Diane Bish plays June 6in the closing performance at Toronto’s Organix festival

‘First lady’ of the organ Diane Bish coming to Toronto

By  Allison Hunwicks, The Catholic Register
  • June 1, 2012

Diane Bish must be the busiest woman in the world. Besides being the pre-eminent organ performer of our time, she also composes, has designed her own instrument, runs a television program that’s in its 30th year with over 500 programs in the bank, and is gearing up to perform in Toronto.

None of this seems to tire her out, though. As she readies for her June 6 closing performance at Toronto’s Organix festival, Bish is recovering from a bout of laryngitis and has recently returned from a filming her TV program The Joy of Music, where she took a riverboat from Amsterdam to Switzerland, playing at various ports along the way.

“I was a student in Amsterdam for a year, at the conservatory, so I went back to the Church where I practiced every day and did a taping there with a recorder virtuoso,” Bish said.

Bish has been hailed as “the first lady of the king of instruments,” and surely her unparalleled technical skill, virtuosic performances and overwhelming popularity have merited her that title. Additionally, she can be credited for bringing the music of the organ into people’s homes with The Joy of Music.

“When I was in high school I used to listen to the recordings of E. Power Biggs, and he used to go to Europe and perform and do recordings on the organs that Bach or other great composers played and wrote music for,” said Bish. “Of course, you couldn’t see those organs. I always thought, I would love to do that. Only, do it on television so people could see it and experience not only the organs, but the churches and the towns they were in, and the cultures. I could combine all these elements into one program.”

Bish’s lifelong love of the instrument started at age 14, after playing the piano and, “when my legs were long enough to reach the pedals,” she laughs.

Having won awards and grants to study in Amsterdam and Paris, she got her musical education on some of the finest instruments in the world. Since then she has been awarded a National Citation by the National Federation of Music Clubs of America, joining such famous recipients as Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin.

Her Toronto performance will feature a wide variety of music for the instrument, plus some of Bish’s own compositions, such as her “Dance of the Trumpets” and her variations on the hymn tune, Lasst uns Erfreuen.

“It’s very important to me to include in my programs some kind of spiritual inspiration. The organ is a concert instrument, but it has led in worship for hundreds of years, unlike any other instrument. So, I never do a program where I don’t do a hymn or an arrangement of a hymn, which really speaks to people,” said Bish. “I really felt that the Lord inspired me in many different ways.”

Bish has also been active in promoting the organ to audiences of varying demographics and encouraging a continued interest in the instrument.

“I’ve had a real opportunity there to spread the organ. We just have to realize that the audience we’re playing for, they don’t know a lot about the organ. A lot of them have never been to an organ concert so they need to be inspired, enriched and entertained, and educated,” said Bish.

“Every time I play a live concert, at least one or two young persons will come up to me and say I’ve been watching your program for 10 years and that’s why I’m in music today, or that’s why I play the organ today. That’s really amazing to me.”

Having been the only woman to have recorded on the four organs of the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany and played on some of the world’s greatest instruments, Bish’s knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument itself is vast as well. So much so, that she was asked to design an organ for the Allen organ company.

“It’s very exciting,” said Bish.

“There are French organs and Bach organs and all kinds of sounds; I myself prefer the French and the fiery reeds and the beautiful rich strings. So, you gather the sounds together that you like the most and then the way that the organ looks and it works — like the console and all those things.”

Bish’s Toronto engagement at the Metropolitan United Church for Organix should be an unprecedented event for both organ aficionados and newcomers alike, as the church features what  Bish calls a very fine instrument.

Despite her lengthy and storied career, Bish retains an inspiring and sparkling affection for the organ.

“I used to hear it in church and I used to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle program every week on the radio and I would hear the organ. I just felt it was a fascinating instrument. It’s like an orchestra — you have all of the sounds and more that you would find in an orchestra… I was always really intrigued by it,” said Bish.

“To be able to play the music of the organ on television and show the very fascinating organs of Bach and Liszt and Handel and Mozart, and to play the instruments that they played… it’s really made it a very adventuresome life.”

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