An Interview with Anna Lapwood

'I was told to play more like a man': the British organist on why she's bringing together 22 female organists for a 24-hour Bach-a-thon

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Anna Lapwood was the first female organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. An organist, harpist and conductor, she is currently the director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where, on 18-19 June, she will be leading the way in a day-long performance of organ works by JS Bach.

24 hours of Bach, 22 female organists: what gave you the idea for this event?

Last year someone suggested as a joke that we should perform the complete organ works of Bach in 24 hours. We were fundraising for Pembroke College Choir to go out to Zambia to do music outreach work. Two days later I came into the office and saw the posters. I thought we had been joking but we went ahead. It was so much fun that I decided to do it annually. I wanted to make it slightly different, and as it is 100 years since women gained the right to vote, I thought it would be really interesting to do with female organists.

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Who will be playing?

The thing I love is that we have so many people who are firsts. So we have the first female organ scholar from a choral foundation in Oxbridge. That's Libby Burgess, who is organ scholar at Christ Church, Oxford. We've got the first female organ scholar from St Paul's Cathedral, London, the first female Oxbridge director of music, and the first female director of music in an English cathedral. It's just remarkable that people are still firsts. We should be on the third, fourth, fifth by now.

Why do you think that's not the case?

The choral world has until recently been entirely male-dominated. We're only just getting to the point where there are enough girls choirs to sustain the girls who want to sing. If a boy sings for eight services a week, they are hearing and seeing the organ every day. It becomes normal. It tends to be the case that you get quite a lot of organists coming out of boys' choirs.

Yet you easily found 22 women who play the organ, which makes me wonder if there's a perception problem?

Yes. When I told two of my good friends who are both male organists that I was going to do this project, they both said exactly the same thing. They had two questions: are there really enough female organists? And who is going to play the hard stuff? They were genuine questions. That showed me how important it was that we do this as we are less visible than male organists. We have a responsbility for the next generation to provide role models. When I launched news of it on Facebook, I had 22 players within 24 hours.

What big firsts are there left for female organists?

The biggest one is the first female director of music at King's, but also first female organ scholar at King's College and St John's College, Cambridge.

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What do you say to your critics?

I make the point that I'm not trying to take away opportunities from boys at all. In fact I have an opinion that's quite unpopular among feminist musicians, which is that I don't want to see King's and St John's turning into mixed-voice choirs. I want to create more opportunities for girls. Out of 86 organ scholars at Oxbridge in 2017-18, 19 are women. Out of the next 100 organ recitals, six are given by women. Eight per cent of organists listed on the main UK organ recital page are women. Six per cent of the high-profile recitals are given by women. We are nowhere near equal yet.

Why do you think the all-male choirs of King's and St John's shouldn't become mixed-voice?

My dream is to set up a choral foundation for girls, a place where girls can sing eight services a week with a male back-row, and which could be just as high profile. I think it's important not to take away opportunity from boys to create it for girls. Having worked in a choral foundation, I see what an important educational experience it is. One of the lovely things is that the boys are mentored by the choral scholars. If you mix the voices, the choir would have a different sound and a very different dynamic.

The Bach-a-thon has its own hashtag #PlayLikeAGirl. How did you come up with that?

That's a very tongue-in-cheek response. I did an international organ competition a few years ago. I was quite nervous but I really enjoyed it. We had individual feedback with our adjudicators afterwards. One said to me that he thought my playing was really exciting, but that I needed to play more like a man. I asked him to explain what he meant by that, and he said I needed to play with more power and authority. I was furious.

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What advice would you give to girls interested in playing the organ?

The biggest thing is not to be afraid but to aim high. Don't be afraid to take the plunge and see what happens.

And any words of wisdom for how the Bach-a-thon organists in the 3am slot can cope?

Last year I only organised it a week before, so it was me, my partner, who is an organist and a very good sight-reader, and one other organist doing the whole 24 hours. It was getting to midnight when we realised we had done 12 hours but still had 12 hours to go. That was when it started to get depresing. But what kept us going was that we could see people were still watching the livestream. Even though there wasn't necessarily anyone in the chapel, there were at least 10 people watching. At one point we had 66,000 people watching. It was really exciting.

Which piece will be your personal highlight from the complete Bach organ works?

The F major Toccata, which I think I'm going to be opening with. I page-turned for the complete organ works over a course of a year when I was back in Oxford for my director of music Daniel Hyde. He started and ended the year with this Toccata. I fell in love with the piece. I've been meaning to learn it for ages, so this was a good excuse.

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The Bach-a-thon at Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge takes place from noon-noon on 18-19 June. Entry is free. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook. http://www.pem.cam.ac.uk/the-college/news/2018/06/2018-bach-a-thon/

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