It was just before Christmas that we were in fact approached by two UAE based companies to quote for the provision of a digital organ for the Papal Mass on February 5th 2019.
Not really a long time at all considering all the logistics that had to be arranged just to get an instrument airborne and into the UAE in time for set up. But then we like a challenge and were delighted in early January to be working with local event management company The Fridge to provide the organ.
A choice of organs
We offered two instruments; a Viscount Regent 356 or our Skinner custom built Regent Classic Organ. The choice was made by the musician Paul Griffiths who was playing for the service. Paul is quite a remarkable character as his main job is Chief Executive of Dubai Airport which is now the largest airport in the world. He is also an FRCO and has a large digital organ in his Dubai home.
Paul favoured the Skinner Organ and so our first task was to have a crate built in which the instrument could safely travel. This we had to do ahead of contracts being signed as the instrument needed to be airborne by mid January for the timings to be comfortable.
The instrument travels to UAE
I don’t think I would be unfair if I said the next few weeks were a bit chaotic as plans came together. Flight bookings made were stood down as additional funding for the event were secured and Paul came to the aid magnificently by persuading friends in Emirates Airlines to sponsor the trip and waive their freight charges.
So it was that the instrument which had sat at Heathrow for almost a week was finally loaded onto an Emirates plane on Tuesday January 30th for the 8 hour flight to Dubai. So we at least knew it would be in the UAE. The Fridge had the job of getting it through customs and then the 80 or so miles down the road to capital city Abu Dhabi.
Challenge of setting up an organ in a stadium
The challenge of setting an instrument up in a stadium is very different from any other concert venue. Firstly the space is vast and open and also you are presented with a speaker system that may or may not be up to the job. To assist with this Paul wisely requested support from another digital organ colleague Hugh Banton.
Hugh was at one time long ago technical director of Makin Organs before setting up his own business ‘The Organs Workshop‘ who have made instruments for Paul. But it was an even earlier life that equipped Hugh for the organ set up task as he was (and still is) organist for prog rock legends ‘Van der Graaf Generator‘ so very experienced in setting up audio for large events.
Hugh came to my home for a preliminary set up session of the instrument which we decided would deliver sound over just 2 ‘stereo’ channels. Some of the more extreme Skinner mixtures were replaced with conventional English ones and Hugh had a tutorial on use of the editor facilities.
At this stage it was not clear if budget allowed a technician to travel so Hugh may well have been on his own. Happily budget was found and so I also travelled out and as it happened was put to very good use. So on Saturday February 2nd I took the Oxford Tube to Heathrow for a late evening Virgin flight to Dubai.
On reaching check in at Terminal 3 I found the flight cancelled! My language must remain for your imagination as I joined a new queue for the Emirates flight onto which we had been rebooked. So by close to midnight I too was airborne and headed to Dubai.
A visit to a church and a few landmarks
Sometime life throws odd coincidences at you. Only a week earlier I had received an email from a church in Sharjah that we had quoted in August advising that they now had the funds to order an organ.
On landing I was picked up by representatives of the church and my Sunday morning was spent in the church advising on speaker locations and discussing wiring routes. A job that is much easier in person than working from photographs. You can read a separate blog on this later.
My hosts then took me about half way to Abu Dhabi via some local landmarks, The Palm and The Burj Al Arab hotel, before dropping me into a taxi for the last 50 or so miles of the trip to Abu Dhabi.
At last a hotel and a very nice room and bed before the trip at 7.00am the next morning to meet up with the instrument and Hugh at the Zayed Sports Stadium. Nothing could have prepared me for what I would find waiting for me there the following morning.
The Zayed Sports Stadium being transformed
The Friday night saw the stadium used for the Asian equivalent of the FA Cup final so the ‘preparation’ for transformation into Papal Mass arena had only begun some 36 hours earlier. The landscape that lay before me was one of frenetic activity with what I thought was little to no chance of being ready for the Mass that was scheduled in 27 hours’ time.
