For any wide-awake, open-minded church organist there can be no more important task than to evaluate critically and constantly the contribution he (or she) is making to the worship of the church he seeks to serve; and this is precisely what those who attended the Society's first meeting in 1998 were urged to do. It was held at Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church, Bangor, where the Revd Mark Spratt was then both organist and associate minister. His opening remark: "Music can make or break a service of worship" was followed by a careful analysis of the role which music can and should play in a church service. Mr Spratt then went on to assert that the selection of music for a service should take into account the wide diversity of musical tastes which exists within any congregation. It is not necessary, he argued, for the organist to like all the music used, and there might even be occasions when an organist, sensitive to the tastes of his congregation, would have to "swallow his pride". Mr Spratt made a strong and convincing case for this approach and left his audience with much to consider.
The March meeting, planned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Hubert Parry, began at Bangor Grammar School where Ian Hunter had made arrangements for a recent BBC television feature on the composer's life to be shown in large-screen format.
From Bangor members hurried to Holywood Parish Church where David Drinkell presented a short programme of Parry's organ music, concluding with four of his Chorale Preludes.
This split-site session was an interesting and enjoyable one, though some reference to the composer's many secular works would have been welcome. Those who continually ask: "And Did Those Feet?" are not always aware that it was in fact a piano concerto that first won Parry public acclaim and that he went on to compose no fewer than five symphonies and over seventy songs.
In April the Society journeyed to Omagh in County Tyrone and Raphoe in County Donegal. At Omagh's First Presbyterian Church members were welcomed by the Revd John Murdoch and then listened to the organ, originally a small two-manual instrument installed by Evans and Barr in 1915, and recently rebuilt and enlarged by the Wells-Kennedy Partnership. Adrian Anderson's short recital included some jolly contemporary American organ music.
At Trinity Presbyterian Church another two-manual Evans and Barr installed in 1940 and rebuilt and extended by the Abbey Organ Company in 1991 was demonstrated by Stephen Hamill with characteristic panache. Its electronic pedal stops sounded particularly effective.
From Omagh (lunch had been provided at First Presbyterian Church) members travelled to the little village of Raphoe and to Saint Eunan's Cathedral. This plain Gothic church may perhaps be the smallest cathedral in the island but its excellent acoustics do much to enhance the pleasant sound of its little two-manual organ. Choral Evensong was well sung by a small but enthusiastic choir.
The Society's Spring Spree was spent in East Anglia and based on the excellent Butterfly Hotel in Bury Saint Edmunds. An early morning flight to Stansted allowed almost three full days for exploration of this delightful area and the inclusion of no fewer than fourteen venues on the itinerary. For many of the party two particularly memorable highlights of the weekend were the beautifully sung service at Norwich
Cathedral and the visit to Chelmsford Cathedral whose two splendid organs were played by resident organists Graham Elliott and Neil Weston. Of all the many instruments heard the vast four-manual organ in the Chapel of the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, installed by Hill, Norman and Beard in 1933, was particularly impressive; and skillfully demonstrated by the School's Music Master, Peter Crompton. At the Thursford Collection its resident organist Robert Wolfe at the Wurlitzer gave a daunting display of digital pyrotechnics, though in the final moments of our visit he did reveal a quite different facet of his personality in a remarkably sensitive and carefully registered performance of Elgar's 'Nimrod'. Excellent detailed notes on all the venues had been prepared by David Drinkell who with James Little had planned the well varied programme. To both of them the 32 members who participated in the tour are deeply grateful.
The Society's Annual Members Concert, held in June at Ballywalter Parish Church, took the unusual form of a programme celebrating the writings and times of Charles Burney. Remembered best for his huge four-volume 'General History of Music' published in 1776, Burney travelled widely throughout Europe and wrote with verve of his travels. At Ballywalter extracts from his writings, read by members of the Society, were interspersed with short 18th century organ pieces played by David Drinkell and by Timothy Allen who had organised the programme.
The Society's Annual Dinner arranged by Barbara Callender and devoured with customary relish at the Dunadry Inn, attracted a smaller than usual attendance of just under 40 members. At it the special guest was Ian Bell who the following Saturday afternoon gave an entertaining and wide-ranging account of his career as an organ builder, first with John Compton and later with the Mander Company. In that capacity he had been involved in the restoration of many of the UK's largest instruments in both cathedrals and concert halls. Now a full-time organ consultant, Mr Bell was generous enough to admit that many of the trendy, neo-classical innovations of the 60s and 70s had been found wanting and that since then a more sensible and less doctrinaire approach to organ design had been adopted by most British builders. One wonders whether an another decade or two the current fad for mechanical action will also require to be revalued. Mr Bell's lecture gave those attending it (not many I regret to report) an absorbing insight into the world of the organ builder and consultant.
In October visits were made to three organs in the vicinity of Queen's University, Belfast. At Elmwood Avenue Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church a seven-rank, two-manual Compton installed in 1928 was played by David Drinkell whose short recital revealed the remarkable results which can be achieved from a relatively small number of ranks carefully scaled and balanced.
