Join English organist James McVinnie and special guests, including Valgeir Sigurðsson and Liam Byrne, as part of 'Sounds from a Safe Harbour' in Cork - a new festival of music, art and conversation presented by Cork Opera House and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National!
James McVinnie was Assistant Organist at Westminster Abbey between 2008-2011, playing for services and also state occasions such as the state visit of HH Pope Benedict XVI and the 2011 Royal Wedding. He now divides his time between playing as a soloist and, as a strong advocate of new music, collaborating with some of the world’s leading contemporary composers and performers
Artist Q&A - Ahead of this weekend's event we caught up with James to ask him about his music:
1. What first attracted you to the instrument?
I sang in a church choir as a child and I guess that was my first exposure to the instrument. Part of the appeal as a 9 year old was the fascination with all the technical details of the instrument. I’d already taken to the piano and was progressing fast, but here was an instrument with not one keyboard but two or three (and sometimes four or five!) — not just one sound but many, as many as an orchestra! — not just keyboards for the hands, but one for the feet too. The sheer sense of power at your fingertips was another key attraction — the next best thing to driving a fast car before you turn 17.
2. Do you think that the organ is primarily seen as an instrument for religious music, as most are to be found in the world’s great cathedrals, churches and places of worship?
I think it’s fair that people think of the organ as an instrument associated with the liturgy of the church. That is after all the context in which the instrument developed from the late middle ages, flowering during the 16th and 17th centuries. ‘Religious music’ as a term is also a confusing one for a modern and largely secular society. For instance, every note which Bach wrote was dedicated ‘to the glory of God’ — for him there was no distinction conceptually between music he composed for a church service and his (what we now think of as ‘secular') cello suites, for example. Messiaen is a 20th century equivalent. The organ is also a concert instrument in its own right, although the music is oftentimes played in sacred surroundings in concert. So, in Cork in Bryce’s festival, I am presenting a sequence of music specifically not composed for use in a church service, but in a sacred space — the fact it’s happening in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral does not necessarily make it ‘religious’, unless you want it to be.
3. Do you always play on a traditional concert organ? Or do you ever consider having a travelling instrument like the late Carlo Curley, self-styled “Pavarotti of the organ” who travelled extensively with his own customised digital instrument and speakers?
I like the idea of using live organ samples to produce studio based recordings and, in fact, I’m currently making a record of music by Philip Glass in precisely this way. For me though, the real instrument and its architectural space are integral and essential parts of the experience for both player and listener. The Union Chapel in London is an interesting example: the stunning architecture of the building together with its wonderfully restored organ and an imaginative approach to programming has made it a ‘go-to venue’ for an eager, sizeable and open-eared group of listeners.
4. What are your views on contemporary composition for the organ, an instrument most generally associated with the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century Modernist periods (from Bach to Messiaen)? Was Bach the first Master composers for the instrument – or Buxtehude?
Buxtehude’s music was the culmination of a rich North German keyboard composition tradition, so it certainly didn’t start with him: the instrument has been around since antiquity and composers began to write for the instrument as it developed during the 15th and 16th centuries. Bach came along and redrew the map, musically speaking, although it’s true that Buxtehude was an important influence on him. (He famously walked 250 miles to hear him play in Lübeck!) All sorts of people are writing imaginatively for the organ today, especially those from the emerging generation of American composers, many of whom have written for me. Messiaen towers over all 20th century composers for the instrument — for me, that music is extraordinary.
5. From that great list of composers from the past, if we could transport you back in time, who would you most like to have composed a work for you?
Bach left us with more than a lifetime’s worth of music to try to get through and for me, this is enough!
6. What composers in particular, living and writing today, do you most admire and why? Are there any British composers in your list? And what most excites you about brand new 21st Century compositions for organ?
I’m fortunate to be working with composers from a broad array of different musical walks of life; composers who one wouldn’t automatically associate with writing music for the organ, but are as captivated and inspired by the instrument as I am. There are many British composers writing great music for the instrument: Judith Weir, Richard Baker, Judith Bingham, Daniel Saleeb, Giles Swayne, Max de Wardener to name but a few. Many have a boundless approach to how they approach the instrument which is refreshing and stimulating.
7. Who are today’s audiences for the concert organ? Are there marked differences between the UK, Ireland, Europe and further afield?
Audiences vary from place to place I guess, but in my experience wherever you go there is almost always a bright, mixed, inquisitive audience eager to hear interesting music. The organ is not usually an instrument associated with either mainstream classical or non-classical contexts and I like to think of this as an advantage rather than a hindrance.
8. Do you have an all-time favourite experience as a performer to date? If so, where was it and why is it your favourite?
Last year I played a series of shows with Oneohtrix Point Never and Nico Muhly in Holland and in the UK. What I loved about it was the unique and seemingly unrelated mix of musical material and instrumentation. When we got together to rehearse and perform we realised that all these elements were linked much more closely that we thought they would be. For me, that’s the most rewarding artistic experience: setting out to achieve something special but not knowing what the end result will be and it then exceeds your expectations.
9. What are your performance or project plans for the coming two years?
As well as my ongoing commissioning projects working with living composers, I’m also working on a Bach project, where I’ll be recording and performing his music on historic instruments in Europe. I’m also making new recordings of music by Philip Glass as well as planning collaborations with eighth blackbird and Son Lux. I’m also embarking on a series of concerts to play ‘Triadic Memories’ one of Morten Feldman’s final piano works. It’s a huge challenge: the piece is nearly two hours long and requires intense concentration from the player. It’s an amazing immersive listening experience for the audience.
More About Sounds from a Safe Harbour
Sounds from a Safe Harbour is a brand new festival of music, art and conversation, presented by Cork Opera House and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National, bringing a huge international creative cast to Cork this September.
Alongside Cork’s spectacular harbour environs, themes of waves, water and movement have been the inspiration for the festival, and will be explored through many new commissions and collaborations specially programmed for Sounds from a Safe Harbour.
The festival will activate the City through many art forms including visual arts, conversation, dance, film and music.
Click on the link below for more details on the festival and the full programme.