It was a delight to be back in Southwell Minster on 23rd December, where we attended the first night of the Festival of Lessons and Carols. A lovely atmosphere, a packed cathedral, excellent singing and a wide range of carols. And no responsibility for it myself! Joy all round.
Anne and I are still in a trance this morning after a profoundly moving and immaculately prepared performance by the Oxford Bach Choir and CBSO of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ yesterday evening, a concert dedicated to the memory of Sir Stephen Cleobury, members of whose family were present. The Sheldonian Theatre was packed, Roderick Williams, Ed Lyon and Kathryn Rudge were on inspired vocal form, and Benjamin Nicholas steered his forces through the deep streams and flashing rapids of Elgar’s masterpiece with calm aplomb and complete control. Intense detailed preparation of the score is all-important when it comes to conducting Elgar; few are as well-prepared as Ben Nicholas, who has an instinctive feel for just the right tempo at every moment. Totally inspiring!
We visited my parent’s grave here in the beautiful Arboretum Cemetery in Bingham a couple of days ago — two years since Dad died — and as we stood there, a lovely little robin came and perched on the memorial stone. He watched and waited — beautifully still — whilst I took a couple of photos, then flew away. My mother would have been so delighted!
This evening I was part of a capacity audience at Westminster Cathedral for an extraordinary event. Seven Viscount digital organs had been installed, to augment the cathedral’s two famous pipe organs, all in aid of the UK premiere of the late Jean Guillou’s La Rêvolte des Orgues, which formed the last thirty minutes of the evening, and featured leading players from all over Europe. The nine instruments were put to good use in the first hour of the programme in music by Bach and Vivaldi, the percussionist necessary for the Guillou also playing the side drum in Pierre Cochereau’s Boléro sur un thème de Charles Racquet. Frankly, words fail me in attempting to do the event justice, but I would not have missed it — even if I never wish to hear the Guillou again.
Today was spent at Radley College, near Oxford, a famously musical independent school which has recently signed a contract with Nicholson & Co for a new three-manual organ. The need has arisen because the chapel is about to be extended and the current organ will not be loud enough nor is in the best position in chapel to lead the singing. Today they took final measurements for the new case, standing proudly in the west gallery, the large Pedal section going in the existing organ chamber. The photograph shows work beginning on the chapel, which will gain a beautiful new East end.
Anne and I have just returned from a most enriching holiday in Vienna and Salzburg. By great good fortune we managed to get into the dress rehearsal of La Clemenza di Tito on our second night, and that good fortune remained with us for eleven days as we trod in the footsteps (and in the very houses) of Leopold, Constanze and Wolfgang Mozart, of Michael and Joseph Haydn, and, of course, of Antonio Salieri. A refreshing interlude was a wine-tasting day in the Wachau Valley, culminating in a visit to the glorious Abbey at Melk. Even the weather smiled upon us — and the flights were on time. We could ask for nothing more and returned home truly refreshed and inspired.
I’ve not conducted a Diocesan Choirs Festival since retiring from Southwell so it was a real delight to do so in Henley-on-Thames parish church on October 12th. Numbering around 200 — with an impressive three rows of extremely well-behaved and thoroughly-prepared juniors — the combined choirs of the Diocese of Oxford made a well-blended and confident sound. The rehearsal went smoothly and the service was a delight, enhanced by the fine playing of Sebastian Thomson coping with the rather odd organ, and a thought-provoking address by the Incumbent, Fr. Jeremy Tayler.
I’m just back from a stimulating couple of days in Swindon, where last night I gave the inaugural recital on a singularly fine organ in the very well-attended Catholic church of the Holy Rood. Anthony Hall (of Clevedon organs) has been ‘titulaire’ there for some years and his firm has just finished enlarging and enhancing the 1930 Ainscough organ. A gorgeous terraced console designed by Anthony and made by Colin Peacock’s team at Renatus was exceptionally comfortable to play and the large and enthusiastic audience made playing a real delight. I can’t remember when I enjoyed playing an opening recital as much!
