David Briggs, renowned improviser, performs at Sewanee

Ahmad Ijaz  
Arts & Entertainment Editor

On February 25, Friday at 7:00 p.m., All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee welcomed David Briggs to perform as the organist for Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 silent film. David Briggs, regarded as one of the world’s finest improvisors, is an English organist and composer who is currently the Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. He teaches performance at Cambridge University, frequently serves on international organ competition juries, and gives master classes at colleges and conservatories across the U.S. and Europe.

Briggs’ association with the University of the South goes back 16 years as he served as a sabbatical replacement for Dr. Robbie Delcamp and has a unique tie to Sewanee as his wife graduated from the University in 1979. On February 25, he performed his art to a rapt audience of Sewanee community members, who filled all the seats available in the Chapel.  

Briggs was introduced by Dr. Geoffrey Ward, University Organist & Choirmaster, who briefly spoke on Briggs’ stellar performances and achievements. Following his remarks, Briggs made his way to the stage where he detailed his artistic education and journey, his performances and travels around the world, his association to Sewanee, and the performance that was to come for the attendees.

David Briggs addressing the audience at the start of the show. Photo by Ahmad Ijaz  (C’24).

 Phantom of the Opera was a 93 minute performance that demonstrated Briggs’ unbridled virtuosity and passion for organ music. From the arresting opening to the vibrant finish, the audience was taken on a truly remarkable journey. Briggs played the organ expertly, aligning intricately the music to the movements of the characters of the movie and using his technique to create instrumental sounds that further immersed the audience in the story. The astonishing feat of excelling in involving the audience and conveying varying thematic moods throughout the performance was powerful. It was 93 minutes of stunning virtuosity, technical competence and musical excellence.

“He is not only a fantastic performer, but is a great ambassador for the instrument,” Ward says, “Watching him work with the choir yesterday was one of my highlights of the year. He was very engaging with the students but also was very demanding in terms of what rhythms and sounds he wanted. I found that incredibly inspiring.”

Attending the performance, Natalie Price (C ‘23) was greatly captivated by Briggs’ performance. She says, “Having never seen the silent film of Phantom of the Opera before, I was delightfully surprised with how Briggs was able to convey all of the different thematic moods through the screen. Whether it was escalating drama, horror, or even comedy, it was all enhanced by his playing. The entire performance was captivating, even for the two young girls with the family I was watching it with, which is quite a feat considering the medium of entertainment!”

Following the performance on Friday night, Briggs also conducted the 11:00 a.m. service at All Saints’ Chapel on Sunday morning as the University Choir sang music written by him.