Although much of 1996 was overshadowed by the dastardly deeds of Dunblane and Drumcree, the massive and continuing refugee problems of Central Africa and by nervous uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong, it was not entirely a year of gloom and doom. In South Africa its first democratic multi-racial constitution was introduced, in battle-torn Bosnia an uneasy peace established, and in the Middle East Messrs Arafat and Netanyahu, if hardly bosom-buddies, at least remained on speaking terms.
Here in Northern Ireland while the words Peace Process were being purged of virtually all meaning, there has at least been a welcome reduction in terrorist activity. And within its own limited sphere the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters has brought to the world of church music a brighter, more positive note.
It began in February at Holywood Methodist Church with a session on 'Critical Listening' at which Timothy Allen, Director of Music at St Columb's Cathedral Londonderry, and an Associated Board Examiner, explained how the Board's adjudicators approach their task. Essentially what is expected, it appears, is a musical performance, not necessarily a completely correct one. It is no doubt a tribute to the musical acumen of the USOC members present that when invited to assess the performance of a young would-be candidate who played the piano, a remarkable degree of unanimity emerged.
The educational note was sustained at the March meeting when Nigel McCIintock at St George's Parish Church in Belfast demonstrated his approach to the training of boy trebles. Clearly defined goals, close attention to detail and an almost palpable degree of concentration on the part of the singers contributed to a quite riveting display of vocal dexterity which excited both admiration and envy. Here is a church where exceptionally high standards of musical excellence are both sought and achieved.
In April Society members trekked north to County Antrim to visit Loughguile Parish Church where a rare two-manual Alexandre harmonium was described and played by John McDonald. This proved to be a surprisingly resourceful and expressive instrument with an almost infinite capacity for diminuendo. It is worth noting, moreover, that its preservation and restoration owe much to members of the Society who convinced the parish authorities that their harmonium was worth keeping. After lunch in the grand surroundings of Lissanoure Castle the party made its way somewhat erratically to Ballywillan Presbyterian Church where Adrian Anderson (the church's organist) and William West played the three-manual organ recently rebuilt and enlarged by Wells-Kennedy. This is probably now the largest pipe organ within Irish Presbyterianism, its comprehensive specification including a fine 16 foot Violone and en chamade reeds.
For those who participated, the May weekend air tour to Bristol will undoubtedly have been the most exciting and memorable event in the Society's 1996 calendar. Based on a very comfortable hotel overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the party visited no fewer than ten venues during their three-day sojourn, including Bristol Cathedral, Clifton Roman Catholic Cathedral, the Church of St Mary, Redcliffe, and John Wesley's Chapel. Probably the most unforgettable highlights of this eventful weekend, however, were the visits to Downside Abbey where we joined a large congregation for its Sunday morning service and were afterwards permitted to play John Compton's opus maximum, and later that afternoon to Wells Cathedral where Evensong was a sheer delight with beautifully read lessons and prayers, sensitive and expressive and excellent organ playing. A truly wonderful day.
For its Annual Members Concert in June the Society moved this year to Londonderry where, following a civic reception, in the City's Guildhall, its splendid three-manual Hill was played by Timothy Allen, David Drinkell and David McGuckin. Included in their programme were three particularly effective transcriptions: Walton's Orb and Sceptre March, Sibelius' Finlandia and Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre. Members then made their way to St Columb's Cathedral where Evensong was sung by the Cathedral Choir directed by Timothy Allen with his assistant David McGuckin playing a surprisingly effective Makin electric organ. Or should one be no longer surprised?
In September the Society's Annual Dinner was held in the gracious surroundings of Malone House where the special guest was Dr Edgar Boucher who had acted as adjudicator in an anthem writing competition organised by the Society earlier in the year. Of the seven entries received the winner had been composed by Michael Richards to whom Dr Boucher presented his £100 prize during the evening. A surprise, impromptu performance of Mr Richards' anthem was also provided!
