Organ Alternatives - History

Organ Alternatives’ history is a rather... organic one.. perhaps even a bit dry: but there are a few collected pages that may help liven it up. At the moment there are four areas to explore, in addition to reading the history below.
The OA Magazine
- 40 issues covering OA’s work and organ culture in Canada were published from 1992 to 2007.
Resource Articles
- covering a variety of subjects about the organ.
OA productions
- about two dozen productions from 1992 to 2003... there will probably be more.
Radio Series
- The King of Instruments on CJRT 91.1.

The OrgAlt Story
Since its founding Organ Alternatives has followed a path inextricably linked to its founder. In this account, Chris Dawes chronicles the starting context, principles and objectives, the life-phases as they have played themselves out to date, and his future hopes for the effort.
Beginnings (1992-1993)
Expanding and Energising (1994-1995)
Maturing and Mastering (1996-1998)
Passions and Pressures (1999-2001)
Resting and Redirecting (2002-2003)
Creating and Collaborating (2004 and beyond)

Beginnings (1992-1993)

I started OrgAlt in 1992 as “Organ Alternatives” a year after beginning what would become 12 years at the organ of Toronto’s St. James’ Cathedral. Having been active in both the organ world and the larger musical world I perceived problems facing the organ’s current vitality and future, and perhaps uniquely positioned to do something about them. 

I believed that:

    1) the organ suffered from an image problem in the musical, artistic and broader communities,

    2) the organ had a largely unrealised role to play in broader artistic expression, and in particular Toronto’s thriving theatre, dance, and spoken word scenes,

    3) the community of people and institutions in Canada that played, listened to, built, recorded and otherwise relied on the organ and its music was under-organized, under-funded, under-skilled in matters of promoting itself, under-connected to the broader artistic and musical worlds, and poor internal communication structures.

These problems seemed to be based on a large number of factors, paradoxically the most important were opposites: the organ’s past strength and complacency, and recent challenges being levied at its value by the church and the broader musical community. The organ scene I had discovered in while in my ‘teens in the early 1980s seemed to have just woken up from a dream, and discovered instead of the ‘dream-world’ it had known in thirty years earlier, a harsh, new one largely ignorant, or even hostile toward it. Adding insult to injury much of the scene had reached the disturbing (and not entirely true) conclusion that its plight was entirely of its own making: the rest either lived in denial or depression about the situation, and many turned on one another in a vain effort to assign fault. The then-raging debate over mechanical vs. electric action was at the centre of many of the skirmishes.

What seemed to be needed was a kind of balanced, optimistic outlook that might nudge others into understanding the situation and work towards correcting it. In an effort add my own contribution to the situation that many were now working to address, and to explore artistic ideas of my own invention, I decided I would found a production company with secondary activities in enhancing communication in the organ world, and lobbying artists and institutions to employ the organ in their own presenting activities and creative work. It would be called “Organ Alternatives” not implying alternatives TO the organ, but rather alternative ways to view it, to employ it, and to present it to a world at that time somewhat ignorant of it.

Beginning with Toronto’s two major free public arts festivals at the time, Artsweek and First Night, Organ Alternatives produced events either promoting the organ in new ways, or using it in partnership with other artists and artistic disciplines. I began publishing a quarterly newsletter called “The Organ Update” to generate revenue and inform interested parties of OA’s activities. The newsletter grew quickly in size and circulation, and within a year was renamed Organ Alternatives to match the production company’s name. Over the next decade there would be some 20 original productions created under the banner of Organ Alternatives, and some forty issues of the Organ Alternatives newsletter. The newsletter covered OA’s activities, and listed any other concerts I could find happening in Southern Ontario and border communities. It was also distributed free of charge in music stores, concert halls and churches across the region.

With early support from Artsweek and First Night and Toronto’s two principal Anglican churches, St. James’ Cathedral and St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, events occurred as often as four times a year. The biggest early success was the Phantasmata series for Artsweek 1992 to 1994, an annual late-night performance which drew in total some 1500 people to hear organ music, poetry and in 1993, see Sarah Jane Burton’s original choreography to Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue. The First Night programs held on New Year’s Eve from when First Night came to Toronto in 1992 untilit left the St. James’ Cathedral neighbourhood in 1995 to move first to Harbourfront, and then Skydome also drew very large audiences and exposed them in many cases to the organ for the first time, and attracted a great deal of early press to the effort.

