Simon Preston

Categories: IPYA Winners

In March 1962, a capacity crowd at the Royal Festival Hall in London was listening to a performance of a work by Janacek rarely heard at that time: the Glagolitic Mass. The audience was stunned by the brilliant and ferociously intense playing of a 23-year-old Cambridge student. The player was Simon Preston and this virtuoso performance was his London debut and the beginning of a distinguished career as organist and conductor. Prior to that, devotees of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast each Christmas Eve from King’s College, Cambridge, heard Simon Preston accompanying the Choir from the Chapel where he had been a chorister as a boy and where he returned later as Organ Scholar. Shortly after his London debut, Mr. Preston was appointed Sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey and later that same year appeared for the first time at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. During that period he worked under many famous conductors, including Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Monteux, and in 1965 made his first tour to the United States and Canada. By the time he left Westminster Abbey in 1967, Preston was already an internationally acclaimed artist.

In 1970 he became Organist of the Cathedral and Tutor in Music at Christ Church Oxford where his work with the choir won high praise. In 1981 he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, where again his work with the choir received great acclaim. He directed the music at the wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew in 1986 and was also responsible for writing much of Salieri’s music in the film Amadeus.

Since 1987, when he left Westminster Abbey, he has continued to pursue an active career as a highly sought-after organist and conductor. A magazine recently described him as “a musician of many parts” and certainly his activities fit the description well: a series of tours taking in the Far East, Australia, South Africa and much of Europe, recording the complete organ works of Bach, the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Poulenc Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani with the Boston Symphony and the Copland Symphony for Organ with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In October, 2000 Preston played the first recital to open the refurbished Harris & Harrison organ at Royal Festival Hall, London.

Since his first tour in 1965, Simon Preston has been a regular visitor to the US, often appearing as a guest artist at conventions of the American Guild of Organists and inaugurating new instruments, as well as tours which have included most American states. He was named International Performer of the Year (New York Chapter, AGO) for 1987 and was Artist in Residence at St. Olaf College for a term in 1989 and at Northwestern University during 1992.

The description in a Vienna newspaper last year of Simon Preston as “a living legend” serves as a reminder that his recording career began forty years ago with the performance of a Gibbons Fantasia on a King’s College, Cambridge disc. There are currently nearly fifty CDs available, including two versions of the Handel Organ Concertos with both Sir Yehudi Menuhin and Trevor Pinnock, as well as Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto as harpsichord soloist, and many recordings with the choirs of both Westminster Abbey and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1971 Mr. Preston was awarded an “Edison Classique” for his recordings of Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux and Hindemith’s Organ Sonatas. The recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Westminster Abbey Choir conducted by Simon Preston was awarded a “Grand Prix du Disque” in 1983, and Copland’s Symphony for Organ with Preston as soloist (with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin) was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1997. In October, 2000 Deutsche Grammophon launched his complete recording of Bach’s organ works. Simon Preston is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Calgary International Organ Competition. The September issue of Classic CD has named Mr. Preston as one of “The Greatest Players of the Century” in a list which includes the entire classical music world.

Simon Preston’s recital for the International Performer of the Year Award was given on 19 May 1987 at Alice Tully Hall.

Click here to listen to performances by Simon Preston and conversation with Michael Barone on Pipedreams.