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Amir’s pipe dream


For Dr Amir Robin-Karas, playing the Casavant Frères pipe organ in St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral involves much more than touching the keys and the foot pedals. It’s about creating his own little “orchestra”, interpreting the intricate details of the music to make it interesting and alive for those listening.

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“The organ is like an orchestra for one… and no two organists will have the same interpretation of the music,” Amir told The Southern Cross.

“It is a very difficult and tough instrument and it needs a lot of coordination between the hands and feet. At the same time you need to think about the music itself and what stops to use for this or that passage, and how to get the musical effect that you need for the piece.

“The organ can be a very boring instrument if you are just sustaining chords in a certain way without any real awareness of the music being played, but when it is used in a good way it can be very dramatic and catch the attention of everyone.”

At the Fringe concert in March Amir certainly caught the attention of those in attendance with his powerful performance and over the past five years Cathedral churchgoers have been equally appreciative of his musical talents.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, his musical journey has not involved training as a professional musician.

Born in Egypt and baptised a Coptic Catholic, Amir said his family had a “general love” for music and like many children, he started learning the piano at school as a hobby. It was through his involvement with the Catholic Church that he was introduced to the pipe organ.

“People think this is strange because Egypt doesn’t have a tradition in pipe organs being a predominantly Muslim country, but the irony is that the pipe organ was invented in Alexandria.

“When I was growing up there were some instruments in many of the churches in Egypt but some are now not in use due to lack of maintenance,” he explained.

Despite his obvious talent for playing the pipe organ, a vocation as a doctor beckoned and he left his homeland in his twenties to study medicine in France.

However, music continued to play a big part in his life and he was delighted to discover the French had a long history with pipe organs.

“Because of my love for music at the time I got exposed to the French organ tradition and the really amazing treasure of pipe organs that they cherish. I remember listening to some of them and thinking they have such an amazing sound.”

Returning briefly to Egypt, the new doctor then moved to New Zealand for work, while also continuing his music studies as an organ scholar at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch under the tutelage of Don Whelan.

A highlight of this time was his involvement with J S Bach’s St John Passion which is performed every year on Good Friday. A musical reflection of Christ’s last hours, the two and a half hour performance involves soloists, choir and orchestra.

“My role was mainly as a choir member but the musical experience gained by participating in such a work was so valuable,” he said.

In 2000 Amir, his wife Nora and children Myriam, Ramy and Stephan moved to Sydney and four years later to Adelaide.

He considered playing the Casavant Frères to be a blessing, but said it required hard work and devotion.

That involves practising on a digital organ at home for about 45 minutes in the morning and up to two hours after work each day. Continuing his organ studies, Amir is so committed to his music that he even has had discussions with a local organ builder regarding the possibility of having a small pipe organ built in his home.

It is evident that what started as a school-time “hobby” has now become a life-time obsession.

“Taking into consideration my work and how I see daily the suffering of some people in our community due to mental health problems, chronic pain, loneliness and inability to cope with life pressures, I feel blessed to have the gift of music as a source of inspiration, healing and harmony in my life,” he said.

“Playing the organ has put another dimension to my life and made my life richer.”


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