It has been a stimulating weekend in Cardiff, where the RCO, IAO and BIOS have mounted this year’s three-day Organ Fest. RCO President Gerald Brooks gave immaculately prepared recitals on the two splendid 3-manual Father Willis organs in the city, David Briggs performed an heroic programme on the majestic Nicholson in Llandaff Cathedral (to be broadcast later this month on BBC Radio 3), and a most interesting lecture recital was given in the National Museum of Wales, centred on the Snetzler / Green / Gray & Davison organ in its beautiful and unique Robert Adam case. Anne and I enjoyed all the music and also the social aspects of the weekend, meeting up with many friends. I took a photo of the wonderful Snetzler in the museum; the trip was worth the effort for this organ alone.
An enjoyable annual event, which I have had the honour to organise for the last ten years, is the Diocesan Organ Advisers’ Conference, at which around 30 Anglican Diocesan Organ Advisers from all over the country (plus colleagues from other denominations) assemble for three days for a varied programme of talks, instruction, organ visits, and general discussion. This week, for the first time since the conference was founded some 60 years ago, we have been based in the Diocese of Leicester, at tranquil Launde Abbey. The conference was centred on the work of local organ-builders Stephen Taylor and Joshua Porritt, several of whose organs were examined and discussed. The photograph is of Taylor’s last remaining untouched organ, at St Peter’s church, Highfields.
Anne and I have just returned from five nights in Riga, Latvia, a city beautifully restored since Latvia regained independence from Russia in 1991. It was a pleasure to be playing five organ solos in two concerts given by the excellent choir of St Peter’s church, Nottingham, under the genial guidance of Dr Peter Siepmann. The most memorable moments were on Sunday in Riga Dom, playing its monster 124-stop Walcker, complete with original 1880s console. A real challenge, but so worthwhile as the organ sounds utterly wonderful. Definitely one to remember.
The Arts Society, Trent Valley branch, visited beautiful Sledmere House in the East Riding of Yorkshire today. The house boasts a large Binns, Fitton & Haley (rebuilt and enlarged by Principal Pipe Organs) in the attic, speaking down boldly into the entrance hall and played by a three-manual stop-key console. I had great fun entertaining our friends in the group, whose monthly lectures Anne and I attend with enormous pleasure.
It’s been a busy few days, during which I took part in a celebratory concert at Southwell Minster, to mark thirty years since I founded the Southwell Minster Choir Association and to relaunch the Southwell Minster Old Choristers’ Association. On Monday 22nd Simon Hogan conducted his final Evensong before leaving the Minster after seven years of stunning playing, following which the Minster Chorale and guests enjoyed a wonderful barbecue in the grounds of Sacrista Prebend (formerly the Choristers’ boarding house). As if that wasn’t enough, our dear friend Murray Somerville gave a splendid recital on the Selby Abbey organ today, followed by a most convivial buffet lunch. The summer has started well!
Anne and I have just spent a very happy few days on the Isle of Wight, where I played a recital on the beautiful Mutin / Cavaillé-Coll (restored by Andrew Cooper) in Quarr Abbey and gave some organ advice at Holy Trinity, Cowes. Wonderful weather and the Island was as delightful as ever: we managed two serious walks and rather more serious meals. Let’s hope the former balance out the latter.
Well, that’s it: all good things come to an end! Last night the wonderful Nottingham Bach Choir sang their hearts out in my final concert as their Musical Director — after 29 years at the helm. From the VW Mystical Songs, Parry’s Blest pair of Sirens to Haydn’s Little Organ Mass and Bach’s exceptionally challenging Singet dem Herrn — all were sung accurately and stylishly, with expression in the romantic pieces, elegance in the Haydn and sparkling vivacity in the Bach. No conductor could have wished for more — nor for a more enjoyable and stimulating three decades with a choir. I wish all my friends in NBC the very best wishes for an exciting future with my popular and talented successor, Dr Peter Siepmann, to whom I — literally — passed the baton at the end of the evening. Au revoir, NBC!
It has been a challenging week for our family. My lovely mother died, aged 93, on the same day that Notre Dame, Paris, burnt, my father having died (aged 98) at the end of 2017. On Thursday June 13th (their 72nd Wedding Anniversary) we buried their combined ashes in the peaceful Arboretum Cemetery here in Bingham, following a beautiful service in Southwell Minster, conducted by my old friend and colleague Canon Nigel Coates. Family and friends came together from all over the UK, from the USA and from Italy, so it was an amazing and enriching gathering. All went well, though we do now feel emotionally and physically drained, and it’s odd — even at our age — being without parents.