In 1993 Summer Sundays, a series of summer concerts I had started at St. James’ Cathedral in 1992 prior to 4:30 Sunday evensongs in July and August, became a project of OrgAlt, addressing ways of presenting traditional organ concerts using creative programming and presenting concepts. I have gone on to apply these principles to much of my own solo recital career in many events not presented by Organ Alternatives. Early growth in the newsletter circulation and St. James’ Cathedral’s large share of the Toronto tourist market made this series a great success, and it has continued up until my departute from the Cathedral in 2003, and will likely carry on.


Expanding and Energising (1994-1995)

In 1994 Organ Alternatives published its first interview, with American performer, recording artist and controversial organ builder Robert Noehren. The interview feature known as The “Pipevision” Interviews became central to the Organ Alternatives newsletter over nearly ten years, and principal figures from many countries were interviewed about the organ’s future, their own artistic and creative life. Beyond seeking many perspectives on the organ and its future, by this initiative I also sought in some way to humanize the performing organist, for a number of reasons one of the most dehumanized of performers. In 2004 the entire archive of this unusual collection of ideas around the organ’s future will be made available free on the OrgAlt site for easy reading and hopefully wide circulation.

1993/1994 was a season of touring: Organ Alternatives programs begun in Toronto were toured to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Fredericton and across Eastern Ontario the cities of Belleville, Kingston, Brockville and Ottawa. The central work featured was Prokoffiev’s Peter and the Wolf; other programs involved were Sir Gawain and the Green Knight based on the Old English poem, and Symphonic Portraits, based on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work which I went on to perform in Keith John’s transcription in many other cities.

In 1994, Alex Baran, Music Director at CJRT FM in Toronto, who had featured me and the St. James’ organ in an early episode of an organ series project of his invention invited me to join him in producing and hosting “The King of Instruments”, a series of replacement programs for the annual season breaks of Open College, the broadcast educational service of Ryerson University. Over four years The King of Instruments would grow to twenty one-hour episodes altogether, play over a hundred recordings and interview several figures, both in studio and on location, about different aspects and corners of the organ world.

Also in 1994, and again in 1995 my professional involvement in Toronto’s thriving early music scene gave rise to the programs Concerto! and The Splendour of San Marco: the former an evening of baroque organ concerti with the fledgeling Old York Baroque Ensemble (that would later become Aradia - a Toronto early music ensemble with which I have a continued relationship), and the latter an early 17th century liturgical creation of John Thiessen’s Purcell Concert, which assembled myself and eight early wind players from Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York to prepare a concert for the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque Society.

Another aspect of 1995 was me lending OrgAlt’s support to two very different charitable causes: in the first case the rebuilding effort following a tragic fire that nearly destroyed St. George’s Round Church in Halifax, originating the organ/Celtic crossover program Songes for Swete St. George, and the more whimsical Pipes-a-Peal, raising money and awareness of the unique project of the community Bells of Old York group to install North America’s largest peal of change-ringing bells in the belfry of St. James’ Cathedral, a dream that was eventually realised and royally consummated in the June 1997 visit of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

In spring 1995, I could have had no idea how significant launching OA’s first e-mail address would be:”” would be our Internet portal for eight years. Later that year, Ross Jewell of Ottawa offered to put up and maintain OA’s first web page on his own server space. By the next year, OA had its own webspace on Ottawa service provider Capitalnet, and in spring 1998 we launched the domain name, which would eventually become synonymous with Organ Alternatives as the Internet became increasingly its highway to reach the organ world in Canada and beyond.


