Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters

Honorary Secretary's Report on the Year 1994

By the battered and beleaguered citizens of Northern Ireland 1994 will undoubtedly be remembered best as the year of the ceasefire, of that dramatic announcement by the paramilitaries of their intention if not to turn their swords into ploughshares, at least to lay them aside and to allow the province's problems to be settled by dialogue rather than devastation. The sigh of relief - albeit mingled with murmurs of incredulity - which swept across the six counties was almost palpable.

Though hardly of comparable significance and certainly of much less public interest, 1994 was also the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the man usually know as Palestrina - Giovanni Pierluigi - and in February the Society paid its tribute to him. At Malone House, Belfast, various aspects of the composer's life and work were described by William Adair, Rodney Bambrick, Michael Callender and Howard Fee, after which a short recital of some of his choral music was given at Saint John's Church, Malone, by the Saint George's Singers conducted by Andrew Cantrill with Graeme McCullough at the organ. For those to whom Palestrina was little more than a name this was a revealing and enlightening session.

In March, at the University's Church of the Resurrection, Irene Sandford in her inimitably direct and positive fashion dealt with some of the basic elements of good voice production. This lively and down-to-earth session might have been even more useful if the clearly talented musical guinea pigs employed had possessed the more limited vocal abilities commonly encountered in the average church choir!

In April the Society ventured south of the border to hear organs of particular interest in Newry and Dundalk. En route a stop was made at the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Banbridge where Joe McKee demonstrated the robust and forthright qualities of its 1861 J. W. Walker organ, one of the earliest extant examples of this builder's work in Northern Ireland. At Saint Catherine's Church, Newry, the organist August Torreman played a two-manual instrument recently installed by the Dublin builder Derek Verso, and at Dundalk the splendid 1900 three-manual Willis was played by the Cathedral Organist Brendan McCourt. Earlier in the day an excellent lunch was enjoyed at the Ballymascanlon Hotel. Just over forty members took part in this expedition, most travelling by hired coach from Belfast.

For those who participated, the Society's weekend tour to London in May was unquestionably the most exciting highlight of the 1994 programme. An account of it appeared in the November issue of Organists Review; suffice to say here that no fewer than fourteen venues were visited during the three-day trip, including a particularly memorable evensong and organ demonstration by John Scott at St. Paul's, a quite magical after-dinner visit to Westminster Cathedral, and a delightful walk-about in the city planned and led by the Society's man-in-the metropolis, James Little. During the weekend President Barbara Callender hosted a reception in the very attractive surroundings of the Royal College of General Practitioners (at one time the American Embassy) where a lavish lunch was also provided. Including some now living on the mainland just over fifty members took part and the weekend was crowned by gloriously sunny spring weather.

In June the Society sped northwards into County Antrim where the first stop was made at the Roman Catholic Church in Cushendall. Here a pleasantly-voiced single manual and pedals organ built by Wells-Kennedy was played by Joe McKee, joined in some songs by two of his Methodist College pupils. Regrettably one or two members of the Church who attended the recital reported that difficulties in securing the services of an organist meant that this nice little instrument is rarely heard. From Cushendall the party drove to the Causeway Hotel for sustenance of a more basic variety and then on to Ballymoney where two churches, both Presbyterian, were visited. At the church of Saint James its two-manual 1952 Hill, Norman and Beard was played by Carole Watt (one of the Society's youngest members now studying music at the University of Huddersfield), while at the First Presbyterian Church its two-manual 1919 J. W. Walker was played by Robert McQuillan. His programme included music by two young instrumentalist playing trumpet and saxophone. Although installed by different builders at different times, these two quite substantial two-manual instruments have remarkably similar specifications but the more resonant ambience of First Presbyterian Church revealed yet again how much the sound of any organ is affected by its environment.

In September the Society's Annual Dinner was consumed in the august setting of the Great Hall of Queen's University impassively observed by the dignitaries whose dark and dominating portraits adorn the walls. Post prandial entertainment was provided by an accomplished all-female saxophone quartet whose neat arrangements of some of the pop tunes of yester-year added nostalgia to the nosh. Just over sixty members and friends attended the dinner. A conspicuously smaller number was present at the meeting held the following Saturday afternoon at Stranmillis College, when Mark Duley, Organist of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin and the Society's guest of honour at the Annual Dinner, discussed the role of the female voice in church music. On musical, social, and pragmatic grounds he made a convincing case for the mixed-voice choir, but it must of course be admitted that Mr Duley's dilemma is not one to trouble the average church organist whose difficulty in recruiting choir members of any sex makes the niceties of gender seem oddly irrelevant.