Literally hundreds of workers were scattered about building temporary stages setting up audio equipment, laying carpet and setting out chairs. I was taken to a stage immediately opposite the Papal Dias to await arrival of the organ.
As if this challenge was not hard enough the previous afternoon saw torrential rain, an almost unheard of occurrence in the UAE. The scene in front of me was actually the carpet laid yesterday being ripped up soaking wet and new carpet going down, all this on a pitch that must have extended to 5 acres with plywood sheeting laid on top of the artificial grass. This task alone was of Herculean scale and yet this was but a fraction of what remained to do.
The musicians’ stage is where the organ will go
After about half an hour taking all this in and concluding that this event was just not going to happen I was moved to a completely different area of the arena. This was the musicians’ stage and actually in a far more advanced state of completion.
In some senses things were looking up except that I was 10 ft in the air and wondering how the organ would get to the same level. At about 500 KG the walk up the staircase was out of the question.
I put my bag down to await developments and leaned against the parapet walls. Big mistake as all the paint was wet so now I was part clothed in paint sodden gear. It just now needed to rain again to wash it all off. A situation the overcast sky indicated every possibility was imminent.
Was I wondering why I said yes to all this? You bet I was! Now a truck with organ crate on board entered the arena. That’s a good sign, at least it was here. A front end loader carefully picked it up and slowly manoeuvred its way past carpet fitters, painters, piles of seating and audio equipment crates toward the musicians’ stage.
The video I took saves me the job of explaining to you how the organ made its way to the upper level. Do watch it as you get a good sense of the conditions in which this event was coming together as of course it eventually did.
Unboxing and preparing the organ
Unboxing and getting the instrument into position was thereafter pretty straight forward. This was all completed in about a further 30 minutes with the crate safely stored away for use for the return journey. This work completed Hugh arrived from Dubai, where he had been staying with Paul, just in time for the audio set up.
I was now encouraged that we were on the home straight. The organ appeared to have travelled well and outwardly was undamaged. The monitor speakers and sub bass were in place and the audio technicians focused on getting us local sound as the stadium speakers were not yet available.
The instrument powered up and did not miss a beat for the entire time it was used in rehearsal or the Mass. A feat of which I am very proud!
Voicing the organ
So now it was over to Hugh for voicing. We were working to quite a detailed time table and running 75 minutes late so in theory Hugh now had just 15 minutes to set the instrument up. Anyone familiar with this job will know just how impossible a task he was set.
A task made all the more fun by frequent fly overs by military jets and helicopters that were part of a defence equipment show that was running all the same week in Abu Dhabi. The jets were too fast and low to photograph. Their noise travelling in pairs was deafening.
The organ audio was also eventually fed to the stadium speakers via a mixing desk under the stage. So the set up involved co-ordination with the ‘man on the desk’ adding to the complexity of the task which was finally completed about 2 hours later just in time for the first of three planned choir rehearsals.
Paul Griffith’s turn on the instrument
As you would imagine Paul was keen to get at the instrument to set pistons and get familiar with the sound of the instrument and how he would deploy this. His main sound was from 4 speakers on the ground close to the organ. He also had a ‘hot spot’ behind him that was meant to pick up the soloist mics so he could hear what he was actually trying to accompany as soloists were so far away they could not be heard directly.
The hot spot proved to be a real struggle as soloists faded in an out and for a while the hot spot was broadcasting the ‘readers’ rehearsing on the Papal Dias. Paul took all this confusion with great self control. I would long before have just got up and left but eventually as the afternoon wore on the hot spot finally only broadcast what was required and Paul finally had a fighting chance of getting it right.
The day wore on into evening. The choir practised processing on and off the stage. Smaller rehearsals with the Brass Ensemble took place all leading to full dress rehearsal scheduled for 9.30pm. We were all made to leave the stadium at about 8.00 pm to take a meal provided and for choir to robe.
Rehearsal for the papal mass below.
A few worries but what can you do
During this time a security sweep was undertaken and by 9.30 the stadium was in lock down and no one was allowed back in. So much for the final rehearsal! That was abandoned and we all made our way back to the hotel where the complete group was staying.