Maturing and Mastering, (1996-1998)

From Organ Alternatives’ beginnings many individuals and institutions lent their support to the OrgAlt project from time to time, but in 1996, with my own career building and St. James’ Cathedral’s bicentennial celebrations gearing up it became clear that I needed some more formal help. On August 1st 1996, rising advertising revenues allowed the appointment of Andrew Forrest as Publications Assistant - for a token monthly salary he took over publication of the newsletter and maintenance of the OA web site. Andrew would remain in Organ Alternatives’ employ until the end of 2001, when family and professional commitments made it necessary for him to give it up. He now lives with his family in Quebec, plays for Richelieu Valley United Church in Beloeil, and is Operations Manager for the Quebec organbuilder Orgues Letourneau. To the present he remains very helpful to the OrgAlt effort.

A particular highlight of 1996 was dragging Alex Baran and technician Willem Van Ree to Buffalo to interview Gerre Hancock while both he and I were performing in the 1996 convention of the New York Region of the American Guild of Organists. This conversation and impromptu extempore playing session launched what would become a long personal and professional preoccupation with the subject of improvisation: it manifested in both the newsletter and later episodes of The King of Instruments radio series, to say nothing of my own services, recitals and concerts.

The defining factor in this period was surely the 1997 celebrations of the bicentennial of the founding of the congregation that would eventually become St. James’ Cathedral. The year’s celebrations were manifold, but among the musical celebrations I lent OA’s support to a four-concert series of organ recitals (the only such series in over a decade at St. James’ Cathedral, and sadly, the only such to take place since then). It featured Arthur Wills, recently retired organist of Ely Cathedral; Bruce Neswick from National Cathedral in Washington, USA; Maurice Clerc from Dijon in France, and myself representing Canada. The series, again following an OrgAlt-like approach was billed as a set of ‘Signature Concerts’ in which the recitalists were given free reign on their repertoire choices, and also expected to improvise upon a submitted theme - perhaps completing the ‘personal touch’ concept. I interviewed each of the artists on the subject of the improvisatory process for Pipevision. The other enormous undertaking of the year for Organ Alternatives was Pilgrim in Time, an original community theatrical production about St. James’ history, written by George and Julie Salverson and directed by Edward Little, and performed by a cast and crew of over 150 people from all over Toronto.

In 1998 we (I could through this period of collaboration with Andrew Forrest on OA legitimately say ‘we’) joined forces with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto and the Danny Grossman Dance Company in creating Passion in Motion, a dance-theatrical meditation on the Passion of Christ employing choral works of Poulenc and Liszt and organ music of Dupre. Grossman, one of Canada’s foremost modern dance figures choreographed the work, and later set more of Dupre’s music in another new work, Passion Symphony.

While this phase was eventually to usher in the end of the days when I could truly devote my own efforts to many of the administrative tasks attached to OrgAlt, it also saw a number of significant major projects and achievemtents that steeled me and the project against the more challenging times to come. It also allowed the development between Andrew Forrest and myself of a certain mastery of the processes involved in gathering and publishing both information and advertising. This level of achievment would eventually become critical to OrgAlt as it survived and ultimately some years later, flourished through the distractions represented by the changes that would reach my personal and professional lives through the project’s next phase.


Passions and Pressures (1999-2001)

In 1998, while the Second International Glenn Gould Gathering was in preparation in Toronto, the planning committee accepted a proposal from OrgAlt to explore the little-known relationship of the Canadian pianist with the organ through a short drama with music. Two Musics in Mind was created and premiered by myself and Peter Tiefenbach during the Gathering in September 1999 and broadcast nationally on CBC Radio 2.

Also in 1999 OrgAlt publication took a significant shift - to publish principally on the Internet (with a continuing offprint service for those not able or inclined to retrieve it from the ‘Net), and to cover all of Canada’s organ concert and broadcast life (albeit only in the English language). The decision to publish principally on the Internet was motivated as much by the rising costs of printing and publishing as by the world’s growing interest in and use of the new technology.

There was however another significant event in 1999, which would prove predictably difficult for the OrgAlt project: my acceptance of the Director of Music position at St. James’ Cathedral following the retirement after twenty years of Giles Bryant. I had no delusions about the amount of time I would have to devote to this new challenge, nor the impact it could have on such labours of love as OrgAlt. Yet at the same time the opportunities attached to the new position inflamed passions already well-established in my artistic life. While the challenges attached to what I had from the beginning intended to be a short term (no more than five-year) contribution to St. James’ Cathedral as its transitional Director of Music, it was a time when passions and pressures seemed most elevated in both their mutual opposition and their ironic collaboration.

