It’s been a non-stop year of organ consulting and concerts and I’ve loved every minute—well, nearly every minute—of it. The consulting work was bracketed by three Markets: the largely new organ at Market Bosworth which was finished by Cousans Organs and dedicated in March; planning the rebuilding and enlarging of the organ at Market Harborough, which Henry Groves will carry out in a year or so’s time, and getting the green light from Market Deeping for Clevedon Organs to begin a restoration and improvement in January 2019. All very satisfying. 2019 will see me end my 29 years conducting Nottingham Bach Choir; doubtless the odd tear will be shed [by me!] as it’s been a stimulating and wonderful run, with so many musical highlights. The photographs are of an organ on which I reported this week. My final survey of the year, and very much a one-off!
When people ask “How are you enjoying retirement”, what they must mean is “from Southwell Minster”, because ‘retirement’ as such is years ahead! Take this past eight days, for example—a fairly typical week: Saturday Nov 24, rehearsing and conducting a monumental performance of Elgar’s The Apostles with Nottingham Bach Choir; during the week, writing two long organ reports, then driving to Devizes to begin advising another church. Plenty of organ practice in between and then a trip to Oxford to give an organ recital on Saturday Dec 1 at New College—the organ of my undergraduate years. And tomorrow, Monday 3rd? Off again to an organ-builders to inspect work on an exciting project for Orford parish church. Retirement? You must be kidding!
It was a privilege this evening to accompany my good friend, the baritone Stephen Cooper, for a song recital in the long-running Music in the Great Hall series at Southwell Minster. Stephen had selected a rich and varied programme of songs appropriate to the day (Remembrance Sunday 2018), both familiar and unfamiliar, as a glance at the programme will show. It proved a musically and emotionally satisfying end to a particularly significant and memorable day in our nations’s history.
Anne and I recently spent a wonderful few days in Florence—still warm and sunny. We soaked up not just the sun but the art, which is super-abundant, particularly in the churches and of course in the Uffizi Gallery, where we spent some hours. Interestingly, many paintings displayed cherubs, angels, or St Cecilia playing varieties of improbable little portative organs. Here is a group of close-ups of some of those images; I think they’re delightful.
It was great fun today to give a duet recital with David Butterworth, in the spacious and lofty music room in his wonderful house at Halam. We played the Flor Peeters Concerto for Organ and Piano, and also offered the staple but excellent fare of the Tomkins duet, the Wesley duet and Franck’s sublime Prelude, Fugue and Variation, plus some solo items. David’s Grant, Degens and Bradbeer organ was as bright, crisp and colourful as ever and his large Steinway grand piano in peak condition, making Franck’s flowing piano part sing beautifully. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon—and to a full house, too.
When acting as consultant for an organ project one of the first tasks normally is to research and write up the history of an instrument, for such knowledge can often inform the way forward. I sometimes use this research as the basis of a booklet written when the organ is complete, such as for the recent thorough rebuild by Henry Groves & Son of the 1955 Hill/Walker in Melton Mowbray parish church, on which I gave the opening recital on 29th September. Download the booklet as a pdf document to read all about the Malcolm Sargent Memorial Organ at Melton Mowbray. It’s quite a beast!
For information about my other organ booklets, please go to my Books page.
I drove back this morning from an enjoyable (if damp) stay in Hythe, on the South coast, where I had a lovely time giving a recital last night on the fine Harrison & Harrison / F H Browne organ in the parish church. This organ boasts a striking west end case proudly displaying the 16ft Contra Geigen—a rare sight to see a 16ft front in a parish church nave. Rarer still is a 16ft front in a parish church chancel, but that’s just what I found three days earlier when I gave a lunchtime recital on the fine 3-manual Brindley & Foster / Cousans in St Swithun, Retford. Amazing that Brindley managed to get his 16ft Open Diapasons in the front, but he did—and how proud they look, even with the ‘gold’ paint beginning to turn to that rather grim old hospital radiator colour.
