A prestigious new project at Bordeaux cathedral

Interview with Jean-Baptiste Dupont – November 2023

Jean-Baptiste DUPONT has played the organs at Saint-André cathedral for the last 11 years. As a member of the Cathedra non-profit, he is managing the project to renovate the church organs with support from Clément Fayat Foundation.

Jean-Baptiste Dupont has several lives! He shares his weeks between Saint-André cathedral, where he is the cathedral organist, Saint-Sernin basilica in Toulouse, which is also equipped with iconic organs, and a career as a concert organist that sees him travel all over the world. Despite this busy schedule, he found the time to set up the Cathedra non-profit with Alexis Dufaure, choir master at Bordeaux cathedral. The aim of this non-profit created in 2014 is to develop and promote religious music at Saint-André cathedral. « Bordeaux cathedral now hosts 30 organ concerts a year. We want to organise more cultural events, and bring world-class organ festivals back to Bordeaux with unique repertoires and approaches to attract new audiences and young talents. But the current state of the gallery organ prevents us from doing so.”

30 tonnes of material to dispose of and one innovation

Saint-André actually has two organs: the more modest choir organ has around 1,200 pipes and 18 playing registers. It was recently restored and has a beautiful sound palette. This is not the case for the 6,000-pipe gallery organ. Built back in the 1970s, the instrument has aged poorly and faces major issues. “It’s not up to the cathedral’s acoustic potential,” admits Jean-Baptiste, “and studies show that it would be better to build a new organ with a more powerful range better suited to the size of the church”.

The massive project is being managed by the French Ministry of Culture. It is divided into several phases, including restoring the case, which is a listed historical monument, then disassembling the gallery organ, i.e., approx. 20 tonnes of material to dispose of, some of which will be recycled. The chosen organ builder will probably recommend recasting the metal to produce new pipes. And finally, the last stage, building a contemporary instrument with an innovative twist: a remote console.

The organist will no longer be the invisible man

Clément Fayat Foundation decided to support the creation of this remote console as a private sponsor. « “This process is already widespread in concert halls, such as Radio France or Philharmonie de Paris. It really adds something in visual, technical and musical terms, which opens up plenty of interpretative possibilities for the organist. With a remote console, we can play both organs at once, in opposition or dialogue ”, Jean-Baptiste happily adds. And above all, the musician can leave the galleries and set up where they want in the centre of the church, as close as possible to the audience “The new remote console will be installed on a mobile platform that we’ll be able to position anywhere in the cathedral, for instance closer to the orchestra or choirs”.

Organ building: a demanding line of business

It’s the kind of artistic profession and handcraft that Clément Fayat held so dear. The cost of fully rebuilding Saint-André’s church organs is estimated to be €3 million. The invitation to tender will be launched before the end of 2023, targeting the biggest organ building workshops. Jean-Baptiste has around a year to complete the invitation to tender process. « “We’ll have the result of the process in the course of September 2024 and are looking to start work in around December 2024. Projects like this are very rare and require a major technical support centre. Projects like this are very rare and require a major technical support centre. French and European organ builders will certainly have to join forces.”

What will the future church organs look like? « “We don’t know because the idea is for the builders who tender to have some creative freedom but with the brief of creating an instrument perfectly suited to the cathedral’s acoustics.”

From Ancient Greece to optical fibre

The organ is a fascinating, particularly complex instrument, as Jean-Baptiste explains: “ It features several keyboards, a pedalboard and all the instrument registers created with dozens of stops. This provides thousands of sonic possibilities, we have a whole orchestra at our fingertips, and the richest repertoire of all existing instruments! ” Jean-Baptiste passionately compares the organ to a giant, “capable of either gentleness or causing the walls to tremble .” This instrument’s ancestor saw the light of day back in 300 B.C., and was used during games across the arenas of Ancient Greece. Its current principle was established in the 14th century, then developed gradually. Some contemporary models are even equipped with optical fibre for some transmissions! A combination of heritage & innovation that reflects Clément Fayat Foundation’s values…

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