Sole organist for Papal Mass says ‘wildest dreams’ have come true
Dubai - It was at the age of 10 when Griffiths first stumbled on a church organ.
Published: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 2:42 PM
Last updated: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 5:05 PM
Revealed: Toccata from Symphony No 5 by Charles-Marie Widor and March by Felix Mendelssohn to be played at upcoming Papal Mass, lead by sole organist Paul Griffiths (CEO of Dubai Airports).
It was the promise of some extra pocket money that kickstarted Paul Griffiths’s love affair with the church organ when he was a young boy. Now decades later he has been tasked with his biggest role yet, leading the musicians at the Papal Mass in Abu Dhabi next month.
Better known as the CEO of Dubai Airports, Griffiths told Khaleej Times never in his “wildest dreams” did he think such an opportunity would come his way. “There are probably a handful of occasions in my life where the phrase ‘not in my wildest dreams’ could fit, but this is a particularly poignant one. ‘I played the organ for the Papal Mass’. What a great thing to be able to tell my children and grandchildren,” he said.
It was at the age of 10 when Griffiths first stumbled on a church organ. And for him, it was “life’s eureka moment”.
“My best friend asked if I wanted to join the church choir. I said no, but then he told me I’d get paid, so I immediately asked when I could start. At practice one day, he brought me over to the organ and I was starstruck by the beautiful piece of machinery.”
The image of three keyboards, hundreds of keys and the grand arrangement of pipes against its backdrop intrigued him, and days later he began teaching himself to play.
“I remember sitting in school once practising the piano during my lunch break. A teacher overheard and complimented me. She asked how long I had been playing for and I replied, ‘I started on Tuesday’. I guess I just really took to it,” he laughed.
With his sights set on becoming a cathedral organist, Griffiths’s father persuaded him against the idea.
“He told me to make it a hobby instead, as music was an incredibly hard thing to make a living out of. At first I rebelled, but not long after I stepped into the aviation field. I always continued playing though, that will never stop.”
As a fellow of the Royal College of Organists, Griffiths has played in places such as Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in the UK.
But it was about two months ago when he got the unexpected call of his life about leading the musicians at the Papal Mass.
“They needed an organist for the Mass and my name had been put forward. I was in complete shock, but obviously delighted. It’s not something I ever expected to be asked in my lifetime, so it was an immense privilege.”
Together with his wife (who will be composing a lot of the music), Griffiths will be the sole organist at the mass.
Live-streamed to millions of people around the world, he will be accompanied by eight brass players and a 120-member choir.
“I won’t lie. It’s an intimidating prospect leading the singing and brass players with my one instrument in front of millions, but as with everything, preparation is key. I’ve done this kind of thing before, similar arrangements, but what is different is the scale to which I am doing it. It’s exciting but I know with the talent we have on board it will be great.”
An organ from the UK will be flown in specially for the mass and Griffiths predicts he’ll have “about an hour” to practise on it a day before the main event. It’s a digital computer organ based on a famous early 20th century American pipe organ builder, E M Skinner. Each pipe of the real large pipe organ is digitally sampled so the organ will sound the same as a pipe organ with thousands of pipes.
“That’s actually quite normal. As an organist you’re used to playing organs you haven’t played before, so it’s not an issue,” he said.
While Griffiths’s wife, the Dubai-based composer Joanna Marsh, will be adapting some of the music chosen, weaving in “new harmonies, introductions and interludes that will form part of the liturgy of the mass”, he revealed some of the arrangements that will be heard on the day. “At the end of the mass, I will play an organ piece which is often heard at weddings — the Toccata from Symphony No 5 by Charles-Marie Widor — followed by a brass and organ arrangement of a March by Felix Mendelssohn, which is very fitting for such a momentous occasion. I made the suggestion for certain pieces of music and thankfully, they thought it was a good fit.”
With his own organ housed within his family villa in Dubai, Griffiths is practising most days in the lead up to the mass, from 6am to 7.30am and 8pm to 11pm.
“It takes a lot but it is such a contrast from my day job. Getting absorbed in the first few pages of 19th century French music is actually such a romantic thing. It transports me to another world and is very good for the soul.”
After more than 11 years living in the UAE, this visit will mark the first from a Pope to the Middle East, and Griffiths said to be a part of that historic UAE moment during the Year of Tolerance is “such an enormous privilege” and one he will never forget.