Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters

Honorary Secretary's Report on the Year 2000

Although the year may have begun with somewhat sterile and inconclusive arguments about whether this was the first year of a new millennium or the final year of one about to end, most people were happy to regard January 1st 2000 as the beginning of the third millennium and celebrated accordingly. Obediently following suit, the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters organised two special events to mark the occasion.

The first was an exciting five-day journey to Berlin where no fewer than 14 organs were seen, heard and played. Those in the city's two cathedrals were probably the most imposing. The vast, rather sombre Berliner Dom houses the city's largest organ (four manuals, 113 ranks) installed by the Frankfurt firm Sauer in 1896, while the nearby Catholic Cathedral of St Hedwig has a splendid three-manual 74 rank Klais built in 1970. Equally impressive, however, was one of the smaller instruments visited, a two-manual dating from 1755 and now installed in the Botschaft Kirche in Karlshurst. Its delightful solo stops and commanding ensemble are a striking example of what can be done with just over 20 ranks, skilfully voiced, carefully balanced, and enhanced by a resonant acoustic.

One particularly intriguing feature of some of the larger, more recently constructed instruments was the replacement of drawstops by a single, hinged panel on which several rows of neat, illuminated switches control the entire organ. With the addition of a generous supply of thumb and foot pistons this would appear to achieve the ultimate in ergonomically efficient stop control. Several of the large organs visited were also fitted with a foot-operated drum which enables the player to produce a more finely graduated crescendo (and diminuendo) than is possible with the type of crescendo pedal commonly found on organs in the UK. Perhaps there are ideas here which our organ building members would find useful to explore.

Nor was it all organs! Excellent meals were enjoyed at a neighbourhood restaurant, visits were made to the new Reichstag and Brandenberg Gate and to a very interesting musical instrument museum, and some of the party (there were 41 of us including 6 from other parts of the UK) attended a stirring performance of the Verdi Requiem given by the combined choirs of the Berlin Philharmonic and Salisbury Music Society.

The success of this very rewarding venture was due largely to the careful preparations made for it by Berlin organist Silke Riemann who planned the itinerary with detailed precision and escorted the party to all the venues included. The result was an event which will be remembered long after all talk of the millennium has ceased.

As the second of its two major events planned to celebrate the millennium, a Belfast Community Organ Day was held on the first Saturday of November. Aimed to stimulate public interest in the organ as a musical instrument (and not merely a useful piece of liturgical furniture), and to encourage young players to strive for high standards of performance, several activities took place during the day.

In the morning an organ workshop was directed by Gordon Stewart whose constructive criticism and encouraging approach was greatly appreciated by the five young organ students taking part and by about twenty observers who gained useful insights into the art of organ performance. This event was held at Knock Methodist Church. Simultaneously at St Columba's Parish Church, Peter Wright (the RCO's Chief Examiner and Director of Music at Southwark Cathedral) discussed requirements for the College's diploma examinations, and made helpful comments on the playing of four prospective candidates, all USOC members.

During the afternoon nine churches in various parts of the city were opened for two hours and members of the public were invited to visit them, play the organ or listen to others doing so. At each church the resident organist was there to welcome visitors, demonstrate the organ, and answer questions about it. Attendances varied from around 10 to 50, and several people visited more than one church.

To crown the day's activities a concert was presented in the Ulster Hall by Gordon Stewart whose popular programme attracted an audience of about 400, exceptionally large for an organ recital in Belfast.

Much of the success of this enterprise can be attributed to the fact that it formed part of the annual Queen's Festival and was consequently widely advertised in the Festival programme. In addition, a generous grant from the Arts Council enabled the Society of produce an attractive colour brochure about the Organ Day of which 5000 were sent to churches, schools and other organisations. The Society is indebted to the Royal College of Organists which provided the funding for Peter Wright's session with prospective diploma candidates, and to the churches and their organists who readily agreed to provide the open-console facilities.

Judging by the comments - both spoken and written - made by many of those who participated, this first Belfast Community Organ Day was obviously enjoyed, and has undoubtedly helped to enhance the Society's reputation.

The year 2000 was also, of course, the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and to mark the occasion a concert of his music, interspersed with readings about the composer, was presented at First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast, in October.

