John Keys in the Albert Hall

Coram Boy: an interview with John Keys

Tuesday 6th August 2019

John Keys is an internationally acclaimed organist based in the heart of Nottingham – and will be performing during our next production, Coram Boy. We sat down with him to find out more about the music featured in the play, and the Grade II Listed Binns Organ in Nottingham’s Albert Hall.

Why should people be interested in the music of Coram Boy, and the Grade II listed Binns Organ?

Well, because the play features the music of Handel who was a great patron of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital. Handel wrote the Foundling Hospital anthem to raise money for the orphanage. The instrument itself is of great historic interest to Nottingham as a city, having been given to the Albert Hall by Jesse Boot – founder of Boots the chemist.

Does the organ feel and sound different from playing other organs?

Oh yes they’re all different – this one has got its own definite character, in the style of a town hall instrument. Much more orchestral based than, say, an instrument that you would find in a church – which is a very different sound all together.

Is Handel’s Messiah one of those pieces that organists naturally end up playing at some point, or are certain skills required to play it?

Well, Messiah as an organ-only version is an absolute bloomin’ nightmare – as all of these oratorios written for orchestral accompaniments are! There’s a tradition of playing them on an organ only – but I can only say thank heavens that latterly people tend to do them with the orchestra, and the forces that were originally intended. The keyboard part is really just a support – it fills out the harmonies.

How do you feel about Messiah? Do you like it?

I’ve overdosed on it over the years! You get quite enough of it, and then come back to it after a year or so… but you’re always reminded of what a magnificent piece it is.

Do you agree that classical and organ music could be viewed as quite niche?

Oh I’m sure I’d agree with you, but at least here this has been incorporated into a dramatic production, in an historical context … and I hope it won’t overburden the audience. There are extracts from more than just Messiah. There are two movements from the Foundling Hospital anthem, we’ve got a moment from his oratorio Israel in Egypt, and a couple of movements from another oratorio Jephtha, and then an organ solo again by Handel – about a minute’s worth to feature the instrument.

How are you feeling about the production overall?

I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how it all gels together… It’s a very multi-faceted story. And I have worked with Alex Patterson before – we’ve done several concerts together in each other’s cathedrals, we get on very well. I’m looking forward to it.

You must get asked this a lot, but… John Keys… Do you believe in nominative determinism – the idea that people work in areas that fit their names?

Ha – no!

Performances of Coram Boy – featuring John Keys – begin Wednesday 7 August, and run until Saturday 10 August