Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters

Honorary Secretary's Report on the Year 2001

For the world at large 2001 was not a good year. The sinister shadows cast over the entire planet by the horrific events of September 11th still linger. So too do the intractable problems of increasingly bitter Arab/Israeli conflict, of Balkan disintegration, of AIDS in Africa and of a world-wide economic recession. Nearer home, the Province's image in the eyes of the world was sadly besmirched by pictures of small children intimidated on their walk to school, the power-sharing experiment at Stormont barely survived attempts to topple it by dim-witted politicians who should have known better, and the designers of the cap badge for te new police force failed miserably to include in its composition that most potent of all six-county symbols, the Ulster Fry! Not a cheerful scenario, yet that was the background against which life for most of us went on much as usual, and against which the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters continued to provide a useful if undervalued forum for the Province's church musicians. What follows is a brief survey of its activities during the year.

In February four organs in the Ards Peninsula, all quite different, were visited. At the First Presbyterian Church in Comber the sound of a sturdy. rather solid two-manual Binns was hardly enhanced by the claustrophobic acoustics of this otherwise unusual exercise in ecclesiastical architecture, but David Drinkell delighted his audience with a lively improvisation on what sounded like "The Star of the County Down"! Down the road at the town's Parish Church, a tiny Compton, recently restored and extended by Philip Prosser, revealed yet again how much can be done with just a few ranks of pipes - in this case only three - carefully voiced and judiciously extended. John McDonald, the church's resident maestro, ably demonstrated its qualities. Comber's Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church stands on a splendidly sequestered site overlooking the town, and recently acquired an excellent single manual organ of uncertain origin from England. Imported and installed by the Belfast Pipe organ Preservation Company, it was played with characteristic verve by Adrian McLaughlin, co-director of the firm. A little further down the peninsula the imposing Parish Church of Killyleagh was the last of the four churches to be visited. This houses a rare example of a tonally unaltered two-manual Walker, originally installed in 1882 and restored by Stephen Shaw in 1986. Despite a rather confined situation it speaks with pleasing clarity and was well displayed by David Drinkell.

In March, at Malone Presbyterian Church, David Montgomery gave a forthright and stimulating address entitled "Choosing and Leading Praise in Today's Church". In it he urged us to reconsider the role of both organ and traditional choir in church worship and to recognise the declining role of the organ in contemporary musical culture. In his view, the church organist must now be prepared to diversify and to adapt readily to the changes currently being made in patterns of church service. His book "Sing a New Song" develops these ideas and would make interesting and challenging reading for any wide-awake member of the Society. This meeting did, in fact, attract probably the best attendance of the year, and the audience's interested response would suggest that further programmes should include more meetings of this kind.

In April a Young Musicians' Concert at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, Belfast, was intended to provide a showcase for four young players, three still at school, one now at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. All four played with commendable skill and for the most part resisted the temptation to bombard their audience with blasts of full organ. Despite advertising in Artslink and an announcement in the Society's own circular, this concert attracted a miserably small audience of only 28 and so prvided but little in the way of encouragement for our future audiences. I wonder why.

For many members the Society's overseas spring weekend has been a major highlight of the annual programme, and this year's trip to Edinburgh was no exception. Some participants were even rash enough to describe it as the best ever! Few cities in the UK boast such a wide variety of interesting organs as the Scottish capital, and at almost all of the ten venues the resident organist was there to play. But this was more than an organ crawl: a beautifully sung morning service at St. Mary's Cathedral was attended (the music included Langlais' Messe Solennelle), a lunch with members of the Edinburgh Society of Organists was arranged, and at least some members of the party - it numbered just over 40 - found enough energy to attend a splendid orchestral concert at Greyfriars Church. The participantsd are indebted to the organists who welcomed us to their churches, to Alan Buchan who provided the information on which the itinerary was based, and to David Drinkell who produced an attractive and informative booklet about the organs and venues visited.

This year the traditional Members' Concert formed one of the series of three Spring into Summer public concerts. At Down Cathedral in June it presented three of the Province's cathedral organists - Timothy Allen(Londonderry), Michael McCracken (Down) and Martin White (Armagh) along with the Minster Singers directed by Harry Grindle, formerly organist of Belfast Cathedral. An attractive programme ranging from Bach to the contemporary composer Derek Bourgeois included Lemare's remarkably effective transcription of music from Bizet's "Carmen" and a good arrangement of Walton's "Orb and Sceptre" march. The impeccably sung choral music included music by Orlando Gibbons and John Tavener and a particularly lovely performance of Messiaen's "O Sacrum Convivium".

