As the illustrious Pipeworks Festival goes digital for the first time in its forty year history, Artistic Director David Leigh talks to us about this year’s programme, featuring performances from St Patrick’s Cathedral and St Mary’s Pro Cathedral and the challenges involved in mounting an online festival.
Pipeworks will be going digital this year for its series of performances at St Patrick’s Cathedral and St Mary’s Pro Cathedral. What challenges does this present? Was the initial programming affected by this decision?
At the risk of stating the obvious, the main challenge for any concert series at present is the impossibility of the audience and performer being in the same space.
We have chosen to offer pre-recorded events for online consumption, as this will offer superior audio quality (very important when recording and instrument with as wide a frequency range as the organ, which is literally pushing the limits of human hearing at both ends of the spectrum).
Our programming for this virtual festival was determined largely by what we could still mount from the original plan. Obviously international artists, and events involving large numbers of performers (ie choirs and orchestras) were not feasible. All of the events in the virtual festival were programmed in the original, albeit in the slightly different configuration.
Can you offer us some insight into the origins of the festival and your association with it since 1999?
I’m afraid I can’t speak with any great authority about the beginnings of the festival – but anyone interested should tune in to our first event. We are honoured that Prof Gerard Gillen, the driving force behind the festival’s inception and its first artistic director, has agreed to speak about the birth of the Dublin Organ Festival and its early years.
My own association with the festival began, as you say, in the late 1990s, when, shortly after arriving in Dublin to take my position at St Patrick’s Cathedral, I was asked to join the committee, on which I remained, working with Gerard and then his successor Mark Duley, until I assumed the artistic directorship in early 2018.
Can you tell us more about the organ housed in St Patrick’s Cathedral?
The cathedral organ is one of the largest, and finest instruments in Ireland. It sits high up in a specially built chamber in the chancel, and contains about 5000 pipes in six divisions spread across four manuals (keyboards) and pedals. The nucleus of the present instrument dates from 1902, built by the renowned English firm Henry Willis, but it also contains a few earlier (and later) ranks of pipes.
You will close the festival with a performance of Kenneth Leighton Missa di Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass) which was commissioned for the first Dublin Organ Festival in 1980. Can you tell us a bit more about this piece and what information you have about the inaugural festival?
Prof Gerard Gillen had known the composer Kenneth Leighton when a student at Queen’s College, Oxford, and so Leighton was an obvious choice for a commission for the inaugural festival (there was also another commission for this first festival, an anthem by Irish composer A J Potter, Clamos cervi). I was aware of the piece long before I moved here – indeed I recently noticed that my copy of the work is dated “Oxford, 1993” and indeed I remember playing the last movement as a student, but was only more recently inspired to look at the rest of the work by the 40th anniversary of the festival’s foundation. In this performance we honour that anniversary and indeed Prof Gillen’s first performance, in the composer’s presence, on this very organ, in June 1980.
What would you consider to be the main development in the practice and presentation of organ music since the first festival?
Gosh, this is a big question. The increasing number of female organists coming into what was a very male dominated profession, the greater educational opportunities for young players today, and a perhaps more mature attitude towards historically informed performance are three things that spring to mind.
What, in your opinion, has been the greatest contemporary composition for organ?
Another impossible question to answer! I suppose it depends, inter alia, what you define as “contemporary”. A strong candidate for me is the Symphony “Christus” by Francis Pott, whose five movements extend to over two hours of music, of which I was honoured to give the first performance in Ireland in 2003. Other candidates would have to include the Frenchman Thierry Escaich, whose music takes forward that great tradition with a wonderful combination of evolution and innovation. I’m happy to see plenty of young composers here engaging with the instrument too – I have recently played music by Eoghan Desmond, and David Adams’ recital includes a piece by his composer son Sebastian, to name but two.
The 2020 Pipeworks Festival featuring virtual performances at St Patrick’s Cathedral and and St Mary’s Pro Cathedral runs from 17th – 21st June. For further details see https://www.pipeworks.ie/pipeworksfromtheorganloft
David Leigh MA (Oxon) FRCO is Organist and Assistant Master of the Music, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, as well as Musical Director, University of Dublin Choral Society; Musical Director, Culwick Choral Society; Musical Director, The Gaudete Singers and Artistic Director, Pipeworks Festival
David Leigh by Luca Truffarelli
St Patrick’s Cathedral by Mick Shaw