It’s been a while since I played the organ for an Organ Dedication service, so it was a special pleasure to do so at Barcheston today. The Bishop of Warwick dedicated the new organ—built by Henry Groves & Son in divided cases designed by the late Kenneth Tickell—and a glorious Choral Evensong was sung by a small choir of Oxford and London pros assembled and ably directed by Nigel Howells. This little Warwickshire country church will never before have experienced singing quite like that! A very happy occasion—as was the party which followed.
This weekend Anne and I have been staying in Orford, on the east coast, in whose parish church Benjamin Britten conducted the first performance of Noyes Fludde and of his Church Parables. It now has a fine organ, the 3-manual Peter Collins formerly at Southampton University, restored by Cousans Organs, which looks and sounds as if it had been made for its new home. There were three major concerts: I played the first, followed by Bernhard Haas (performing from memory) and then Catherine Ennis, whose vivacious performance of the Poulenc Concerto (with Prometheus Orchestra) brought the house down. A truly memorable weekend.
On Monday 15th April all my friends were glued to their screens watching in horror as the medieval roof of Notre Dame, Paris, burnt. For the Hale family, that came at the end of an already sad day in which my beloved mother, June, died. Aged 93, she had enjoyed 70 years of happy and fulfilling marriage to my father, Lawrie, who died at the end of 2017. Her last 16 months had been spent close to us in a Care Home, where it was a joy to have seen her regularly. She will be hugely missed but remembered with enormous affection.
Nicholson & Co Ltd, organ-builders of Malvern, today put on a stimulating training day for Diocesan organ advisers. Attracting DOAs from all over England—Devon to Carlisle—the day was packed with sessions on all aspects of organ restoration and conservation, including how to approach assessing what work needs doing, actions, wind, soundboards, electrics, pipe restoration, voicing, casework restoration, and so on. Warm thanks are owed to Managing Director Andrew Caskie and his skilled team for giving up an entire day to this event.
Today will long remain in my memory, for it was the last time I shall conduct the St Matthew Passion with Nottingham Bach Choir. Everything came together so well on the day—Orchestra da Camera (since my youth my favourite chamber orchestra for choral society accompaniment) on top form, along with all soloists, Rogers Covey-Crump delivering a memorable interpretation of the Evangelist’s core role. NBC sang as well as or better than they ever have—they really worked hard since January on this. The long silence at the end proclaimed the effect Bach’s stupendous masterwork had on everybody in Southwell Minster. And now on with preparing for my final concert with NBC, after 29 years conducting them, on June 22—Bach, Vaughan Williams, Haydn and Parry: yummy!
Had a lovely birthday today, following a superb week’s holiday for Anne and me in Madrid and Toledo. Such wonderful art to be found, and the balmy weather allowed us to walk for miles around each city in comfort. The three monumental organs of Toledo’s utterly magnificent cathedral are glorious to behold—not so lovely to hear. Here are two photos—the back case of the organ on the south of the Quire and the renowned Emperor’s organ in the south transept.
It’s not all that often that one returns to give a second recital in later years, on an organ where one has acted as consultant and given one of the opening recitals. But today I played again on the 2005 Harrison & Harrison rebuild of the important 1928 Skinner-inspired Henry Willis III in the Memorial Chapel at Glasgow University. The organ sounded utterly magnificent, was a pleasure to play and—mercifully—nothing seemed to me a bad decision 14 years ago. A relief and a real treat!
What a wonderful day today! We spent the morning at the British Library looking at the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition, and the afternoon at Tate Britain going round the Burne-Jones exhibition. In the latter was a gloriously decorated piano made by Broadwood to Burne-Jones’ designs. Here’s a photo of it.
Anne and I very much enjoyed joining the Leeds Organists’ Association at their Annual Lunch today; actually the very first time I have eaten a meal at a golf course! It was a very happy gathering and we enjoyed both making new friends and also keeping up with old ones such as Simon Lindley and John Sayer. My speech seemed to go down pretty well; it majored on great Leeds figures in our musical world—Dr Spark, J. J. Binns and Donald Hunt.
Last November 5th I wrote about our visit to Florence and posted a collage of images of St Cecilia playing her portative organ. The sharp-eyed may have noticed that one image showed the pipes reversed—the bass pipes at the treble end—which would not work, of course (see Monday 5th November). Today I came across another such image, in a window in the beautiful closed chapel of the Old Brompton Hospital. We’re trying to save the wonderful old Holdich organ—but that’s another story.