Monday, February 3, 2014

Johannus Ecclesia at St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia

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“Hosa-nna in the high-est!” the young tenor sings, pouring his life into a rounded note that swells and cascades from the balcony, reverberating through the chapel hall. Behind and beneath his voice, pushing higher, higher, rises the sound of the organ, painting, as the vocalist falls back, New Jerusalem, from the depths of its twelve foundations to the height of its radiant citadel, in all its sparkling extravagance.

And then, as Neranjan de Silva takes his fingers off the keyboard, there is a sudden silence. The kind of silence that pierces and fills the soul to bursting.

The chapel at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia is now home to a five-million-rupee digital church organ. The old instrument is on its way out and sub warden Rev. Marc Billimoria and consultant Neranjan de Silva want to be prepared for when it sings its last. But this investment is not just about being practical.  And it’s more than even simply maintaining a tradition. It’s about giving new life to a unique gift that the prestigious school is already endowed with, and helping the next generation dream bigger.

When de Silva first wanted to learn to play the organ in the 1980s, there was no instrument for him to practice on. Now, as one of the most accomplished sound engineers and organ experts in the country, he wants to make certain that those who come after him will not have the same issue. As coordinator for Johannus Organs, one of the world’s top organ manufacturers, he was instrumental in helping pick the right instrument for St. Thomas’s.

But this is no ordinary organ. The Johannus “Ecclesia” D570 is the largest standard church organ in its range, and at STC is amplified by 21 state-of-the-art speakers. If you’re close enough when the three massive subwoofers are put to work on the lower pitches, you can feel it on your skin. The sound literally shakes the church. To the expert ear though, it is much more than just the decibel output of the instrument.

“If the sound is awful, then that will be coming out of 21 speakers,” points out well known organist Denham Pereira. As he sees (or rather, hears,) it, the improved technology creates a rounder sound, much closer to that of a real pipe organ than he has yet heard produced by a digital organ in Sri Lanka. The final effect? “Wow!”

Sound quality was the first reason de Silva went for a Johannus, but it wasn’t the only reason. The previous (now older) organ at STC is also a Johannus (albeit an older model), and when it first started giving trouble, the manufacturers were exceptionally helpful with putting things right.

De Silva claims that the proximity of the school to the sea, humidity, rats, and even the magnetic fields in the area affect the state of the organ at St. Thomas’s. Repairing it is sometimes “like surgery,” he says, “soldering and taping cables together”. When he finally gave up trying to fix it and shipped the instrument back to Johannus they did the needful free of charge. But the process takes time. Even when having spare parts shipped in, de Silva says, there is a downtime of around a week.

“One day, in the middle of the service, the old one just stopped,” the sub warden chuckles, “and the organist had to come down and start playing on the piano.”

But if a similar situation were to occur, say around December, there would not be much occasion for laughter.

“Here, the highlight of the year is the carol service,” Rev. Billimoria continues. “If the organ goes off, then it’s like Christmas without the Christmas pudding, you know?”

But if it only a practical measure, why such an impressive instrument, with four manuals and 80 voices, you may ask?

As Rev. Mark points out, “this is a living congregation, this is not a performing choir. For the worship that goes on here, we want the best, because we want to offer the best in worship.”

And when de Silva literally pulls out all the stops to demonstrate, there is not likely to be much argument on the definition of “best”. The hip-hop, trance and metal listening generation at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia, has been presented with the kind of sound that can finally battle the boom-kat coming out of their headphones.

“We were so excited when we saw the speakers,” gleams 18 year-old choir leader Ashwin Shaffter. He believes the choir “worked really hard” to be able to afford the instrument, and is genuinely honoured to be their leader on this occasion.

It is this excitement, this sense of pride among the choristers that de Silva and Rev. Billimoria are most interested in. They hope to shatter the stereotypical image of the old count at his instrument and put in his seat, the tech savvy teenager instead.

“Unless the boys hear that sound and develop an interest for it,” de Silva says, the interest in organ and Anglican choral music will die down. As both he and Rev. Billimoria see it, St. Thomas’s is among the few institutions that continue the Anglican choral tradition, and they have a great responsibility to encourage it.

As the last notes of Michael Maybrick’s The Holy City fade away, the singer, Niran de Mel, catches his breath. It is only the first time he has sung a solo accompanied on this instrument, and in the sparkle of his eyes leaps the little boy from the adage, who after knowing only sticks and mud, was finally shown the seashore.