In October the Society met at Belfast's recently restructured Assembly Hall to hear a programme of French music played by Stephen Hamill, Christine Irvine, David Drinkell and the ubiquitous Joe McKee. In addition to organ music by Cesar Franck, Eugene Gigout, Maurice Durufle and Louis Vierne, the programme included music for flute and organ by Jehan Alain and for flute and piano by Jean Langlais. In the considerably reduced area of the new auditorium the T. C. Lewis (rebuilt as a two-manual by Wells Kennedy in 1983 and again in 1993) sounded more effective than it had done in the former hall. After the recital (which was in fact this year's Annual Members concert) the newly designed premises were inspected and admired though the substantial volume of rain water flooding on to the floor of the handsomely appointed lobby did raise some doubts about the effectiveness of current building techniques.

At the last meeting of the year in November, Dr David Wyld, Director of Mirabilis Records described the progress being made in restoration of the Alexandra Palace organ (of which he is a curator) and spoke also about the problems of recording large organs. Dr Wyld as a fervent protagonist of the single microphone technique made a good case for this approach supporting it with some excellent recordings. He is also a most engaging and persuasive speaker whose enthusiasm for his subject provoked an animated reaction from an obviously interested gathering. Indeed from the stand-point of audience response this was perhaps the most successful meeting of the year. It was held in a room kindly made available at Belfast's Metropolitan Tabernacle which had opened earlier in 1994 and is now much the largest place of worship in the province.

In 1993 the Society had celebrated at various events its seventy-fifth anniversary, including a concert of music composed by members of the Society presented at Cooke Centenary Church in November. This year as a more lasting memento of the occasion a nicely printed booklet of descants and unison verse settings written by members was produced. It contains just over sixty items from about a dozen contributors. Copies of it and of the recording made at the November concert are still available.

To this brief review of the Society's activities during the year just ended it is worth adding perhaps that during the summer months no fewer than four members of the society travelled with their choirs to various parts of Britain to sing. The Gryphon Consort from Bangor, directed by Ian Hunter, spent a week in London singing evensong at St Paul's Cathedral and singing also at St George's Chapel, Windsor; the Balligan Consort from Ballywalter directed by Stephen Hamill, spent a week singing at St. Alban's Abbey; Belfast Cathedral Choir with its organist David Drinkell sang for a week at Canterbury Cathedral; and the Chapel Choir of Methodist College Belfast, with its director Joe McKee, sang at Southwark Cathedral and for a week at Gloucester Cathedral. For a society of its size and for one small corner of the United Kingdom this is indeed a truly remarkable achievement. In August seven members of the society also attended the IAO Organ Festival in Edinburgh during which two instruments by Ulster Organ builders Wells-Kennedy were heard - and admired. At a more personal level we should also wish to congratulate member Jonathan Gregory who during the year was appointed organist of Leicester Cathedral. From his appointments at Belfast Cathedral and Saint George's Church Belfast, Jonathan had moved a few years ago to Great Saint Mary's, the University Church in Cambridge. However, just in case the note of euphoria should sound exaggerated, let me conclude this brief mention of the Society's extra-curricular activities by noting that at the series of Ulster Hall organ recitals featuring distinguished performers from the UK and further afield members of the Ulster Society are often conspicuously absent. These celebrity concerts do deserve much better support than they receive.

So much for the events of 1994. During it membership remained virtually as it was the previous year and is now 161. With great regret, however, I must record here the death almost a year ago of Arthur Beggs, one of the society's oldest members and for many years a most faithful and enthusiastic supporter of all its activities. Arthur had always shown particular interest in encouraging young members, enabling them on numerous occasions to participate in the Society's overseas trips by his liberal donations. To the Society Arthur has bequeathed not only his music and records but also a generous legacy of 2000 which will be used to assist young members as he would have wished. We record here our gratitude to Arthur for the many years of loyal support and lively encouragement he gave to the Society and for this last kindly gesture of benevolence.

Sadly I must report also the death in 1994 of Evan John who like Arthur Beggs had been a member of the Society for many years. Most of his professional life was spent in Belfast where he had been appointed a lecturer in Queen's University Music Department in 1948, and where he had also served for much of that time as organist of the Christian Science Church in University Avenue. He was a man of strongly held views with a formidable, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of his subject. On his retirement about five years ago Evan returned to Wales but it is a measure of his attachment to Belfast and to the Society that he still retained his membership and kept in touch with friends in Northern Ireland.

For the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters 1994 was a good year in which it continued to provide a useful and stimulating forum for the province's church musicians. For its success particular credit must be accorded to those industrious and enterprising member of committee who planned and executed yet another attractive and imaginative programme of events. Thanks are due also to the churches and other venues which hosted our meetings, to those who played, sang and talked to us, to the usually invisible providers of refreshments, and to Ian Hunter and his gang of circular processors who ensured that my monthly communiques were despatched with maximum speed and the minimum of spelling errors. To all these good people we record here our heartfelt gratitude.

Rodney Bambrick
Honorary Secretary

January 1995

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