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IAO Congress Report 2011

Birmingham Organists' Association
Published by John Stormont in IAO · 17 August 2011

For many years the Ulster Society have pressed the IAO to hold its annual Congress in Belfast, but reservations about ‘the troubles’ caused us to look elsewhere.   With the encouragement of Alan Thurlow, our President and the enthusiasm of this year’s Congress organiser, James Little, we finally made our way there.  Any concern about ‘troubles’ was instantly dismissed through the warm welcome given to us at all the events and venues.   Perhaps because it was the first visit for many of us, we were shown as much as could possibly be fitted in to a 5 day programme.  It was certainly no rest cure!

Bare statistics tell the story:  135 delegates resident in the 4 star Europa Hotel in the centre of Belfast plus 36 non-resident day delegates, 17 venues including 4 ‘tourist’ visits and 9 Cathedrals, 14 organs with 79 pieces of organ music presented by 16 players.  Transport by 3 luxury coaches to visit Stormont (no, not me!), Hillsborough, Armagh including the Palace Demesne, Londonderry, the Giant’s Causeway, and a full day in Dublin.

It would take up too much space to give a full report on the whole of Congress, so I’m going to mention some overall impressions and those events which particularly remain in my memory.  In  Belfast itself, like many cities there are lots of contrasts.  In the centre, wide thoroughfares and splendid civic buildings.  The Cathedrals and churches we visited were in very good order, and likewise the organs.  

Refreshing my memory from the excellent Congress Souvenir handbook the following come to mind:
· the magnificence of Stormont (of course!)
· Nigel McClintock’s opening recital for Congress at the stunning St Peter’s RC Cathedral   (see pictures in Organists’ Review)
· the Brereton Recital given by Colm Carey on the fine Mulholland organ in the Ulster Hall that raised over £1000 for the Brereton Fund
·  a guided tour of Belfast City Hall including a stunning short concert by the young singers of Schola Cantorum directed by Nigel McClintock
·  Stephen Hamill’s entertaining and varied recital at St Anne’s Cathedral on the fine Harrison & Harrison organ, including Stephen’s own arrangement of The Elephant from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals – only playable if you have a 32ft reed!
All of this just on the first two days.

Friday commenced with perhaps one of the best Masterclasses I’ve ever attended, with Colm Carey instructing Thomas Allery and Benedict Todd.  Professor Desmond Hunter demonstrated the playing of early English keyboard music using the two organs in the attractively located Hillsborough Parish Church (George Pike England chamber organ 1795, and West End Snetzler 1773).  After a visit for lunch at the Demesne Palace, Armagh, (the Lady Mayoress waving us off when we left), we went to the lofty and resonant St Patrick’s R.C. Cathedral for a young Organists’ Composite recital given by Gerard Downey, Donal McCann and Paul Mullen.  Donal McCann’s (age 12!) playing of Howells’ Psalm Prelude Set1, No.1 was an astonishingly mature interpretation.  A short coach ride took us to the other St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh (Church of Ireland) for a recital by David Adams.  Memorable, for me, was the Prelude & Fugue sur le nom d’Alain by Durufle.

On Saturday we went to Londonderry for an organ recital by Ian Mills at St Columba’s Cathedral.  In a dead acoustic, the programme was rather uninspiring.  We were supposed to have visited the Guildhall, but overrunning building works prevented this and we went instead to Christ Church where Professor Desmond Hunter, who had to completely revise his programme, played the very attractive 3 manual Wells-Kenned partnership organ.  In the stupendously sunny afternoon the coaches took us to visit the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage Site.

On Sunday the coaches took us to Dublin.  Morning Sung Eucharist, directed by Stuart Nicholson, recently moved from the sub-organist post at Birmingham St Phillip’s Cathedral. Their singing of the Widor Two-Organ Mass was another highlight for me.  Lunch was provided at Jurys Inn hotel.  For the afternoon session we visited Dublin’s two other Cathedrals; St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral for a recital by Professor Regard Gillen, and then Christ Church Cathedral for a recital by Peter Barley, this latter one ending with the rather challenging Carl Nielsen’s Commotio.  Not my cup of tea if I’m honest, and not helped by the Cathedral being open to the public – tourists with bleeping digital cameras – and extraneous noise from a near-by street market.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I’m just picking out highlights. Overall impressions?  A crammed full Congress.  Lots of music, inevitably most that you like, others, less so. But meeting old friends and making new ones, good company, new experiences.  This is what Congress is all about.  The programme for next year’s Congress when we’re going to be based in Cheltenham already looks exciting.  I’ll be there.  If you haven’t come before, why not give it a try?

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