm certainly grateful to Stephen for allowing me to combine my duties with concert engagements in the UK and abroad, and I have learnt so much from him about choral conducting, chorister training, musical interpretation and performance.' Driskill-Smith's duties include sharing responsibility for auditioning and training the choristers and choral scholars, directing the choir regularly and when Darlington is on sabbatical. 'I was in charge of the choir for two terms in 2005 and I've been asked to do the same thing in 2010. We now have an annual celebrity organ recital and often present the complete works of a composer as voluntaries over the course of a term or a year, such as Bach's Preludes, Toccatas, Fantasias and Fugues, and the complete works of Messiaen and Duruflé.'

Reading through Driskill-Smith's CV, I deduce incorrectly that he would have decided to specialise in the organ at Eton, where he was educated and received an excellent musical grounding. 'No, I didn't make that decision until I was 21. I started to learn the organ when I was 15. While singing in the chapel choir I saw the huge and colourful Hill organ and decided - because it looked so grand and made such an impressive sound - that I would like to learn to play it. When I asked if I could start having lessons, the director of music, Ralph Allwood, said no, not until I'd done my Grade 8 piano. At the time I was rather annoyed but, determined to get my hands on the organ, I practised hard and did grade 8 at the end of the year. In retrospect it was very good advice: although there's no harm in exploring the organ at a young age, it's an enormous advantage to have a good piano technique before moving from one keyboard to three plus pedals, stops, pistons, swell boxes and everything else connected with playing the organ!'

There was a point when Driskill-Smith was tempted to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Decision time came when he was studying at Oxford: 'I realised I wasn't progressing with the organ as quickly as I could be because I was spreading my practice time over two instruments. I chose the organ because there are thousands of pianists in the world and only hundreds of organists; I thought a career in organ might be slightly easier! I love both instruments and will always remember playing Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto at Eton and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto in Oxford.' In spite of a busy schedule he still manages to find time to accompany singers and instrumentalists on the piano. 'I think it's important to be involved in different types of music-making, particularly chamber music, because you learn so much by exchanging ideas with other musicians - being an organist can be lonely, so it's good to collaborate with others.'

Driskill-Smith has never fought shy of broadening his musical horizons and he went on a Royal College of Organists travelling scholarship to study abroad with Marie-Claire Alain, Guy Bovet, Andrea Marcon, Hans Fagius, Luigi Tagliavini and Harald Vogel. 'It was invaluable to study Buxtehude with Harald Vogel in Hamburg, Alain with Marie-Claire Alain in Romainmotier on the Alain organ, and Frescobaldi with Andrea Marcon in Treviso. These opportunities are so exciting and informative. Previously, I had been rather indifferent about the repertoire; but having heard the music come alive on the historic organs, I began to understand and appreciate it and was inspired to learn and play more of it.'

David Sanger and Hans Fagius have been Driskill-Smith's main teachers. He describes them as fantastic musicians and teachers; but how does he assimilate this varied knowledge and experience for his own use? 'I find it interesting to listen to their different perspectives and then come to my own decisions about interpretation. We all have different approaches and it's important to find your own musical voice. I'd like to carry on having lessons for the rest of my life because there is so much to learn!' He currently has eight organ scholars: 'I love teaching privately and on summer courses at Oundle and Eton - it's rewarding and inspiring to see students develop and achieve. Sometimes it's challenging to put into words what I'm thinking musically, but this is why I find teaching useful. It makes me think hard about how I'm approaching a piece of music and why I'm performing it in the way I do.'

Opinions differ as to the value of competitions, but Driskill-Smith has no doubt whatsoever that becoming the RCO Performer of the Year in 2000 and winning the God medal in Calgary in 2002 were very beneficial to his career. 'They had a significant influence. As well as the publicity and recital engagements, it is useful to meet other organists, experience new organs, set up registrations in a limited time and hear fellow competitors play the same pieces. And I'm extremely grateful to the RCO and the Royal Bank Calgary International Organ Festival for their continued support for several years after the competitions.'

He is frequently asked to premiere new works. On 18 March he performed Joanna Marsh's four-movement organ symphony Columba in London's Temple Church. 'Joanna's unique musical language carries a powerful and dramatic symphony - I was very excited about the performance. It's important to support our composers and perform their music widely, because new music is a significant and vital part of any musical generation.'

During 2009 he is performing in Norway, Finland, Germany, Bermuda, the St Albans International Organ Festival, the American Guild of Organists convention in Kansas, and touring the USA from 19 April to 3 May. On tour he performs two works he premiered in December at St John's Smith Square, London: Richard Pantcheff's Sonata (28 April at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Atlanta GA), and Richard Beaudoin's Summer Canons (21 April at St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St Paul MN). He tours North America regularly, where he is represented by Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists. How does organ playing there compare with the UK? 'I've heard many fantastic American organists, including some very talented younger performers. The approach is broadly similar but there is perhaps a stronger emphasis on playing from memory in the American conservatoires, which is excellent. On the few occasions I've tried it, I've always felt fully engaged with the music and utterly focused on the interpretation.'

A fresh venture is Organized Rhythm. 'When I performed in Westminster Abbey's Mixtures festival with percussionist Colin Currie,' he explains, 'it opened my ears and mind to a unique repertoire. I noticed one of the artists on Phillip Truckenbrod's agency was percussionist Joseph Gramley. I asked Joe if he was interested and he responded enthusiastically; so we formed a duo and called it Organized Rhythm and have given many concerts throughout the US. We play contemporary works and popular transcriptions and are our enjoying the success of our CD Beaming Music on the Equilibrium label.' Will British audiences have a chance to hear Organized Rhythm? 'Our agent works in the North American market only, but we'd love to perform in the UK.'

Article by Shirley Ratcliffe (Choir&Organ) May/June 2009