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How many times have you been to the orchestra and heard an organ booming above the strings; roaring over the winds?

You could probably count the number on one hand: the organ is hardly ever written into a symphony. So when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents Saint-Saëns’ epic Symphony No. 3 in C minor, it’s worth heading along for the novelty factor alone. But the music itself? Awe-inspiring.

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Melbourne Town Hall Organ

The Organ symphony was composed in 1886; Saint-Saëns conducted its premiere in St. James’ Hall – a (now defunct) London venue that once boasted an 18-stop organ.

For comparison, you could hear this work performed on the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ, which has well over 100 stops and is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Every minute, 90,000 cubic feet of air are pumped through thousands of pipes. And Dr Calvin Bowman is the talented soloist who will activate them with the music of Saint-Saëns. (Of course, he’ll have 35 horsepower behind him, thanks to two electric motors.)

“It’s great fun to play,” Calvin says. The Yale-educated organist and Fulbright scholar was the first musician to play this Melbourne instrument upon its refurbishment; it was originally built in 1929, and in 2001 was restored to the tune of $4.5 million.

“The Melbourne Town Hall organ is impressive in terms of its sheer size. It can shake the walls, and easily overpower a full symphony orchestra. With power comes great responsibility!”

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Calvin Bowman, organist (Photography: Terry Lane)

Calvin will also play the striking Sir Louis Matheson pipe organ in a second MSO performance of the Organ symphony. A more modern instrument, in 1980 it was installed in Robert Blackwood Hall, having been hand-built in Germany.

It could be easy to overlook the nuances of such a thunderously loud instrument. Highlighting the “craftsmanship” of Saint-Saëns’ composition, Calvin notes that “some of the softer colours of the instrument are also showcased through sustained accompanimental texture”.

With more than 500 keys, Calvin must concentrate on the physical demands of the performance – where to place his hands, feet, and eyes. So how does he have the luxury of time to appreciate its many colours and textures? Calvin confesses somewhat surprisingly that “in terms of technical challenges, it’s not so difficult”.

“The challenge is to play in time with the orchestra, because if the organist isn't in the right spot, especially in the loud bits, everyone will know!”

We’re not worried – after all, he’s certainly no stranger to this “work of genius, which deserves to be heard and celebrated”.

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Experience the exciting sound of the organ when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

10 August 2023 at 7.30pm
Melbourne Town Hall

11 August 2023 at 7.30pm
Robert Blackwood Hall

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