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St Alban, in St Albans


I know that not everyone in the music world loves the organ. Some quite good musicians I've met consider it to be a contraption or a machine rather than an instrument. If so, they're missing a lot. Gorgeous new instruments are often being unveiled, or you can sit in the back of a cathedral and probably catch a good example of something more historical. Interesting younger organist/composers have entered the field - I love Kit Downes' album Obsidian on ECM for instance - and organ transcriptions of Bill Evans (played by David Schollmeyer) have often been on my turntable. I also warmly recommend The Pipe Organ by James Mitchell (OUP), the best guide I've seen for confused composers who nevertheless want to write for the 'king of instruments'.


What's more, I've just been at one of the most thorough, well-organised and closely- followed festivals I've seen in a long time: the 60th anniversary (it's biennial) St Albans International Organ Festival, founded by the (1963) cathedral organist Peter Hurford, whose influence people were still talking about when I visited. Of course they have an amazing venue, St Albans Cathedral, which makes a great setting for the core festival event, an organ playing competition (for which I wrote the test piece this year).


The competition is thoroughly international; this year's interpretation winner, from South Korea, was Sunkyung Noh - and, for instance, there was also a good showing of Japanese finalists. Most charmingly, there's an ongoing tradition that the young players are accommodated in local homes and I was particularly delighted that Magdalena Moser, the winner of a prize for the best performance of my test piece, introduced me to her hosts, after which we took a treasured group photo.


I can hardly express how much I admire organist David Titterington in his role as both artistic and executive director of the IOF; an unfailingly helpful musical colleague and host. Festival fundraising these days is not for the fainthearted, and local donors play a crucial part in this fortnight-long event. (ACE meanwhile play no part at all.) Some of the earlier rounds spread out to other organs, and I spent a Zen-like afternoon in Christ Church Spitalfields listening to some of the competitors play on the famous Richard Bridge organ (1735); which is something I know about because of the many years it was not working while I was a festival director in that same building. In fact I recall reading that until its restoration in 2015, very few people then alive had ever heard it play.


For a composer the festival commission is a particularly inviting experience. All 16 of the interpretation finalists have to play the new piece, of which I heard five performances. It was somehow an experience of great aural purity, listening intently for the different sound qualities utilised by each performer in that big white cathedral space. Titled 'St Alban', my composition is linked it to the legend of Alban, who donned the cloak of Amphibalus, a Christian priest hiding from persecution in his home. Somehow 'the cloak became the person', Alban too converted to Christianity and became the first British martyr. Both have shrines in this very holy place. To my delight, on an adjacent cathedral wall, I found a series of modern icons telling the story I'd attempted to express in organ sounds (pictured.)

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

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