The 1999-2001 period also saw three very important personal developments: my marriage to Marcia Dykstra on July 24th 1999, our purchase in 2000 of our first home in Georgetown, Ontario, and in the summer of 2001 the revelation that we were to become parents around Easter of the next year.

The OrgAlt newsletter survived through this period covering an especially vigorous phase in the Canadian organ scene using various reprints such as The Sound of the Symphony in a Box by Craig Whitney (one of America’s formeost organ evangelists) from the New York Times, accumulated capital like the Authentic Interpretation: Where and What Next discussion in a J.S. Bach Symposium, an intriguing gathering including Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, international organ luminaries such as Simon Preston, Marie-Claire Alain and Martin Haselbock, and a still more intriguing set of journalists and scholars including Michael Barone (host of MPR/NPR’s Pipedreams), and Robert Marshall (American Bach Scholar) and Richard Morrison (Arts Editor of the London Times) I had been able to cover while performing at the 1998 Royal Bank Calgary International Organ Festival. There were also a couple of major national organ stories like the 1999 90th anniversaryconvention of the Royal Canadian College of Organists held in the Hamilton/Niagara region of Ontario and perhaps still more significantly the 2000 “La Rencontre du siecle’, the first joint summer convention by the Royal Canadian College of Organists and the Federation quebecoise des amis de l’orgue, held in Quebec City.

With my immersion in the task of St. James’ Cathedral’s challenging musical realities the presenting activities of OrgAlt came to a sudden halt on the ‘high’ of the 1999 premiere of Two Musics in Mind. Notable exceptions to this development were The Funeral of J.S. Bach, jointly offered at St. James’ Cathedral in 2000 with the Tallis Choir of Toronto in observance of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 1750, and the 2001 Lenten meditation The Healing Time by the choirs of St. James’ Cathedral with organ soloist Michael Bloss, at that time my Associate at St. James’. The latter program juxtaposed 17th and 20th century settings of the Lenten texts such as the Salvator Mundi and the Miserere Mei with Lenten-character organ repertoire including most notably the Sonata on the 94th Psalm by Julius Reubke. 

One especially bright light entered the picture for OrgAlt at the end of this phase: in 2001, John Miller, a former Stratford high school principal turned freelance Toronto arts administrator, launched Stratford Summer Music and approached me about a partnership in which Organ Alternatives would provide promotional support and expertise for a substantial presence for the organ in the new summer festival - to whit, a week-long series of concerts and masterclasses for advanced students featuring one of the organ world’s foremost figures: to date John Scott, Jean-Pierre Leguay, Ullrich Bohme, and in 2004, John Longhurst. In 2003 Stratford Summer Music mounted a second production of “Two Musics in Mind” in what many internationally view as Canada’s summer artistic ’Mecca’.


Resting and Redirecting (2002-2003)

In April 2002, the tenth anniversary year of OA’s founding, our son Nathaniel David was born, and having lost the services of Andrew Forrest at the end of 2001 and being still in the thick of the Music Directorship of St. James’ Cathedral I made the difficult decision to put OrgAlt on hold for at least a year. This time turned out to be extremely valuable, both to my family and my earlier ‘baby’, OrgAlt - requiring and allowing both to be in some sense redefined and revisited.

In 2003, with the temporary help of Ian Holloway and Lianne Tan it became possible finally to realise the full benefits of the Internet domain by switching hosts, creating new e-mail addresses, and totally redsigning the web site. Lianne and Ian were very helpful as I rededicated my mind and energy to OrgAlt, but when I made the decision in April 2003 to leave St. James’ Cathedral after twelve years it again became possible for me to take on the work myself, reconnecting with the project I had begun, but which for the better part of a decade I had been far too busy to totally guide and direct.


