This entry was posted by Kevin O’Malia, who accompanied the St. Peter’s choir at both St. Paul’s and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and who sang with us at Westminster Abbey
When Bruce had made the assertion that the coming tour would be a ‘highlight’ of his career, it finally resonated with me how special the upcoming residency would be. Now, I have played several choir tours to the UK, so I considered myself a ‘veteran’ with regard to cathedral residencies. And our town tour with St. Peter’s in 2012 to Oxford and Chester still resonated with me as a tangible memory. But this tour to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s and to St. Martin-in-the-Fields was, for me, once-in-a-lifetime.
Honestly, I was a bit bummed when I heard that visiting organists were not permitted to play at Westminster Abbey. In retrospect, I think I was just as glad to have been able to sing with the rest of the choir. Not having to be bound to a strict practice schedule permitted me to really ‘take in’ the whole of the Abbey – from the guided tour, to the private prayers at the tomb of St. Edward, to singing and praying at the evensong – this all played into a very intellectual and spiritual experience for me, not worrying about which piston to push next! And to look up at the fan vaulting in the ceiling, and having a chance to hear the organ played, and see the expressions on the congregants’ faces – this indeed made it all very special for me.
By the time we got to St. Paul’s, I was totally over the jet lag and ready to roll! That is, roll on only an hour’s practice time. Usually, a cathedral gives the organist a few hours to prepare the extensive accompaniments and voluntaries for the office of choral evensong. Not so with St. Paul’s. I was given only one hour to practice on a diminished registration (sound). This demanded a good time management from me, and varying my practice techniques (thinking and mimicking, rather than doing in context). It is amazing what forethought and sheer will can accomplish!
The organ also was a challenge. Without going into hard-core organ lingo, let’s just say that it was a physical challenge with the placement of the pistons (buttons on the organ console where one changes the sound). Instead of being accessible in the center, they were about 12 inches up and to the right. And the other challenge was in managing the placement of the pipes in the building. Some were in the quire, some in the dome and some in the west end. Some pipes spoke to the decani side, some to the cantoris. None of this could I hear directly in context, since I was above the choir by about 50 feet, and away from the main sets of organ pipes. Fortunately, the cathedral organists gave me a brochure of suggestions for visiting organists accompanying their choirs. This was very helpful. And with Bruce’s wonderful feedback, we made it work wonderfully well, with the ensemble supported, and with varying colors of sound.
With these obstacles overcome, a wonderful week of making music was possible. Every note played was an absolute experience. From the Psalms of Howells, Stanford and Whitlock, to the canticle settings of Noble, Hogan and Stanford, and voluntaries spanning centuries and nationalities, including Mendelssohn, Franck, Whitlock, Near, Vivaldi and Bach, it was an experience I will not forget. I think the most surreal experience for me was releasing a chord and then listening to the voices and organ soaring for 7 or 8 seconds following the cut off. It was breath taking. And then looking up to the mosaic of The Transfiguration immediately above the organ console. Sensory overload. In short: heaven.
Following the great Monty Python principle “And now for something COMPLETELY different,’ we concluded our tour at the great concert venue of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A bit of explanation: the organ at St. Paul’s is a mighty ‘Father Willis’ organ, the epitome of Romantic Era British organ building, and an orchestra in itself. The instrument at St. Martin’s was equally fine, but out of the French Baroque school. A fine three manual tracker instrument, whose unique sound could be particular apropos for deGrigny, Da’quin, Couperin, and even Bach, but left Noble and Anglican Chant psalmody to be a little challenging! But, with the help of David Furniss’s wonderful ear and great advice, the registration process was seamless, and the program went off very nicely. and playing the Bach/Vivaldi Concert for the closing voluntary was very overcoming for me, in a space which has heard SO MUCH Baroque Era music in the last 3 centuries!
Apart from the organ, I had a wonderful time talking with friends in the choir, our morning walks to St. Paul’s, along the Thames and to Trifalgar Square, and even mores…EATING! Most of you know what I am a culinary fiend and avid oenophile, so this week was a memorable one for me. From British pub fare, to our night at Indian City (fabulous Tikka Masala), to our three course Italian feast at the hotel (complete with Rabbit and Sea Bream), and not to forget – our wonderful Greek Tapas near the Globe Theatre (thank you, Anne!) – my mouth and tummy were VERY sated. Among the most memorable social experiences for me was getting on board the London Eye, on a pristine and illuminated sunset on Friday, and seeing London from 1,200 feet in the air. It was simply breathtaking.
Apart from our last 36 hours of traveling nightmares, the trip was heaven to me. In fact, to illustrate this fact, the tour made those 36 hours much easier to bear. To share these musical experiences with anyone, that’s one thing, but to experience these things with such a devoted and close group of friends – that’s what made the trip epic for me. So, thank you all for having me as your organist, and enabling me to experience a trip of a lifetime!
I have posted many pictures on my Facebook page. Please feel free to tag yourself or ‘pinch’ any of these photos! If you are not on Facebook, and would like to see the pictures, please let me know, and I will send you some. I am including a few of my favorites with this blog.