Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters

Annual Report on the Year 2006

This time of year being very busy for Cathedral organists, I offered to put together the annual report for 2006.

It has been another busy year, with a number of particular highlights. At six of the nine main monthly events, (that is excluding the AGM) we had unusually high attendances. Even at the other three-a day in Dublin, a social event and quiz and a session on basic improvisation, attendances were respectable and obviously in line with demand. Improvisation is not something that can be mastered after one session and we plan to have a follow up in March this year.

For the visits of Dr Barry Rose and Sir David Willcocks, support was very high from non-members to whom an invitation was extended. These major events were significant for us in that we wrote to organists in hundreds of churches in the four main denominations all over Northern Ireland. Before Barry Rose was introduced in February, we had a presentation on what we in USOC are about, aimed at increasing our membership. Unfortunately, though the day itself was very much enjoyed, the number of people who joined was relatively small.

However, we persevered, and attracted an even larger number to Hillsborough in September for the visit of Sir David Willcocks. That evening we had a sold out dinner in the Ulster Reform Club with Sir David as guest speaker and the evening finishing with him receiving a standing ovation. A notable aspect was the presence of a number of distinguished guests hearing about USOC. These included Dr David Clarke, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, David Byers, Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra and journalist Alf McCreary, all with their spouses.

Our 2006 Members’ Recital on 1 April made a fool of no one. It marked the first visit of our Society to the newly restored St Peter’s R C Cathedral in Belfast. As well as fine singing from the choir of the Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry, we had the pleasure of having as organ soloists Adam Walker, now off to Oxford, Liam Crangle, tossing off a Bach Trio Sonata like few 14 year olds can-and then Belfast City Organist Colm Carey. What a line-up! A very large audience included the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Walsh.

In May, 55 people made up the USOC party that visited Paris. This unforgettable trip could not have taken place without the expert organisation of John Crothers, now living there. Though we had unseasonably cold and wet weather, our enthusiasm was not dampened. We heard one outstanding organist after another and enjoyed wonderful organs in magnificent buildings. For 20 of the party, the highlight was the time spent in the organ loft with Notre-Dame titular organist, Olivier Latry on the Sunday morning.

But there was so much more: Susan Landale in Les Invalides after the last of the general public had gone: Frederic Blanc giving us access to the 8th floor apartments of the Duruflés-with the best view in Paris apart from the Eiffel Tour: Francis Houbart improvising in La Madeleine: a stunning new organ in a church near Notre-Dame…and so on and so on. All combined with wonderful food and company.

October saw another Belfast Community Organ Day with an innovation this year that four of our members gave the evening recital. These players, Richard Campbell, Phillip Elliott, Ian Mills and Stephen Hamill delighted the audience and it was good to see them have this opportunity.

The year was rounded off in a very satisfying way with a visit to Queen’s University. We marked the Mozart Anniversary by listening to keyboard music by Bach and Handel-two major influences, and Mozart himself. Professor Jan Smaczny welcomed us and we were honoured to be able to hear Dr Yo Tomita, Norman Finlay and member Charles Harrison play five different instruments: three organs a fortepiano and a harpsichord.

The Great Hall at Queen’s was a superb setting in which to hear a short talk from David Knight, assistant secretary of the Incorporated Association of Organists and sign off on both the day and our 2006 programme.

As well as the main monthly events, we have been involved in a number of other initiatives. In February, one Friday morning 900 schoolchildren packed the Ulster Hall to enjoy an introduction to the organ, which included Mr Majeika and the Magic Organ by Bob Chilcott. The following month USOC arranged for a talk for sixth formers and Heads of Music on Oxbridge organ and choral scholarships given by Sarah MacDonald from Selwyn College, Cambridge. Indeed, we have mailed Heads of Music, or certainly those in the Greater Belfast area about seven times this year, including reminders, though with disappointing results, it has to be said.

Then just in November, we facilitated a day for advanced players during which four members received a confidential consultation lesson by Colm Carey. This seemed to be very helpful to the participants and Colm is certainly keen to repeat the experience.

I wonder if it has been obvious that a feature of 2006 has been a high level of involvement by almost every single committee member. I do hope so. Any body with active committee members is indeed fortunate. This year, for example, one produced attractive colour invitation cards for the Barry Rose and David Willcocks events, another organised the ‘open consoles’ aspect of the Organ Day, another planned all aspects of our trip to Dublin, others hosted Sir David Willcocks, one is liaising with Holywood Music Festival over our plans for next November , three of them are already working on our Co Monaghan and Londonderry days in April and June and everyone helped out in ‘meeting and greeting’ members at monthly events.

We owe a debt of gratitude to our two office bearers, the two Philips. As well as issuing the interesting and attractive monthly bulletins, Philip Stopford’s considerable musical abilities have been placed at our disposal yet again. Philip Walden has looked after our books in a most meticulous manner and has tirelessly, yet tactfully chased up so many tardy payers that we are in a better position in this respect than we have probably ever been.

Alistair McCartney, our webmaster, has taken our website on to new levels. It is well worth a visit, especially at present for all the excellent photos that it contains. We are most grateful to Alistair for this ongoing commitment.

Right at the end of 2006, we were all thrilled to hear that two of our distinguished past Presidents, Drs Joe McKee and Donald Davison were honoured in the New Year’s Honours List-Joe with an OBE and Donald an MBE. Many congratulations to them both.

As you have just been reminded, there were many high points in 2006, but I am not the first President to reflect on the large number of members who never come to one of our meetings, even though we ask for opinions on what we should be doing differently and try hard to adapt. To any such people reading this report, I would simply say: people from the IAO say our annual programmes are the most interesting and varied of any-and those who do come regularly say they enjoy themselves-so come and join us even for one event and see what you think.

In conclusion, when I think back on last year, I think in particular of Paris, Queen’s University, St Peter’s Cathedral, large numbers of apparently happy people at many events and the hugely positive reaction to Barry Rose and Sir David Willcocks. But more than just listing specific events, I reflect on the following:

I commend this report to you and look forward to another enjoyable year.

James Little
30 December 2006

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