Sunday 3 December 2023

Norwich-based music writer, Tony Cooper, offers an account of Organ Re-born! a mini-concert series mounted in celebration of the return and rebirth of Norwich Cathedral’s organ.

The recently rebuilt Norwich Cathedral organ (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)
The recently rebuilt Norwich Cathedral organ (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)

Organ Re-born! Norwich Cathedral
11-26 November 2023, reviewed by Tony Cooper

After undergoing a major refit, every stop of Norwich Cathedral’s fine organ (one of the largest pipe organs in the country) can be gloriously heard to maximum effect.

Norwich Cathedral has been in celebratory mood of late with its Organ Re-born! mini-concert series featuring a couple of concerts together with a celebrity organ recital with the series culminating with Festal Evensong. The first concert featured Norwich Cathedral Chamber Choir and Onyx Brass conducted by Ashley Grote accompanied by organist, David Dunnett. A visit by the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Chalmers featured special guest conductor/presenter, Ed Balls, accompanied by organist Ashley Grote. Organ Re-born! continued with the internationally-renowned organist Thomas Trotter giving the inaugural recital while the grand festivities concluded with Festal Evensong sung by Norwich Cathedral Choir under Ashley Grote with David Dunnett in the organ loft. The service culminated in grand style with the Blessing of the Organ by the Rt-Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich.

Over the past 18 months or so, the organ of Norwich Cathedral (one of the largest pipe organs in the country) has been under major restoration, a mammoth undertaking in every sense of the word. For a start, every one of the 5,767 pipes and 102 speaking stops had to be reset and individually fine-tuned in a process known as ‘voicing’ - a painstaking and delicate task.

The work was carried out by world-renowned organ specialists, Harrison & Harrison, after a sum of £1.8 million was raised by way of generous donations through an organ appeal under the patronage of Prince Edward, HRH The Earl of Wessex, now, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh. A big chunk, however, came from the £2.5 million They Shall Laugh and Sing Music Appeal.

Interestingly, all the monies raised will not just benefit the huge costs of restoring the organ to its former glory but also provide extra funding for the boy and girl choristers thereby maintaining the tradition of educating the boys while offering extra music lessons for the girls.

A considerable amount of work on the organ happened outside of the cathedral itself and, indeed, far removed from Norwich as the working pipes had to be ferried to Harrison & Harrison’s workshop in Durham while leaving conservation artists Robert Woodland and Debra Miller in Norwich painstakingly and diligently re-gilding the 105 show pipes.

And as part of their working brief, this fine deuce of The Upright Gilders also restored the instrument’s ornate façade especially the crown and cymbelstern, a star connected to six bells, which adds an extra special festive ‘ring’ to music at Christmastide (ending on the feast of the Epiphany - Saturday, 6th January) and, of course, other such important dates in the Church’s calendar.

Organ Re-Born: Nicholas Chalmers conducting the BBC Singers at the Herbert Howells concert (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)
Organ Re-Born! Nicholas Chalmers conducting the BBC Singers at the Herbert Howells concert (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)

A 102-stop wide-ranging pipe organ, the smallest pipe is the length of a pencil while the largest, a staggering 32 feet. It was originally built by the Norwich-based firm of Norman & Beard and installed in 1899 although parts of the organ date back to the 17th century But dig further into history and you’ll find that there are references to an organ in Norwich Cathedral (dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity) as far back as the 14th century. A rebuild came about in 1942 by Hill, Norman & Beard.

Therefore, to celebrate the return of the organ to Norwich Cathedral a couple of concerts and an organ recital - dubbed Organ Re-born! - was held over a two-week period to salute and mark this special occasion. Appropriately, the first concert featured the Norwich Cathedral Chamber Choir comprising around 50 talented amateur singers conducted by Ashley Grote, Master of the Music at Norwich Cathedral since 2012.

Offering a brilliant account of the new rebuilt organ David Dunnett, (organist at Norwich Cathedral since 1996 but Master of the Music from 1996 to 2007) performed two great organ showpieces: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and David Willcocks’ Sing! a choral arrangement of the ‘Toccata’ from Charles Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No.5 in F major.

All Cambridge men, really, as Dunnett studied at Clare College, Grote at King’s College and, of course, Willcocks enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Choir of King's College, directing it from 1957 to 1974.

