Nerves build for UAE organist playing at Pope Francis's Mass

Paul Griffiths, the head of Dubai Airports, will play a custom-made instrument flown in from the UK especially for the ceremony on Tuesday

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Performing to a live audience of millions is an achievement that even the most distinguished of musicians aspire to.

So when organist Paul Griffiths joins a select few to take part in Pope Francis’s Mass on Tuesday, the enormity of the privilege is far from lost on him.

Mr Griffiths, who is chief executive officer of Dubai Airports, will be accompanied by 130 choristers and a brass section as he plays at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

And despite previous performances at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Briton still admits to being acutely nervous.

Paul Griffiths, who is playing at the Papal Mass in Abu Dhabi, previously performed at Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral. Courtesy Paul Griffiths.

“When you have 60,000 people in the stadium, 100,000 more outside, and the millions around the world watching on TV, it is nerve-wracking to think these people will be hanging on every note,” he said.

“Who would have thought an Anglican organist like me would be asked to play for the Papal Mass during the visit of Pope Francis to the UAE?

“I have to get this right. The visit is a symbol for peace and harmony, an amazing thing.”

Mr Griffiths, a self-taught musician, was approached to play at the Mass just four weeks ago by Father Michael O’Sullivan, papal coordinator for the UAE visit.

Since then he has been practising hard at home with his wife, Joanna Marsh, who is also composing some of the musical arrangements.

Mr Griffiths will play the Giovanni Gabrieli sonata for brass and organ and a Bach Chorale prelude, composed in the 17th Century.

A work by Felix Mendelssohn and the Toccata from Symphony No 5 by Charles-Marie Widor will also form part of the performance.

The organ Mr Griffiths will use was made in Bideford, England, by specialists Renatus Ltd, has been flown out to Abu Dhabi especially for the occasion.

The instrument is a replica of an American 1920s EM Skinner organ, which features a hand-crafted wooden console with three separate keyboards.

At Zayed Sports City Stadium, engineers have been working tirelessly to ensure the acoustics during the Mass are just right.

“To make something memorable it was decided we needed to use a significant instrument,” said Mr Griffiths.

“The difference between somewhere like Westminster Abbey or St Paul's Cathedral and the stadium will be the open air acoustics, so we’re relying on the sound engineers.

“I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I’ve played to a bigger stadium crowd than U2 or The Beatles.”