Mozart once called the pipe organ the “king of instruments” and Hong Kong has musical royalty sitting in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui.
It is hard to miss the pipe organ when you are inside the Cultural Centre Concert Hall. With its four manuals, 93 stops and 8,000 pipes, it can produce an exceptional array of timbre and volume.
“The pipe organ is the ‘pearl’ of a concert hall,” explained pipe organist Chiu Siu-ling.
“Its enormous range of sounds, coupled with a huge variety of tone colours, creates a remarkable musical experience equivalent to that of an orchestra. It is the king of instruments.”
The four-storey tall pipe organ was hand-made by famed Austrian manufacturer Rieger Orgelbau and installed when the Cultural Centre was built 30 years ago. It has attracted several world-renowned performers to Hong Kong over the years.
“When we built it in 1989, it was the first, huge mechanically operated organ in Asia. I think it is still our biggest organ we have ever built in Asia,” Rieger pipe organ maintenance technician Gerhard Pohl said.
He added that the instrument is also remarkably versatile.
“There are many organs they are built just for one musical style. On this organ, you can play everything, even jazz music.”
Mr Pohl comes to Hong Kong once a year to give the 30-year-old organ its annual health check. In between visits by the manufacturer’s technicians, William Wen ensures the Cultural Centre’s star performer remains in tip-top condition.
Mr Wen is Hong Kong’s only pipe organ maintenance technician. He carries out routine checks on the instrument and tunes it every month.
“Keeping it in tune is my responsibility. I take care of it.”
Mr Wen was one of the first in Hong Kong to learn the instrument in the 1980s. He became interested in pipe organ maintenance after a visit to an organ manufacturing company in Europe.
He recalled that in the ‘80s, organists in Hong Kong were few and far between. He was called upon to test the Cultural Centre organ before the grand opening, making him one of the first organists to play it.
“It was dark in the hall, so at first, I only noticed the organ’s keys. When I got closer, I was astounded by just how big the instrument was.”
Mr Wen takes up to five hours per maintenance visit to thoroughly check the pipes and tune the organ. He explained that the organ is regularly updated and was fitted with an electrical coupler system, providing greater flexibility in switching between lighter and stronger key actions as desired by the player.
“It has been updated a few times. In 2010, the organ was installed with an electrical coupler system. I used to get someone to press the keys for me while I would tune it from inside. But now, I just need a mobile phone on which I can tune it by myself.”
To promote organ music and nurture local organists, the Cultural Centre has been organising the “King of the Instruments” Pipe Organ Education Series annually since 1999. Now the programme’s principal instructor, Ms Chiu has been teaching from the outset.
“People are not allowed to touch the instrument in a lot of other concert halls, and they seldom hold pipe organ concerts. This is actually not good for the organ. It has to be played to keep it in good condition or the keys and parts will become hard and old. This inspires me teach and let more and more musicians learn and play the instrument,” Ms Chiu explained.
More than 300 organists have so far been trained on the Cultural Centre’s organ. But it has also played something other than music – it has played Cupid too.
Pipe organist Simon Chan met his wife, Shirley Cheng, through the programme.
“I joined the Pipe Organ Education Series in 2000. After that, I continued learning the organ with Ms Chiu and eventually became one of the course tutors. I met my wife in 2003 on the course.”
Ms Cheng was also a student on the course. She switched majors from information technology to music and that fateful decision led to meeting her husband.
“He asked me to watch him play. He was playing a big piece which was powerful and loud, and that was when I fell for his charms.”
The couple decided to embark on a life journey together and now hope to pass on their love of music and the pipe organ to their children.
“I wish for my kids to learn music too and to find out more about the pipe organ. This instrument brought their father and mother together and I want them to know our story,” said Ms Cheng.
The organist-music teacher duo also hopes to share the joy of the pipe organ with the rest of the community.