An enlightening and, indeed, popular concert, the programme included a couple of well-loved choral works with Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and John Rutter’s Gloria.

Featuring Irish-born harpist Anneke Hodnett as well as young William Lambert solo treble from Norwich Cathedral Choir, Chichester Psalms was commissioned by Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, for the Southern Cathedrals Festival held in Chichester in 1965. Hussey wrote to Bernstein to say that ‘many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story in the music’. Well, the opening movement was, indeed, lively and jazz oriented, as Hussey so desired, therefore I hope he wasn’t disappointed.

He assumed, too, that Bernstein would offer a text in English but in his infinitive wisdom the composer opted for the original Hebrew choosing Psalms 100, 23 and 131 with selected verses of other psalms. And by introducing such an ancient language as Hebrew into the Anglican context it underlined the ecumenical aspect of the work which received its world première not in Chichester as one would expect but in New York on 15th July 1965 with Bernstein conducting.

And celebrating their 30th anniversary, Onyx Brass added greatly to the overall flavour and excitement of the concert, heard to glorious effect in a rare performance of Britten’s Russian Funeral, his only work for brass band. Written in 1936, the work coincided with the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Britten, in fact, referred to the work as ‘War & Death’ a title which reflects not only his pacifist viewpoint but also his admiration for those among the international community who sacrificed their lives in the struggle against the rise of fascism in Europe.

In effect, the work’s a short but substantial symphonic poem for brass and percussion. The broad Mahlerian funeral march (‘Death’), heard in stark contrast to the central scherzo-like military dance (‘War’), pre-echoed the combative bugle fanfares heard supremely in War Requiem.

The Norwich Cathedral Chamber Choir opened the concert with a fine rendering of John Rutter’s triumphant setting of Psalm 150 (O praise God in his holiness), a work bursting with wholesome joy and energy accompanied by Onyx Brass while it ended with an equally fine performance of the composer’s Gloria, scored for choir, brass, percussion and organ.

A thoroughly uplifting and pleasurable piece - an excellent choice in which to close a marvellous, entertaining and fulfilling concert - featured percussionists Craig Apps and Joby Burgess as well as five girl choristers from Norwich Cathedral Choir: Eden Calver, Jemima Curtis, Antonia Williamson, Rosemary Zhang and Alice Platten, the daughter of the Revd Canon Aidan Platten, Canon Precentor at Norwich Cathedral since 2015 and grand-daughter of Stephen Platten, Dean at Norwich from 1995 to 2003, later becoming bishop of Wakefield.

However, the penultimate item in this well-planned programme, Eugène Gigout’s Grand Chœur Dialogué, written in 1881, proved a grandiose and flamboyant affair with the rich-sounding chords of Onyx Brass once again blasting forth spinning excitedly round the spacious medieval surrounds of the Norman-built cathedral punctuated by superb timpani work by Barnaby Archer with David Dunnett dazzling as ever at the console.

The blessing of Norwich Cathedral organ (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)
The blessing of Norwich Cathedral organ (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)

The arrival of the BBC Singers, conducted by Nicholas Chalmers, accompanied by Ashley Grote, participating in the second concert in Organ Re-born! offered a celebration of the works of Herbert Howells, particularly well known for his extensive work in Anglican church music. For example, he wrote a complete service for King’s College, Cambridge as well as a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for the choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral.

The concert was presented by Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor from 2011 to 2015, a strong advocate of Howells’ music and, indeed, a Norwich-born lad. A man of many talents, too, ranging from a ballroom contestant on BBC’s Strictly to television host on Good Morning Britain, he can now add to his many disciplines in life ‘conductor’ as he took the baton for a couple of items comprising A Hymn for St Cecilia which Howells set to a joyful text by Ursula Vaughan Williams while offering a rare performance of A Grace for 10 Downing Street set to a text by Robert Armstrong which Howells wrote for Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in 1972.

However, out of a wide and varied programme, Howells’ setting of the motet Take him, earth, for cherishing, composed in early 1964 as a tribute to President John F Kennedy (assassinated in Dallas on 22nd November 1963) showed how much Howells was moved by his tragic and unforeseen death. The BBC Singers were heard in all their consummate glory delivering a magnificent rendering of this thoughtful, consoling and loving work that Howells set to a text from a fourth-century poem by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (born in the Roman province of Tarraconensis now northern Spain in 348) translated by Helen Waddell.

