Jeannine: Please share with our readers your background and how you made your way to the organ world of Sydney, Australia.
Mr. Ampt: I grew up in the state of Victoria in a small country town which had four churches with two manual pipe organs. Unfortunately none of these organs were found in the town’s two Lutheran churches – and I am Lutheran. At that time, church youth groups were the big social groups for many teenagers.
One night, for the entertainment section of my Luther League gathering, we visited the new, and architecturally dramatic, Presbyterian church. And so I had my first contact with an organ with pipes. Although there was nothing above 2’, I was completely bowled over, and so I started weekly practicing on that instrument. I was about fourteen years-old and taking weekly piano and violin lessons.
Even at that time, organ music was not new to me. My own church had a German-style electronic organ and, because my mother was one of the organists, I had already been playing it whenever possible. Importantly, our very working-class home was a place of almost constant music. My mother and oldest sister often entertained us with piano duets (there was no TV) while my other sister, and eventually also my father, took singing lessons. My father, a true lover of classical music, had a substantial, and much played, collection of LP recordings, and only ever had the kitchen radio tuned to the classical music station. I almost never heard, or developed a liking for, pop music. Even to this day I find most pop music of little interest – often just a succession of passacaglias with very short themes.
I had my first organ lessons during my last two years of high school, followed by Ordinary and Masters degrees at Adelaide University, two of those years with David Rumsey. Then it was off to Vienna and four and a half years with the incomparable Anton Heiller.
It was when I had been thinking of returning to Australia that I read in an Australian organ journal that the position of Sydney City Organist was to be reinstated. I applied for the position.
Jeannine: Your position as Sydney City Organist sounds most intriguing. To my knowledge, positions such as yours are rare in the organ world. What is the history of the position? What are your duties in this position?
Mr. Ampt: Unlike America where the Town or City Hall is a collection of local government offices, similarly named buildings in Australia, following the English tradition, in addition to being the seats of local government, are also actual concert halls, initially designed as places for meetings, lectures and affordable entertainment. Many of these structures were built during the second half of the nineteenth century when large choral festivals were popular. Large organs were always a normal feature of these buildings and were used, not only for organ recitals, but also commonly as the accompanying instrument for the choirs. Competition between cities for the most lavish hall and the largest organ was inevitable.
Thus when Sydney became one of the last cities worldwide to construct its Town Hall, it simply built the largest in existence and endowed it with what was then the largest organ in the world. City or Municipal Organists were always employed at the Town Halls right until the mid-twentieth century, often playing weekly programs which contained many orchestral and operatic transcriptions – the only way most could ever hope to hear this music. Needless to say, popular numbers were repeated many times throughout the year.
Between 1890, when the Sydney organ was opened, and 1935 there were three Sydney City Organists. Then with the deteriorating state of the organ and the drop in popularity of organ concerts, largely due to the dramatic rise in the number of live orchestral, chamber and opera concerts and eventually also the advent of radio and then television, there were no further incumbents until my appointment in 1977 following major restoration work in the instrument. Recreating the City Organist position rather bemused the city bureaucracy, and so I was initially assigned to the Parks Department.
There are now around eight concerts per year with 500 – 800 attending the lunchtime organ recitals (occasionally with guest artists including singers and bagpipes) and 2,000 for the annual, very traditional, Christmas concert. Original organ music now constitutes most of the repertoire. For both myself and visiting organists I have this philosophy for each program: “something they should hear and something they would like to hear”. I always find it very satisfying playing, and audiences always turn up in considerable numbers to hear, all-Bach programs.
There is a surprising amount of clerical work. Besides organizing dates, programs and payments for visiting organists, I receive a fairly constant stream of emails relating to the organ and its history. I also occasionally receive correspondence about past relatives who had “built the Sydney Town Hall organ”. It is the sort of instrument that attracts this type of mythology.
(Excerpted from the Pro-Motion Music June 2017 Newsletter)
Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with her husband David, media artist, are the creators and performers of Bach and Sons, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Around the World in 80 Minutes — live organ concerts with multi-media.