Creating and Collaborating (2004 and beyond)

What’s next? As I complete my transition to the challenges and rewards of post-St. James’ Cathedral life I see it as an exciting time for OrgAlt. Yet now, very well established professionally, a decade older, and having a home and family to consider, OrgAlt will be quite different than it was at startup when none of those things were true. 

The website and publication of the newsletter will remain at the centre of the effort, and the continued shoring up of the shaky Canadian national organ networks and links to the broader organ world will continue. There are two goals currently for the newsletter: one is moving away from the more time-, memory-, bandwidth- and labour-consuming PDF publication fornat, establishing the newsletter rather as a fast-to-access HTML based region of the website accessed online by subscription through an e-commerce portal, ensuring future income and stability for the effort. An offprint postal service will always continue for those unable or disinclined to access it online - this commitment is the main obstacle to HTML publication, as OrgAlt’s current advertising base relie heavily on the publishing precision provided by PDF. The second goal, and even-longer term dream, is full bilingualism.

The gradual decline and eventual disappearance of the “from scratch” presentation of events will no doubt continue to be the norm, at least for some time. Happily, though, this has not meant the end of organ-centred creativity for me, or the artistic objectives that gave birth to OrgAlt so long ago: quite to the contrary, the concept’s (and my own) establishment has enabled an extraordinary new manifestation - spotting and encouraging the “OrgAlt” in the work of others, and the work they engage me to do.

Now that so much hard work and visibility have gone into the effort, people and institutions are more seeking me out than I them, and I have less to do in pioneering work than in developing and assisting others’ creativity and objectives. This may seem to some like a form of limitation to my creativity - indeed I’m sure I would have held this view at one time: as a 20-year career accompanist I am still waiting (not holding my breath, I might add) to hit the creative brick wall that some feel can be breached only by working alone, or by exercising artistic power over others. I have said to many students and colleagues, and will continue to insist that the parameters set through collaboration assist rather than inhibit one’s creativity - and that the conductors, directors, CEO’s and other impressarios that realise this have been the greatest of all time.

In 2002/2003 two unexpected collaborations, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits recording with saxophonist Daniel Rubinoff and the premiere of Bengt Hambraeus’ Le Cor Magique with alphornist Michael Cumberland, and my ongoing work with both musicians, are perhaps heralding a new direction, establishing OrgAlt as a platform upon which other artists’ various unusual takes on the organ may be collected and promoted.

Another excellent example of ‘new OrgAlt’ emerged when the University of Toronto retained me to write the score for and musically direct a production of a Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ Choephori just after I left St. James’ Cathedral. I was drawn by the very dark and inhuman text to create a score for the organ, and director Heinar Piller and the talented cast of 4th year students, like many of my past collaborators, were quite taken with the idea and its eventual realisation. I believe many of them and many of the production’s audiences will have left the experience with a new view of the King of Instruments, and so I have a hard time understanding why it would have been better for me to organise the show and pay the bills, instead of U of T!

OrgAlt’s ongoing involvement with the Organ Concerts and Academy at Stratford Summer Music will continue as a source of interview subjects, international connections, and contact with the next generation of Canadian organists, who in the end must determine the organ’s future in this country. It will also continue annually to impact my wedding anniversary (24th July 1999), one of - perhaps a million or so - factors that leave me utterly and eternally in the debt of my wife, Marcia.

Another interesting new potential direction for me to pursue through OrgAlt... the potential, and the plight of the Organ in Worship was a major preoccupation for me during my time at Toronto’s St. James’ Cathedral: a highly multi-ethnic, diverse and generally revisionist culture in the Diocese of Toronto has so far seemingly failed to diminish the value of the mighty cathedral organ in the life of Toronto Anglicans. In Directing Canada’s Summer Institute of Church Music, and in the consulting practice I maintain post-St. James’ Cathedral I continue to explore the role the organ can continue to play in worship as the 21st century church alternately reconnects and utterly rejects its past. Interestingly, despite much of the rhetoric and experience of the church, I not only remain unconvinced of the organ’s imminent demise: I find myself convinced of its continuing role, so long as it is well-played, and so long as it survives the opposing politics which have so impacted it in the Church of our time.

- Christopher Dawes, January 2004