As an aside, the BBC Singers, referred to by Pierre Boulez as the ‘jewel in the BBC’s crown’ are a polished bunch of fine and gifted singers therefore even to think about wielding the axe upon them after they’ve just been spared it would be brutal, foolish and unjust as well as an enormous musical loss to what is the country’s only full-time professional chamber choir.

The Norwich Cathedral Organ rebuild project (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)
The Norwich Cathedral Organ rebuild project (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)

Organ Re-born!
continued with the internationally-renowned organist, Thomas Trotter (honoured by the late Queen Elizabeth II who bestowed upon him The Queen’s Medal for Music on St Cecilia’s Day in 2020) giving the inaugural recital comprising an eclectic and entertaining programme that opened with JS Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and Guilmant’s Marche Funèbre et Chant Séraphique, a piece boldly showing off the instrument’s dynamics ranging from the softest and most delicate of sounds to such thrilling, majestic and expressive sounds ending the composition on a high.

Trotter also tucked in a rather nice lively piece he commissioned from Jonathan Dove (The Dancing Pipes/1959) while Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue and Karg-Elert’s Valse Mignonne added so much to the overall pleasure of the programme which ended with a majestic reading of Mendelssohn’s Overture to St Paul. And for an encore Trotter blazed away at the console ripping through the exciting score of Charles-Marie Widor’s ‘Toccata’ from Organ Symphony, No.5, in F major with no holds barred!

A challenging and exciting piece, it ‘blew’ the place apart in an organ recital that will, I’m sure, be long remembered by the thousand or so organ aficionados who turned up on a bitterly cold damp November night to witness the rebirth of Norwich Cathedral’s organ with Andrew Scott, Managing Director of Harrison & Harrison, among them. In fact, the new Dean of Norwich Cathedral, Revd Canon Dr Andrew Braddock, witty, alert and enthusiastic to the proceedings overall, acknowledged Mr Scott’s presence to a huge round of applause.

The grand festivities of Organ Re-born! concluded on Sunday 26 November 2023 with Festal Evensong for the feast of St Cecilia (patron saint of music and musicians) witnessing a short ceremony of the Handing Back of the Organ by Andrew Scott who presented the keys to the rebuilt organ to Ashley Grote (Master of the Music) while the Blessing of the Organ was ceremoniously carried out by the Rt-Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich.

And under Ashley Grote, accompanied by organist, David Dunnett, Norwich Cathedral Choir sang their fervent hearts out with fine renderings of William Walton’s Magnificat/Nunc Dimittis (Chichester service), Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s text (Let all the world in every corner sing), Benjamin Britten’s Te Deum Laudamus and Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia, a work also heard in the BBC Singers’ concert.

Concluding the service, David Dunnett played the Organ Voluntary ‘Toccata’ from Suite Op. 5 by Maurice Duruflé but as a curtain-raiser, assistant organist, Robbie Carroll, played a total of three pieces which concluded with a fine rendering of César Franck’s Choral no.2 in B minor.

The Norwich Cathedral Organ rebuild project (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)
The Norwich Cathedral Organ rebuild project (Photo: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral)

It was nice to see a couple of senior past members of Norwich Cathedral’s ministry team at Festal Evensong most notably Canon Jeremy Haselock and the Very Reverend Dr Jane Hedges who would, of course, have been instrumental in early talks about the restoration and rebuild of the organ.

Currently, Associate Priest at Great St Bartholomew’s in the city of London, celebrating its 900th anniversary this year, Canon Haselock was appointed Canon Precentor of Norwich Cathedral in 1998 while acting as Vice-Dean from 2003 retiring in 2018 while Dr Jane Hedges (who gave a reading) served as Dean at Norwich from 2014 to 2022, the first female to hold this post in the cathedral’s 900-year history. Widely considered a ‘trailblazer for women in the priesthood’ she also acted as Dean of Canterbury in 2022 and interim Dean of Newcastle in 2023.

An understatement, of course, but music plays a central part in the life, ministry and mission of Norwich Cathedral - and, indeed, every cathedral and church in the realm - underlying the fact that music truly lifts one’s spirit and touches one’s heart. Indeed, it does! Hallelujah!

By Tony Cooper

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