One of the privileges of giving recitals in our great buildings is being locked in on one’s own to rehearse. All churches and cathedrals take on a different character when the visitors have left and they settle down for the night. None can be be more special than Westminster Abbey, where in preparation for my recital on Sunday Anne and I spent the whole of Saturday evening in the empty building. In my breaks from rehearsing on the 5-manual Harrison we ambled around as dusk descended, visiting memorials to poets, musicians, statesmen and scientists. Truly inspiring. If only some of their skills, wisdom and intelligence had rubbed off as we passed by!
I had the great pleasure of giving recitals on two contrasting Harrison & Harrison organs over the past week. First came a welcome return visit (my fourth) to their 1912 flagship instrument at St Mary, Redcliffe, which thundered and beguiled in equal measure. Then came a concert on their newest tracker-action organ (for which, as it happens, I was the consultant) at St Andrew’s, Bedford, which impresses in quite a different way, as its tonal scheme and subtle yet characterful voicing result in a true multum in parvo instrument. Two most enjoyable concerts yet totally different in musical effect. That, of course, is one of the travelling organist’s greatest delights (and challenges): every organ is unique. My third H&H of the summer will be Westminster Abbey on August 19th: quite different from the other two, once again. I can’t wait!
A reunion of members of CHASSOC (the New College Oxford association for former choristers, lay clerks, choral scholars, organ scholars and organists) took place in sunny Oxford on 23rd June. It was a cheery gathering, the age range of attendees stretching from H K Andrews’ choristers of the 1950s right through to the final Edward Higginbottom years. A stirring Evensong was sung, old members joining in lustily, and then one of New College’s famed dinners ended the day in fine style, with tuneful entertainment by the Choral Scholars. How can it be nearly 47 years since I started there as an organ scholar? And what a privilege that was.
After a gap of 49 years it was a treat once more to play the exciting Lewis organ in St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, for a recital on June 14th. I had last played the instrument in 1969 and was completely enthralled—as most are—by my first exposure to the Lewis sound world. I first experienced the Armley Schulze, with its similarly powerful Great Mixture, in much the same year and thus began my delight in really effective and well-developed Mixture-work. Congratulations to Adrian Adams who has been organist there for fifty years and is shortly to retire. Some innings!
Just back from a busy weekend. Played a recital (Couperin—with Nivers chant—and Franck) on the wonderful Dobson at Merton College Oxford on Saturday, then zoomed over to Cambridge on Sunday morning to give an all-Couperin recital on the glorious Metzler at Trinity College before Evensong. I had prepared for Trinity the previous week as the organ is a real challenge to register and all needed to be prepared and marked up in advance. I couldn’t have been made more welcome by directors of music Benjamin Nicholas and Stephen Layton, to whom I owe many thanks for the invitations and their abundant hospitality. Here are photos of both venues.
It’s not every day that one discovers an organ hidden behind a wall for a generation, but that’s what happened to me on 9th May. The former Great Yarmouth Grammar School (now Great Yarmouth Charter Academy) has a fine 1960/1991 Williamson & Hyatt organ bricked up in its hall since the mid 1990s but now revealed and ripe for cleaning. It will come up a treat.
On 1st May Anne and I enjoyed the life-enhancing experience of Simon Rattle conducting (using no score) the LSO in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham—the hall Sir Simon himself brought into being during his glorious years with the CBSO. Notwithstanding the five-star review The Times had given its Barbican performance the previous week, nothing could have prepared us adequately for the impact of this masterwork, played by the greatest of the UK’s orchestras in the finest UK hall, under the most sensitive imaginable direction of the UK’s leading conductor. It doesn’t come any better than that. The photo was taken just before Sir Simon entered.
The renowned organ-builder William Hill was born in Spilsby, East Lincs, in 1789 and built an organ for the spacious parish church in 1840. His firm enlarged it in 1866 and 1879; Cousans fitted an excellent pneumatic key action in 1926 and cleaned it in 1950, adding a long-desired Pedal Bourdon. Recently immaculately overhauled by Chris Hind, I had the great pleasure of giving a demonstration recital this evening. A wonderfully fresh, clean-toned organ with limpid flutes and fast-speaking reeds. A real delight on all fronts. And the church even boasts a memorial stained-glass window dedicated to William Hill; have any other organ-builders such a memorial?
