Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
John: And John.
V: Wonderful. We’re sitting in the car and going on our way to the historical medieval town of Trakai to see the castle and John Higgins is visiting us from Australia because just yesterday he played a fantastic recital at Vilnius University St. John’s Church and we decided to spend this time in the car while chatting and recording our podcast conversation so that guys you could listen to our thoughts and ideas. So first of all John, how do you feel? Are you exhausted after your recital? Tell us everything.
J: It’s been an amazing experience coming to Lithuania. It’s my first time overseas. It’s a beautiful country. It’s tremendous sense of culture history here. My travel schedule has been very intense and exhausting but for me this is a dream come true. And as I said in the recital Bach walked 200 kilometers from Arnstadt to Lübeck in his pilgrimage to hear the great Buxtehude play and this is a modern day equivalent of that pilgrimage. It think it’s about 18,000 kilometer flight from Australia to here.
V: That’s about right John and what do you think about John’s efforts yesterday Ausra?
A: I think he was you know amazing. I just could not believe you know that a man in seven years could reach such a level of organ playing.
V: We have to remind our listeners that John is originally an engineer, right? He describes himself as a machine doctor because he can diagnose problems and propose solutions for technology for major machinery in plants, right? So, tell us a little bit about yourself, what kind of work you do John.
J: So, at the moment I work in a coal mine and that coal mine supplies the coal to a power station. It’s one of the biggest power stations in Victoria and provides about thirty percent of the electricity for the whole state and my job is we work in a department called Condition Monitoring which is to make sure that the machines are in good condition so just like you go to the doctor and have a blood test in the machines we take a little sample of the oil and we can check the different types of metals that are in the oil that tell us what parts are wearing out. We can take vibration readings that tell us the bearings are getting too old or the gears are worn out and we use that to decide when to do maintenance next before it breaks.
V: Sounds really fascinating and complicated at the same time. Like reading blood tests, blood test results. Do you announce those results to the machines later on? How do you communicate?
J: People will think it’s strange but the machines do have personalities a little bit. You can have ten machines that are the same but have different trends.
V: Uh-huh. Oh no, my cholesterol is up. Oh you know… More vegetables. John said.
J: That’s right.
V: Right. So, I think common in our organ playing world that a person from different professions right? Would stop to play the organ. But in general to play recitals, it’s quite unique, right? Maybe a person like you could learn more than for fun, right? Or maybe at a level suitable for church, maybe hymn playing a little bit. Or to travel the world and play the largest pipe organ in Lithuania it’s quite rare. We have a lot of students but you are the first student who played a full length recital with not very easy pieces and I can say that you did really amazing work, John.
J: Thank you so much.
A: I couldn’t agree more. I was so proud of you you know listening to your playing.
V: Could you remind us what you played yesterday? A little bit.
J: Yes, so in tribute to Bach’s pilgrimage I wanted to play four pieces, Toccata in D Minor, Prelude and Fugue in F Major from the Short Eight Prelude and Fugues collection, and “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, BWV 639 chorale and Prelude and Fugue in G Major, that was the first packet of pieces that I played three pieces for Easter seeing as it was only last week. And I played “O Savior of the World” by Sir John Goss, he was a very famous english composer and organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral. And then “God So Loved the World” which is an excerpt from “The Crucifixion” by Sir John Stainer. A very famous choral work for that time of year. And then I played my own improvisation on Judas Maccabeus theme which is the hymn tune “Thine be the Glory” by George Frideric Handel. Then the next packet I played, I think I played “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations” and “Priere a Notre-Dame” by Boellmann from “Suite Gothique.” And “Largo” from “Xerxes” by Handel. And then concluded with my improvisation of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” to celebrate 500 years since the Reformation. And a short piece called “Waltzing Matilda” a famous Australian folk song, the final piece was “Festive Trumpet Tune” by David Germann.
V: Ausra what do you think about this program selection? Was it well suited for this organ?
A: I think so yes. Definitely, it was quite well suited. He had such a wide variety of pieces and I was especially astonished by John’s improvisations and thought his playing was so great. Not every professional organist improvises and this is a very rare gift.
V: How did you feel about improvisation, John? Were you more nervous than the rest of the program or the opposite, more relaxed?
J: If you told me seven years ago when I started that I would play two improvisations in a recital I would have said you were joking, that it was impossible and I would never have started improvising if it wasn’t for you Vidas. I would say that when I play these improvisations in many ways they are rehearsed. So, that was maybe the first breakthrough for me was that I had an impression that improvisation was just sitting there and some daydream from heaven comes and you play this amazing music. But I think my breakthrough was when you taught me that the great improvisers spent so much time studying and preparing for their improvisations and in some respects I’d say that what I try to do was I experiment with things and then I had little segments that I’d memorize and I’d just put them together and see if it sounds OK. The improvisation on “God Be the Glory” I’d been doing something similar to that for maybe two years so it evolves and the improvisation on “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” I only conceived that in probably September of last year in preparation for the major recital that I played to celebrate 20 years since the restoration of the organ in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Morwell where I’m the organist.
[Our conversation continues in the next podcast episode. Stay tuned...]