The Moravian Church at University Road houses what is probably the oldest church organ in the city; built originally by Lincoln in the early 19th century (perhaps as early as 1802) for a chapel in Brighton, brought to a church in Castleblaney in 1869 and from there purchased by the Moravian Church, it is now maintained by Philip Prosser. On this occasion it was played with commendable assurance by one of the Society's youngest members, Jonathan Hardy.
The third member of the triumvirate was University Road Methodist Church whose substantial three-manual organ installed originally by Evans and Barr in c1910 was rebuilt by Alfred Davies in 1959. This has quite and impressive stop list but a less than ideal siting to some extent attenuates its output and some of its reed stops emit rather curious sounds. It was well demonstrated in a short programme played by resident organist Frank Irvine and Philip Walden.
For its final session of the year the Society met at Saint Molua's Church, Stormont, to which Valerie Ireland had brought over 70 members of her conspicuously well-disciplined Strandtown Primary School Choir. Valerie spoke enthusiastically and with conviction of her approach to choir-training emphasising the need for dedication on the part of the choristers and clear aims on the part of their conductor. What this could achieve was impressively demonstrated in the music sung by the choir whose enjoyment and sense of fun in what they were doing was immediately obvious and whose excellent tone quality was a delight. This was an afternoon in which enlightenment and enjoyment were perfectly wedded.
SPRING INTO SUMMER
In addition to the Society's monthly meetings, three public concerts of organ and choral music were presented under the Society's auspices in May and June. Planned and arranged by James Little, the concerts were intended to raise the profile of the organ as a musical instrument as distinct from its more functional use in church worship.
The first at Down Cathedral featured David Drinkell (organ) and the choral group Cadenza directed by Michael McCracken; the second at Hillsborough Parish Church presented Martin baker (later in the year to become organist of Westminster Abbey) at the church's two organs; the third combined the talents of Desmond Hunter (organ) with Saint George's Parish Choir (directed by Nigel McClintock) at whose church it was held.
During the series there was an encouraging growth in attendance from 70 at the first to 177 at the third; profits from the first concert were donated to the Arthur Beggs Student Fund.
James Little is to be congratulated for initiating the series and thanked for the great deal of work he undertook in organising each of the three concerts. A further series is planned for 1999.
ARTHUR BEGGS STUDENT FUND
One of the most important decisions made by the Society's Committee in 1998 was to formalise the Arthur Beggs Student Fund. His has now been established on a legal basis as a trust administered by the Committee, with clearly defined objectives and conditions for disbursement, and from now on grants will be made only from the interest accruing to a capital sum advantageously invested. Since this had fallen to little over £1,000.00 an appeal was launched for additional contributions and by the end of the year there was a total of £2,250.00 in the fund. However, to enable the Society to assist young members wishing to participate in the Society's overseas weekends or to attend educational courses, this capital sum will clearly need to be substantially increased. Take this as an invitation!
QUESTIONS ANSWERED AND UNASWERED
During the year a small sub-Committee met to consider what if anything could be done to increase attendance at the Society's meetings and to persuade the very large number of church organists in the province who are not members to join.
As a first step it was felt that it would be useful to ascertain the views of existing members and to do so a questionnaire was distributed to all of them. A review based on replies received has been prepared and issued to members. In general terms, a substantial number of those who replied expressed satisfaction with the programmes as planned at present though there was a clear indication that a greater emphasis on the educational/instructive would be welcome.
Just over 100 members did not return the questionnaire and it is tempting, in not cynical, to conclude that their failure to do so may perhaps reveal more about the Society than the 52 questionnaires returned.
During the year no fewer than four Ulster choirs all directed by USOC members sang at venues in other parts of the UK - the Choir of Saint George's Parish Church (directed by Nigel McClintock) at Buckfast Abbey, the Chapel Choir of Methodist College (directed by Joe McKee) at Southwark Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the Choir of Belfast Cathedral (directed by David Drinkell) at Saint George's Chapel, Windsor, and the Choir of Wallace High School (directed by Robert Thompson) at Truro Cathedral.
We congratulate all four on presenting a more positive image of the province than that frequently conveyed by the media.
During the summer Christopher Gordon-Wells attended an Investiture Ceremony at Buckingham Palace to receive the MBE he had been awarded in recognition of his services to organ building in the province. Mr Gordon-Wells whose career as an organ builder began 40 years ago in England, opened his Lisburn-based firm in 1966 which has since built 32 new organs (including seven in Scotland) and done much to restore older instruments throughout Ireland. The very high standards of workmanship he has consistently maintained have won him the admiration and respect of all those fortunate enough to have played an organ built or restored by his company.
During the year a new, updated Membership List was issued showing a total of 159 members - six fewer than in January 1998. And those who like to know these things: 27 of the 159 are women.
Finally, a brief word of thanks to all those who made it happen: to the enterprising members of Committee who planned the programme, those who played, sang or spoke at our meetings, to those who prepared notes on organs and churches visited, to the churches and other venues which hosted our meetings, to Alastair McCartney for maintaining the Society's internet website, to Ian Hunter for efficiently typing and despatching the monthly circulars, and most of all to the faithful members whose regular attendance keeps the Society alive. That it is alive - and well - I trust this report makes abundantly clear.
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