Arranged by Michael Callender and Donald Davison, the programme included organ music played by Philip Elliott and Michael McCracken, keyboard works by William McCay at the piano, and choral music sung by the Chamber Choir of Victoria College, accompanied by David Drinkell. An impressive illustration of the wide range of Johann Sebastian's musical canvas.

A briefer note now on other Meetings held during the year.

In February a seminar on hymn accompaniment was conducted at St Thomas' Church, Lisburn Road, Belfast, at which advice - most of it useful - on matters such as starting a congregational hymn, the treatment of final verses, and the playing of contemporary pop-style hymns was offered by Michael Callender, Michael McCracken and Neal Agnew. Regrettably no time was left for discussion otherwise the extraordinary assertion made by one speaker that "the swell should never be coupled to the Great" would certainly have been challenged! Nor, I suspect, would all congregations accept the view that the most common fault in hymn playing is for the organ accompaniment to be too soft. In some churches, "Oh that it were so" might well be the plea!

Practicalities were also to the fore in March when at Drumbeg Parish Church, Timothy Allen with some help from the church choir conducted a session on the basics of choir training. Leaving aside purely musical considerations, Mr Allen emphasised the importance of a confident approach by the choir director and of the need to create an atmosphere in which the choir enjoys its rehearsal. Useful advice on relaxation, on breath control and on how to sing softly without sacrificing intensity was also offered.

In May the Society travelled west into County Fermanagh to visit three churches in Enniskillen. At the Methodist Church a small but very effective two-manual Conacher organ was played by David Drinkell who also played the considerably larger three-manual Conacher in St Macartin's Anglican Cathedral. After lunch, at St Michael's Roman Catholic Church a short recital was given by Peter Sweeney on the two-manual organ recently restored by the Wells-Kennedy Partnership. Sited in a west end gallery this is an admirable instrument with an attractive case and a comprehensive range of tonal colouring.

In June the Annual Members concert was held at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast where Mark McGrath, Donald Hamilton and Charles Harrison presented a very well played and well-varied programme ranging from Buxtehude and Bach to Anton Heiler and Olivier Messiaen. Unfortunately, and for reasons not yet discovered, this event attracted a distinctly disappointing attendance.

In September the Society's Annual Dinner was consumed in the pleasant premises of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in Bangor. Gastronomically it was perhaps the best meal members of the Society have ever enjoyed at this event and we are indebted to Barbara Callender for making the arrangements. On this occasion the Society's special guest was David Hill, Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral, and the following Saturday afternoon at St George's Church in Belfast he gave a lecture entitled 'Giving Voice', offering useful hints on how to improve the sound of one's choir. Although this embraced purely musical considerations such as the maintenance of a firm inner pulse and of creating a clear sense of direction, Mr Hill (like Timothy Allen) stressed the importance of personal factors in dealing with a choir, and made it clear that success depends as much on these as on the exclusively musical aspects of choir management.

In addition to its regular monthly meetings, a series of three public concerts of organ and choral music was presented under the Society's auspices in May and June. The first at St George's Church in Belfast featured the Chapel Choir of Methodist College (conducted by Joe McKee) and David Adams, organ; the second at Down Cathedral presented the Choir of St George's Church, and Charles Harrison, organ; the third at Hillsborough Parish Church was given by Philip Elliott (organ) and the Grosvenor Chorale, conducted by Edward Craig. Most of the work in organising and publicising this musical triumphirate was done by James Little to whom our thanks are due. At all three concerts the attendance was encouraging, and from the proceeds a sum of 290.00 was gained by the Society.

Surveying the year as a whole, I believe it can be fairly claimed that the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters has served it members well, and its enterprising committee must be congratulated on having produced yet another imaginative and attractive programme of events. Not for the first time, however, I fell impelled to express my regret that such a small proportion of the Society's membership takes advantage of what is on offer.

During the year a new, updated list of members was issued; by December 31st the total had risen to 172, an increase of 21 over last year's figure.

As ever, I should wish to record our gratitude to those who played an active role at our meetings as speakers or players, to the churches which hosted our events, to our Honorary Treasurer, Alasdair MacLaughlin, for carefully husbanding the Society's material resources, to Alistair McCartney for maintaining the Society's website - http://www.organ.dnet.co.uk/usoc - and by no means least to Ian Hunter who with characteristic meticulousness has corrected secretarial solecisms and then typed and despatched our monthly circulars.

Millennium or not, it has been a good year.

Honorary Secretary
January 2001

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