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Obituary: Jane Parker-Smith

07 August 2020

Kenneth Shenton writes:

FOR almost half a century, Jane Parker-Smith, who died on 24 June, aged 70, enjoyed an outstanding career as a top-flight church and concert organist, performing at churches and cathedrals all around the world.

Blessed with glam­­­­­orous good looks and the ability to add a splash of colour to the soberest of concert series, she was every inch a jet-setting figure, whose virtuosity often left colleagues and admirers open-mouthed with envy and admiration. Lavish praise — she was described by one critic as “The Martha Argerich of the organ”, and by another as “The Brigitte Bardot of the Organ World” — meant that she remained, unlike many, firmly at the fore­front of the wider musical world.

Born in Northampton on 24 June 1950, and adopted at an early age, Jane Caroline Rebecca Parker-Smith was educated at Bishop Peveril Grammar School, Eastleigh. Aged 17, she won a place at the Royal College of Music, where initially she studied the piano in the company of Kendall Taylor. She subsequently switch­­­­­­­ed to the organ, and Richard Latham then became her tutor. While at the college, she won a raft of prizes, including a Countess of Munster Award, a Greater London Arts Association Young Performers’ Award, and the Royal College of Music’s Walford Davies Prize. This resulted in her highly acclaimed debut solo organ recital at West­minster Cathedral in 1970.

She was awarded a French Gov­ern­ment Scholarship, and so able to study in Paris with Jean Langlais. Back in London, she further refined her technique in the company of Nicholas Kynaston.

Having made her debut at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 1972, two years later, she triumphed in the National Organ Competition. In 1975, she made the first of numer­ous solo appearances at the Royal Festival Hall, stepping in at the last moment for an in­­disposed Fernando Germani.

Thirty-nine years later, in 2014, following the refurbishment of the instrument, in the company of John Scott, Isabelle Demers, and David Goode, Parker-Smith helped to re­­open the organ.

For the first time in almost 40 years, courtesy of the 164-stop Allen Computer Organ, in 1977, Parker-Smith joined with Carlo Curley, George Thalben Ball, and Arthur Wills to bring organ recitals back to the impressive Grand Hall of Alexandra Palace, north London. She would again combine with Curley on any number of occasions, most notably at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1985. In the interim had come numerous world tours that took in Europe and North and South America, as well as the Far East. At home, having spent a brief period as custodian of the Binns instrument at St James’s, Norlands, in north London, she later occupied the organ bench at the Christuskirche in Knightsbridge.

Tending to specialise in French and Belgian repertoire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hap­pily many of her performances endure owing to a richly diverse disco­graphy. Signed by EMI after an initial album recorded in West­minster Cathedral, Music for Pleas­ure, she made sub­­sequent solo recordings both here and through­out Europe. She also enjoyed re­­ward­­­ing artistic relationships with the trumpeter Maurice André, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orch­estra and Sir Simon Rattle, and Serge Baudo and the London Phil­har­monic Orchestra. In a most un­­usual and delightful departure, join­ing with the Prague Chamber Orch­estra and Steuart Bedford, her per­­formances of four little known 18th-century organ concertos by C. P. E. Bach, Johan Georg Albrechts­berger, and Michael and Joseph Haydn brought her lavish critical acclaim.

She married a risk-management specialist, John Gadney, in 1996. He died in 2012.

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