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Thursday November 11, 2010

An organ to crow about

PENANG Free School teacher Leonard Selva Gurunathan has a very special talent — he plays the pipe organ.

Known as the ‘King of Instruments’ because it is the largest of all the musical instruments, a working pipe organ is rarely found these days.

And even rarer, is a pipe organist like Leonard, who has been playing at George Town’s Church of the Assumption (CoA) since 1995.

“I used to attend mass there since I was 14 just to hear the pipe organ — the sound just made me melt.

“I told myself that one day I too would play there,” he said in an interview.

When he speaks about pipe organs, his eyes light up.

“It’s hard to describe in words but when you hear the organ, its music reaches into the depth of your soul.

“Each pipe organ has a story behind it — I know of a parishioner who remembered watching the congregation put together an organ that was buried when the Japanese invaded Penang during the Second World War.

“Another interesting tale was about how the pipe organ in Taiping’s All Saints Church was rebuilt by a journeyman after it was destroyed during the war.

“Just like people, pipe organs in different countries sound different and that’s what makes it such a beautiful instrument,” he said.

Citing Karl Richter and Bach as inspirations, the 38-year-old father of two who started out playing pop music on the electronic organ, described the CoA pipe organ as a “piece of history”.

He said it was through the generous contributions of the early parishioners back in 1900 that the organ was purchased.

“Having played on quite a few pipe organs, I still feel that my heart belongs to the one at the CoA.

“Its sound is sweet yet majestic,” he noted.

The CoA pipe organ was built in 1914 before it was shipped here from England. The design was purportedly made in consultation with legendary organist and choir master Ben D’Cruz.

Pipe organs produce sound by driving pressurised air (called wind) through pipes selected via a keyboard.

Maintaining a pipe organ is no easy task — it’s like running a huge mechanical factory because there are so many parts.

It is believed that there are only five functioning pipe organs in Malaysia — four are in churches and the only concert organ is in the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas where Leonard performed in 2007.

Playing at the Dewan Filharmonik was a dream come true for him. His goal now is to play in different countries.

Leonard said his family had been very supportive of his passion.

“My dad was always behind me — it’s a musical connection I had with him that lasted till the end.

“My wife, Gloria, has said she sometimes feels like music is my priority but never once did she deter my interest though at times when I mention that I would like to have a pipe organ in the house, she gives me a strange look,” he said in jest.

His passion for the pipe organ is so great that even a bleeding toe did not stop him from playing at a Christmas Eve concert.

“One year, I was helping my wife clean the stove when the metal ring dropped on my foot.

“My toe nail just came off and I was bleeding. Despite the stitches and bandaged foot, I went on to perform at mass.

“The pedal board was stained with blood and my wife said I was mad,” he quipped.

Leonard, who is busy composing music, aspires to be a professional organist one day.

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