Just back from sunny Barcelona—our first visit there. What a beautiful city—attractive, clean, and seemingly populated with helpful, smiling people. Gaudi’s buildings are truly fascinating, especially the jaw-dropping Sagrada Familia, which now contains an organ (in two cases, one either side of the High Altar). To our delight, the instrument struck up all on its own every hour, setting a serene atmosphere for the visiting 1000s by playing gentle Bach. Perfect!
Just back from a satisfyingly busy weekend—Saturday was spent at Trinity Church in Leek, teaching twelve members of the highly commendable (and really motivated) Leek Churches Organ School. Smashing old 3-manual tracker Jardine, too. Then on to spend the night at an old friend’s in Wilmslow before spending Sunday at St Philip & St James in Alderley Edge, attending their excellent Sung Eucharist (congregational singing superbly led by their choir and organist) and then climbing around the slightly ailing organ to assess what needs doing to it. The perfect Sunday!
I was so moved and thrilled by the Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra’s St John Passion on the eve of Palm Sunday. The choir had been on tremendous form all term and to conduct a flowing and emotionally charged performance, with Ruairi Bowen on compelling form as Evangelist was a real treat for me, especially as it’s my last with NBC before retiring after 30 years, in June 2019.
My birthday on 4th March was celebrated in grand style as I gave an organ recital at St Paul’s cathedral. It’s always a thrill and a challenge playing that colossal instrument—and that colossal acoustic—and I was determined to display as many of its colours as I could. Michael Broadway—who keeps the organ miraculously in perfect tune — was kind enough to say how much he enjoyed my registrations, particularly the prominent use of the Willis III Contra Bass in a pedal solo, the massed strings, and the Trompette Militaire. Despite the appalling weather there was a good turn-out, and my former organ scholar Peter Holder, now Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey, was good enough to turn pages for me despite a busy day at the Abbey. All in all, a memorable 66th birthday!
It is always an honour to be invited to give a recital on an organ for which I have had some responsibility, whether as a Diocesan Organ Adviser or acting as a professional consultant. Some organs, however, remain a challenge to play, especially when restored without alteration or modernisation. One such is Potterhanworth, in the middle of the Lincolnshire countryside, where today I shared the billing with the splendid John Campbell, Dean’s Verger at Lincoln Cathedral, who spoke both amusingly and profoundly about his experiences over 40 years as a verger. The organ is a one-manual with a nightmare of a pedalboard; however, it sounds lovely and all at Potterhanworth were happy, which is all that matters.
On a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon a large congregation stood outside the south side of Lincoln Cathedral, facing the house that until recently has been the Precentor’s home. Now transformed into the Song School, the building contains two rehearsal rooms, robing rooms, the music office, choir library and the necessary bits of plumbing. We watched as John Rutter spoke eloquently about the work of the music department then cut the ribbon and declared the Song School open. Evensong was then sung. Part of the funding was anonymously given in memory of our good friend Martin Pickering, several of whose former colleagues such as Christopher Robinson and David Lowe were in attendance. A memorable afternoon all round.
I was chuffed to see that Choir & Organ had published this little tale of mine about a piece of string and a neglected Cavaillé-Coll. Thank you, Graeme!
Read the Choir & Organ article (opens new tab/window)
Just spent an intoxicating day at the Troxy in Limehouse, listening to the largest Wurlitzer in Europe under the joint hands of Thomas Trotter (a first for him) and Simon Gledhill (bread & butter—or perhaps Tibia & Trem—for him). Plus two engaging talks on associated subjects. What a day! Even the 30-minute train delay, which meant I got home in the wee small hours of Sunday, paled into insignificance.
A strange feeling, having arrived at the end of the year without playing or directing a single carol service! Mind you, being an ‘ex’ cathedral organist also means freedom from the responsibility of producing all that Christmas music, so on balance I’m a happy man.