Among other things of equal if not greater significance 1997 will be remembered as the year of the British Labour Party's landslide electoral triumph, of the return of Hong Kong to its original owners, of the wave of almost hysterical grief which swept the nation following the death of the Princess of Wales, of the appearance of Dolly the first cloned sheep, of the opening of Belfast's resplendent new Waterfront Hall, and of the election of the city's first nationalist Lord Mayor. Against that background the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters continued to hold the interest of at least some of the province's church musicians and to provide them with stimulating and informative fare.
West Belfast is probably not the most alluring quarter of the city but at least three of its churches house interesting organs and in February a bus tour to all three was arranged. At St Peter's Cathedral we heard a substantial three-manual Pels, at Clonard Monastery a good example of the early work of Evans and Barr (a three-manual recently rebuilt by Pels), and at the somewhat beleaguered Townsend Presbyterian Church a robust two-manual instrument by Hunter. Despite any apprehension members might have felt about penetrating what is regarded by some as bandit territory this was a trip well worth making.
In March members travelled to the city of Armagh stopping first at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral to inspect the church's carrilon, the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland. Organist and carillioneur George Minne demonstrated how the instrument was played and with rather less success some of the party attempted to emulate his skill. Across the city then to the Anglican Cathedral whose 1840 Walker organ had been recently restored and enlarged by Wells-Kennedy. It now speaks with much greater clarity and the semidetached tuba moved to the south transept makes a bold and exciting contribution to the ensemble. The ample resources of the refurbished organ were ably demonstrated in a short recital by Cathedral Organist Martin White.
In April the Society met at St Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in Belfast where Desmond Hunter, senior lecturer in the Music Department at the University of Ulster, presented a lecture/recital based on some of the short organ works included in the Associated Board's examination syllabus. His playing of these was immaculate and provided members with an opportunity to hear another example of the excellent work of Wells-Kennedy, a small, brightly-voiced two-manual instrument with an attractive ash wood case.
In recent years the Society's May week-end air tours to various parts of the United Kingdom have been the most exciting and memorable events in the Society's calendar and the 1997 trip to Kent and West Sussex was certainly no exception. Highlights of the tour, which was based at Tunbridge-Wells, included visits to the cathedrals of Canterbury, Rochester and Arundel, and to the magnificent school chapels at Christ's Hospital, Tonbridge and Lancing College. Forty-five members participated.
In June the Annual Members Concert was held at Belfast Cathedral where organists Timothy Allen, David Drinkell, Nigel McClintock and Richard Campbell displayed their prowess at the Harrison four-manual and two smaller organs. This was a quite light-hearted affair with as well-varied programme ranging from Each to Sousa.
In September the Society's Annual Dinner, held at the Country House Hotel, Kells, attracted a rather smaller than usual attendance of just over forty but was nonetheless a most happy occasion both socially and gastronomically. At it our special guest was Malcolm Archer, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Wells Cathedral, and on the following Saturday afternoon at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church he presented an informative and engaging illustrated lecture about his own organ and choral music. His approach, he admitted, was to write music which listeners would readily enjoy and in this he has undoubtedly succeeded; what we heard may not have been strikingly original or daringly innovative but it was certainly tuneful, immediately appealing and, for the average organist, eminently usable.
On the following Monday evening Mr Archer gave a recital at the Ulster Hall arranged by the Society in conjunction with Friends of the Mulholland Organ. His programme, which included music by Franck, Vierne and Saint-Saens, displayed admirable and imaginative command of the organ's resources.
In October the Society returned to the city of Armagh for a lecture/demonstration by Aubrey McClintock on the training of girls' voices. From the wealth of his own experience Mr McClintock provided practical, down-to-earth advice and his obvious enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. A cheerfully obliging group of young ladies provided illustrations and their singing of Malcolm Archer's lively Christ Church Mass was particularly effective. The disappointingly small attendance which this meeting attracted is all the more to be regretted since it was probably the most useful session of the whole season.
In November the Society met at Saint Martin's Church, Ballymacarrett, where six anthems submitted for the competition organised by the Society in 1996 were performed by a choir directed by John Crothers. Based on one or other of two prescribed texts the anthems were composed by Donald Davison, Michael Richards, John McDonald and Rodney Bambrick, and all six revealed that a considerable measure of creative ability exists within the Society. Two of the anthems have since been published by Kevin Mayhew. Sensitive organ accompaniment was provided by Dr Davison and between the anthems short organ interludes played by Alistair McCartney, Geoffrey McConnell, Adrian McLaughlin and Andrew Skelly.
During the year there were six resignation or deletions from the list of members, but fortunately a greater number of additions so that membership now stands at 165. It is also gratifying to record that of the nine additions made during 1997 four are ladies and all of them practising church organists. With regret, however, I must also record the death of Kenneth Sheppard of Ballymoney, for many years one of the Society's most enthusiastic and regular supporters. His last church appointment was at Ramoan Parish Church, Ballycastle.
Thanks are due yet again to the enterprising members of committee who planned and executed the Society's well varied programme, and to Ian Hunter who with the help of his Gryphon collaborators ensured regular delivery of the monthly circulars. Thanks also to student member Alistair McCartney whose initiative has now made the information about the Society and its activities available on the internet. I should also wish to record particular gratitude to David Drinkell who as our President for the past two years has presided over the Society's affairs with characteristic enthusiasm and good humour. We trust that the Society will continue to benefit from his extensive knowledge of organs and organ music.
Lest, however, this review of the year's activities should strike an unrealistic note of self-satisfied euphoria, perhaps it would be wise for the Society to remind itself from time to time that its membership represents only a tiny fraction of the total number of church musicians active in the province. Outside the cosy confines of Society membership lies a wider world of church musicians in whose places of worship no Te Deums are sung and no fugues played. I believe that it is only by seeking to awaken the interest and meet the musical needs of such musicians that the Society will continue to thrive and develop. And in these closing years of the 20th century there is a challenge here which needs to be faced.
Rodney S Bambrick
10 January 1998
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