Simon Preston once taught Hollywood's Mozart how to play the piano while sitting under the keyboard. He will not, however, be expecting any such tricks from the 12 talented young competitors in the Asian round of the Calgary International Organ Competition, held in Hong Kong this month. 'We just want to see good, exciting playing,' said the musician whom many regard as, quite simply, the best organist in the world. This is the first time Asian musicians have been able to participate in the competition: two of the 12 will be selected to attend the finals in Calgary, which are not only extremely prestigious, but also offer the largest prize package available in international organ competition. The association of organs with dusty churches and long-dead composers tends to drive young musicians away, says Mr Preston, who hopes competitions such as this will help persuade people to give the instrument another chance. Like most organists, Mr Preston started on piano. But he had an uncle who was a church organist, and he remembers his excitement at 'the bells and smells' of the high church he used to go to with his mother. 'I always wanted to play the organ: the piano was just the means to the end. The organ is so much the centre of music and the church. Everything seemed to revolve around it.' Later, he used to get excused from games to practise in the chapel at King's College Cambridge. 'I used to have to walk through Cambridge on my own when I was quite young. Nowadays no one would allow it.' I met Mr Preston as he sat at the Cultural Centre organ after a rehearsal with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He described the instrument - and why he was attracted to it - with a sense of vividness: the magic that entranced him as a little boy is clearly still there. The stops have exotic names - Chamade, Cimber, Dulciana and Bombade, and of course 'Vox Angelica' which is deliberately slightly out of tune, to create an ethereal sense of angels' voices. There are some stops whose subtleties of name have histories of wars and disputes behind them. So 'Trompette' uses a French reed, while 'Trompete' uses a German one, with a slightly harder sound. 'Two traditions of organ-building have grown over the years,' Mr Preston explained. Bach's music calls for trompete, while Olivier Messaien would demand the softer cousin, and all good concert organs have to include both. Mr Preston has played almost all of the world's top instruments: as soloist and choral director he has appeared with most leading orchestras. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music and at King's College Cambridge, he was appointed sub-organist at Westminster Abbey in 1962. In 1970 he became organist and tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, returning to the Abbey in 1981 as organist. In 1986 he was invited by Buckingham Palace to compile the music programme for the marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Mr Preston remembered a wine and cheese party at the Abbey during which he was expected to discuss the music programme with the young couple. 'I remember Prince Andrew was more interested in the form, Sarah in the music. We all sat on the sofa and she had a lot of suggestions.' Mr Preston paused and smiled. The choices were rather corny, he said, recalling how he looked down the long list with a sense of horror. 'On about page four I saw Laudate Dominum by Mozart and I seized on it.' The following year, after resigning from the Abbey, Mr Preston was invited to write most of 'Salieri's' music for the film Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman. As he pointed out, the plot of the Peter Shaffer play which inspired the film had no historical basis, but was based on fiction by Pushkin. So all music allegedly composed by Salieri - a character who was portrayed probably unfairly as the jealous composer who killed Mozart - had to be reinvented by contemporary musicians. The challenge was to distil an operatic piece by Mozart down to its most boring basics - as it might have been written by a jealous Salieri. 'That allows Mozart to fiddle with the tune and turn it back into a fabulously inventive aria,' Mr Preston said. He also advised Tom Hulse, the actor who played Mozart, on how to play keyboards as if he were a hyperactive musical genius. 'I taught him to play the piano with his hands over his head,' Mr Preston remembered. 'It's a great party trick,' he said, admitting modestly it was a little something he had learned in his Cambridge days. For the past decade, he has been heavily involved with the new Organ Academy and Festival in Calgary, although, as he said, the competition started almost by accident. In 1987, the Jack Singer concert hall opened in the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts, complete with an expensive Carthy organ, donated by a local sponsor. Mr Preston was invited to give the gala concert. 'Some people felt it wasn't right to have that marvellous instrument and just use it once every six months. So they asked me for ideas. 'I suggested festivals and competitions and ways to get young people involved. Then I went away and forgot all about it,' he joked. But Calgary, in those days of Winter Olympic planning, was committee-mad. Six months after the meeting, Mr Preston was contacted and told there was a committee in place for organising an international organ festival, and asked if he could help out. They decided to concentrate on young players - competitors have to be younger than 32 - with prizes totalling C$63,000 (about HK$343,000). Two other important elements of the competition are the inclusion of new compositions as well as pieces by J S Bach, which are the staple of any organist's repertoire. And there is the introduction of a performance with an orchestra. 'It's one of the bees in my bonnet to get people to start playing organs earlier and to play with orchestras. Organists are not taught from an early age to play concerti.' Playing solo is different, because you can be more self-indulgent, he said. 'You don't have all those rest bars to count, and even if you count wrong it doesn't really matter.' Many good players have never played with an orchestra, he said. 'It's really offputting to have everything going on around you, and you have to keep checking with a conductor through a mirror. 'And when the conductor talks to you he raises his voice, like talking to your grandmother.' It is also a particularly difficult instrument to play with an orchestra, because the organist has to play the notes a short moment - sometimes as much as half a beat - in advance of the other players, so the audience hears them both together. The first organ competition was held in 1990; for the second in 1994 European competitors were invited to preliminary rounds in Lubeck, Germany. This year with Asian and South African musicians competing for the first time, Calgary will see its most international International Organ Competition so far, he said. In one way Hong Kong seems a rather odd place to hold the Asia-Pacific part of the competition. The SAR does not, after all, have any world-class organists, and no young Hong Kong musicians will be competing. It does, however, have two world-class organs - including the 44-stop Rieger at the Academy for Performing Arts as well as the Cultural Centre instrument - and an urgent need to sow the seeds of interest among young local musicians. 'In the past when I've come to play in Hong Kong, students have come up and said 'please could you give me a lesson, we don't have anyone to help us'.' Some Hong Kong student musicians have been talented, he said, recalling one who recently won a scholarship to the Academy of Music in London. 'The potential's here: you just need to give more encouragement.' Calgary International Organ Festival: Opening performance featuring Simon Preston and Australian organist Christopher Wench April 22 7.30pm. Competition rounds (free entry) April 23 and 24 at 9am and 2pm. Final performance April 24 8pm. APA Concert Hall. $60-$80 Tickets 2734-9009.