We rounded off the 2019 Organ Festival in rousing style with the popular audience requests concert during the afternoon of 15 September, this year with the added feature of audience participation as the theme this year was hymns and songs of praise.
Before the concert we served tea, coffee and a huge variety of delicious cakes at the back of the church cafe style. When Jonathan called everyone's attention at 3.55pm he invited them to get a hymn book and either stay in their seats around the tables or move to the chairs, they could sit or stand to sing as they wished.
Jonathan started with vocal warmup exercise for everyone before introducing the first hymn 'Immortal Invisible' (verses 1 and 4).
He noted that the congregation at this church has always sung well, this is important and heartening to a choral director as we unite in one voice with our singing.
The next hymn was 'Christ be beside me' (adapted from St Patrick’s breastplate) to the tune of 'Morning is broken'. Jonathan commented that Victorian organs like the Willis can bludgeon a congregation into singing but this hymn was gentle which the Willis can also do well.
This was followed by 'Make me a channel of your peace' (verses 2, 3, 4) then the first of a pair of Advent hymns which had been requested 'Hills of the North rejoice' (verses 1, 3 and 5) which happened to be one of Jonathan’s favourites, and everyone with the organ could let rip with this tune. The second of the Advent requests was 'Lo, he comes with clouds descending' (verses 1 and 4) which was another Advent favourite.
Jonathan advised 'don't hold back on the harmony' in the next hymn (some people had hymn books with the music notation) which was Charles Wesley's 'And can it be that I should gain' (verses 1, 4 and 5). Then came 'O sacred head sore wounded' a Bach chorale Passiontide hymn (verses 1, 4 and 5).
Jonathan gave a short talk about the organ and how the organist builds up the sound, demonstrating clarinets and trumpets and using couplers (yet still playing with one hand). He explained that the organist's job when playing hymns was to use the organ to support the singers including bringing out the meaning via sound, for example verse 4 of 'And can it be...' is a miserable verse, so he would not use cheerful high frequency stops, but lower strings, then in verse 5 add some keener string stops and oboe. He showed how the oboe colours the sound (by switching off the oboe stop). A good liturgical organist is able to colour the words in this way to add meaning, this is a skill which has always fascinated him.
Now came the surprise. He had received a request for British music by Parry or Elgar to show what the organ can do as a one person orchestra, used at other times in liturgical settings when not accompanying singing or in recitals. He demonstrated the viola, soft shimmering strings (with octave) and cello in pedal (pre service music to create atmosphere). He chose to feature three themes by Elgar: Chanson de matin, Salut de amour, Chanson du Nuit and extemporised on those themes to show the colours of the organ (of all the English makers, Harrison and Willis do orchestral sound best) and this Willis, freshly tuned by Harrison & Harrison demonstrated this beautifully.
We returned to the singing with 'All things bright and beautiful' but both tunes! (The tune 'Bright and beautiful' by WH Monk for verses 1 and 2, then verses 4 and 5 with the 'Royal Oak' tune).
'Tell out my soul' (verses 3 and 4) bridges the generations - Jonathan explained that both schools and adult congregations all get going on that one. This was followed by 'Lead, kindly light amid th’ encircling gloom' which was a good one for evensong or compline.
The popular Welsh hymn 'Guide me, O thou great Redeemer' (verses 2 and 3) was sung with gusto followed by another hymn by Charles Wesley 'Love divine, all loves excelling' (all 3 verses).
To finish the concert Jonathan played ‘In Christ alone’ as an improvisation because it was not in the hymn book.
This version of the audience requests concert proved to be very popular as there were many comments from people about how uplifting it was to sing together with a wonderful organ providing the lead and accompaniment and was a great way to finish the 3 day organ festival.
Thank you so much Jonathan for your interesting and entertaining commentary throughout the concert and for your musical direction of the whole festival for Heritage Open Days. A big thank you to all the organising team and those who helped over the weekend to ensure that everything ran smoothly before, during and after the events, it made all the hard work behind the scenes worthwhile as people enjoyed the music.
Additional photos can be found in the Willis Pipe Organ Festival 2019 album.
Words and photos by Anna Page