September's meeting was held in Londonderry where three organs, each with a distinctive personality, were heard. At Carlisle Rd Methodist Church an early 20th century 2m Conacher gave every indication of being an excellent instrument but a persistent cipher on the Great manual limited Timothy Allen's ability to reveal its true potential. At First Derry Presbyterian Church Mr Allen had better luck with a substantial 3m built by John Jackson of Leeds in 1986 incorporating pipework by Harrison. Although its voicing could hardly be described as delicate this is an impressively powerful instrument with a tendency to overwhelm rather than seduce. After lunch at the Linenhall Bar the party moved on to Christ Church where a recently installed three-manual mechanical action organ was played by the church organist William West. Built by the Wells-Kennedy team in Lisburn, this is a splendid instrument with a comprehensive specification, pleasing tone and an attractive case. Mr. West's programme included some delightful music for organ and oboe.

In October "Improvisation from Scratch" was the topic of two sessions conducted at St. Peter's Church, Antrim Road, by John Riley from Edinburgh. During the morning six candidates (most of them young) were given individual tuition, and in the afternoon Mr Riley gave a more general lecture/demonstration to members of the Society. Although not the first occasion on which this aspect of organ playing has been examined, it would probably be fair to say that never before has the subject been dealt with in such a usefully practical manner. Mr. Riley's down-to-earth and yet pleasantly informal approach and his skill in engaging his audience made this a particularly helpful session. In view, however, of the importance for any church organist of developing some facility in improvising it was both surprising and disappointing that fewer than thirty members attended. The writer would like to know why!

For any church organist the opportunity to hear another colleague and his choir at work is always an interesting and often instructive experience, and this is precisely what was provided at the November meeting. At Cregagh Presbyterian Church the choir sang a representative selection of music used at the church and their organist, John Dallas, in an agreeably informal way, commented on his approach to the preparation of music for worship. The programme included music in a wide variety of styles ranging from Mendelssohn's "How lovely are the messengers" to a lively setting in rumba rhythm by John Gardner of "Nearer my God to thee". Throughout, the choir's obvious sense of enjoyment and involvement in their singing and Mr. Dallas' clear direction contributed much to the high standards achieved.

In addition to its regular monthly meetings, a series of three public concerts of organ and choral music was also presented under the Society's auspices. One has already been referred to above. Of the other two, one was held at St. Patrick's CofI Cathedral, Armagh, where the programme included organ solos by Andrew Johnstone (Assistant Organist, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin) and the Christ Church Choir directed by Mark Duley; the other, held in St. George's Church, Belfast, featured the Cappella Caecilia Choir conducted by Donal McCrisken and organ music played by John Kitchen from Edinburgh. All three concerts were well-supported and from the proceeds the Society gained a sum of around 400.00. Particular thanks are due to James Little, who did most of the preparation for all three concerts.

During most of the 27 years that I have served the Society as its Honorary Secretary, distribution of the monthly circulars has been handled with remarkable efficiency by Ian Hunter. In June, however, Mr Hunter retired as Head of Music at Bangor Grammar School and without the reprographic facilities available there he decided that it would no longer be possible for him to continue doing so. In view of this, I should like to record here our special gratitude to him for performing this task for so many years and for maintaining such a consistently high standard of presentation with every issue. For me as Honorary Secretary it has always been a pleasure - and often great fun - to work with him. To Ian we now offer our thanks and good wishes for a long and happy retirement.

Special thanks are due also to David McElderry who has been our president for the past two years. Despite the many commitments arising from his work as an organ builder, David has devoted much of his time and energy to the Society's affairs and has done so with admirable courtesy, efficiency and dedication. Few people have a wider knowledge of the Province's church organs and we trust that in the years ahead his experience in this field will continue to be made available to the Society.

Although the Society gained ten new members during the year it also lost some and the total membership is now 173 - just one more than it was a year ago. During the year we were saddened to learn of the death of James Duff, a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the Society for many years, and for 50 years organist of Coleraine Methodist Church.

Of the present membership I have been pleased to note an increase in representation of the gentler (?) sex; we now have 40 lady members. A much more disturbing aspect of the membership situation is that well over 60 of the members listed have not, as far as I can ascertain, attended any of the Society's meetings during the past two years. What can be done to persuade members to play a more active role in the Society's affairs? Suggestions will be more than welcome!

Finally, a brief word of thanks to all those who contributed in one way or another to the Society's activities during the year, to the committee for planning another innovative and well-varied programme, to the churches which hosted our meetings, to those who played, sang or lectured, to Alasdair MacLaughlin for carefully husbanding the Society's material assets, to Alistair McCartney for maintaining the Society's website, and not least to the faithful members whose loyal support keeps the Society alive.

Honorary Secretary
January 2002

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