I bumped into Paul who reported the organ had been left on as he could not get back to switch it off. Was that a problem he asked? Of course not, but inevitably I would have preferred if it had been switched off. A situation as it turns out that may have saved the day.
I also anguished that the sunshade would also not be back in place and so what if it rained overnight? Too much to think about! No means of changing anything and so to bed. Just 7 hours remained before the bus was scheduled to take us back at 6.15am for the first of two more scheduled rehearsals with the congregation who were already queuing up as we left.
The morning of the Papal Mass
I got up and drew the curtains relived to see there had been no overnight rain. The breakfast room was full with performers and many others attending the Mass. New passes were issued and we were rounded up for the short buss ride back to the stadium.
Getting in again was relatively easy as we bypassed the long queues and went to a performer’s entrance. As you see I had an additional ‘Musicians Pass’ though security did not seem in the slightest bit interested in it. We passed through airport style screening and were back ‘on stage’ well before 7.00am.
Arriving at the organ I found it dripping wet. Clearly overnight the temperature had dropped so low that substantial condensation had formed on all the woodwork and keyboards. Many of you will know that condensation is a real enemy of electrical devices causing all sorts of problems on circuit boards.
By leaving the organ on there was enough heat generated by the boards that they were free of condensation and so I was saved the job of having to dry off the boards before we could switch the instrument back on.
Natural drying would have taken some hours until the temperature rose. Where I wonder in the Zayed Stadium would I have found some hair dryers to speed that process up? Thankfully I did not have to ask.
First sight of Pope Francis
Barring any unforeseen crisis my job was done and so I could now soak up the atmosphere of the filling stadium. I could move about freely and start to actually relax and enjoy being part of this really special event. Music drifted about from the various rehearsals. The cantor took the congregation through their parts and the clock slowly edged toward the 10.30am start.
Our first sight of Pope Francis was on the great many video screens as his motorcade approached and entered the stadium. His Mercedes 4 by 4 did almost 2 circuits of the arena getting at one point to within about 30 metres of where I was standing before disappearing out again to take the Pope to a rear entrance to get onto his stage.
By now the sun was very strong and Paul Griffiths dressed in a grey suit must have been very warm to which was added the not inconsiderable pressure of performance. He stood both tests very well.
Video with the Pope arriving.
The sound of the organ
What did the organ sound like? At events like this through untested audio and with little or no time to set up I have to say my expectations are not high. If you listen to the online broadcasts you will inevitable feel there is too much dominance of the mixtures. In the stadium this was noticeable but not as much as overpowering bass.
Huge sub bass speakers were all over the stadium and bottom D boomed out noticeably stronger than adjacent notes. So my impression was that the core of the instrument needed to be louder. How much that could have been changed if we had time is debatable as there was ever ‘the man downstream’ of us at his mixing desk with a battery of controls at his disposal which they tend to find hard to leave alone.
For my part I was just delighted that we were there and everything worked on the day. If you did not like the sound or felt you could have done it better then I would love to see you try!
Watch the papal mass streamed live on the day below.
Time to go home
My final and rather solitary job was to re box the organ for the journey home. Assistance was provided by four crew members who had been on duty for a continuous 24 hour shift and of course had no experience of this job. While very willing it would perhaps have been easier to tackle the job single handed!
All the musicians and choir could finally depart for perhaps a celebration and a beer. I had to find a power drill and carefully pack our precious instrument for its journey home on an even hotter day. Mad dogs and Englishmen may well ‘go out in it’ while Welshmen pack up their organ!
By 4.00pm I was back in the hotel and 4.30pm fast asleep. Later that night I did allow myself a few beers in the hotel bar. My Virgin flight home left on schedule and I am delighted to report that the Skinner console returned safely just two days later, again courtesy of Emirates.
So with four Papal Masses under our belt; Birmingham, two in Dublin and now Abu Dhabi I shall be requesting the Papal equivalent of Royal Warrant. I think we have earned it!
And if you have got this far, thank you for reading.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Regent Classic Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.