Later that month an Organ Day arranged by the Royal College of Organists was included in the Society's calendar of events. In the morning at Rosemary Street Non-Subscribing Church in Belfast, Martin Baker conducted a session on improvisation within the context of a church service. Although useful advice was given about the importance of maintaining a steady and recognisable rhythm and of not relying over much on stop changes to sustain interest, the rather extravagant flights of fancy which Mr Baker appeared to encourage would seem oddly out of place in a liturgical setting.
At Belfast Cathedral in the afternoon Mr Baker displayed his own considerable skill in playing two works from the organ repertoire and in an extended improvisation. This was followed by evensong sung by the Cathedral Choir directed by David Drinkell.
Among those who attended, opinions about the Organ Day diverged considerably but the Honorary Secretary is probably not alone in feeling that Mr Baker never got to grips with the topic of improvisation within a service context and to that extent the event was disappointing. Was it worth £250?
In October the Society visited three churches in Newtownards, County Down. At Saint Mark's Parish Church Ian Barber played the most elderly organ of the trio - a two-manual Conacher installed originally in 1884 and little altered since.
At Strean Presbyterian Church Alfred Casement played the organ first erected by Vincent of Sunderland in 1922 and recently rebuilt with a very attractive new case by Wells-Kennedy following bomb damage to the church. An ill wind of equally ambivalent intent had also led to the restoration of the large, totally enclosed three-manual Conacher at the town's First Presbyterian Church where fire had damaged much of the church and organ in 1994. Recently reconstructed by Abbey organs, the organ was played by Mark Johnston, the church's organist. Unfortunately its ample resources are not flattered by the building's extremely arid acoustic.
At the Society's final meeting for the year in November Donal Doherty, organist of Saint Eugene's Cathedral, Londonderry, and Director of Music for the Western Education and Library Board, gave a lecture describing the music scene within the contemporary Catholic Church. While the statements of Vatican II clearly recognised the importance of music in worship, it was equally clear that the church in general had not yet discovered an entirely satisfactory means of implementing this ideal, and that within the Roman Church there is as much diversity of musical expression as one finds within Protestant denominations. This was an informative lecture in which the absence of musical illustration was unfortunate. The event was hosted by St Nicholas Parish Church, Lisburn Road.
Reviewing the year as a whole, I believe that the committee deserves congratulations on having produced yet again a well varied, innovative programme which maintained a commendable balance between the educational and the entertaining, the instructive and the inspiring. A good balance was also maintained between organ and choral music with a choral element included in four of the nine meetings held. A particularly imaginative feature was the promotion of an anthem-writing competition and it is hoped that members will be afforded an opportunity of hearing all seven entries during the coming season.
Although the Society has now adopted the practice of making a donation to every church visited, I should nonetheless wish to register our gratitude to the many churches and other venues which hosted our meetings. We are deeply grateful also to those who spoke, sang, played or provided refreshments, and to Ian Hunter who with his gang of Gryphonites efficiently dispatched our monthly circulars. Apologies if our avowed aim of delivering them completely free of typographical, grammatical, spelling and factual errors is not always realised!
During the year under review the Society gained nine new members and lost almost precisely the same number so that the total membership is now 160. With much regret I have to record the death in March 1996 of Victor McKernon, a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the Society for many years. All Saints Church (University Street), St Donard's Parish Church and most recently St John's Parish Church, Whitehouse, were among those which he served as organist.
Also with regret, not least because of the unhappy circumstances in which it occurred, I report the resignation as Honorary Treasurer early in 1996 of Miss Joan Mills. In this office Joan had served the Society with notable efficiency for just over four years and we should wish to acknowledge here our gratitude for the invaluable service she rendered - not least in making painless extractions from recalcitrant subscribers!
We appreciate also the willingness of her successor, Alasdair MacLaughlin, who despite the additional burdens imposed on him as Director General of the Ulster Farmers Union by the BSE crisis, very readily and at a short notice accepted the responsibilities of Honorary Treasurer.
For the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters 1996 was undoubtedly an eventful, exciting and rewarding year. I trust that in the year ahead the Society will continue to serve the needs and enrich the experience of its members as it has so admirably done in the past.
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