The sudden advent of the Covid-19 pandemic left arts organisations with no option but to cancel long-planned live events, and in fields that require large and expensive forces for their reproduction the future still looks quite bleak as health advice is weighed against economic viability. The position for choral groups around the country is particularly uncertain as the link between singing and spread of the virus continues to be debated. Amidst the gloom have been a number of innovative initiatives to create virtual events that could be enjoyed by a locked-down audience.
One of the festivals cancelled was the fortieth anniversary celebrations of the Pipeworks Festival, previously known as the Dublin International Organ and Choral Festival. Founded in 1980 by Gerard Gillen, the festival has traditionally managed to strike a clever balance between the promotion of the niche area of organ music and celebration of the highly popular medium of choral performance. Understandably, due to current health regulations there was no large-scale choral contribution to this online festival of five events. However, using a notably all-male lineup of local organists, an online festival of considerable variety was assembled. While nothing can replace the experience of live performance, in the case of organ recitals, the online format provides the major advantage that it is possible for the audience to see the performer.
The opening event was a talk about the early years of the festival by Gerard Gillen which conjured up the world of the early 1980s in which RTÉ would willingly send the Symphony Orchestra off to a suburban church for a concert, a competition jury chairman would see it as his prime function to ply the rest of the jury with whiskey and gin, and a concert by a choir from an English Protestant church in the Pro Cathedral was a major ecumenical event. He also emphasised the festival policy in those years of promoting and commissioning new Irish compositions.
David Adams’s recital demonstrated both his consummate musicianship and flair for programming. Book-ended by light show pieces, the concert featured two classics of the repertoire by César Franck and Olivier Messiaen alongside a recent work by Sebastian Adams, the organist’s son, entitled 2019.7. This proved to be the highlight of the concert, the first half alternating rapidly between bright tocatta-style passages and long sustained tones as if a radio was being flicked back and forth between two stations. Being able to see the performer proved a particular bonus allowing us to see the way the switches in manual matched the shifting material and how the concluding diminuendo was achieved by the reduction of organ stops.
Recitals by Fergal Caulfield and David Leigh were devoted to large solo works by Messiaen and Kenneth Leighton. Caulfield’s restrained performance of Les Corps Glorieux gave us a rare opportunity to hear the entire cycle which has never acquired the popularity of Messiaen’s earlier cycles L’Ascension and La nativité du Seigneur. In this rendering the highlights lay in some of the quieter moments such as the mesmeric final movement. Leigh—whose stiff introductions to each event filmed in various odd parts of St Patrick’s Cathedral seemed to channel some gothic horror spoof movie rather than providing a more welcoming entrance point for the audience—gave a masterly performance of Leighton’s Missa di Gloria, originally commissioned for the 1980 festival by Gillen, though the work itself rather overstayed its welcome.
The shortest of the recitals, given by David Grealy, was devoted to the sequence for Corpus Christi from French composer Charles Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique. This was interspersed with the chant that inspired it, sung by Shane Barriscale, Stephen Carroll and Conor Prendiville, sometimes unaccompanied and sometimes accompanied with real sensitivity by Grealy.
Grealy’s performance formed a perfect match for the music, moving seamlessly from the meditative style of the opening to the more flamboyant ‘Fantaisie Paraphrase’ that closed the work. This was also the recital that really utilised the capabilities of online presentation. The camera focused closely on the organ during solo sections and moved down through the Pro Cathedral to capture the singers, the combination of shots and the distant miking giving a sense of the space, both physical and acoustic. In addition Grealy used the live chat function to provide texts and translations for each of the chants as it happened.
Overall the festival committee is to be warmly commended for putting together such a worthwhile programme with high audio quality at short notice. The final great advantage of this online festival is that the concerts are freely accessible for repeated listening, enabling an audience to really familiarise themselves with the music. Through online streams like this, the possibility is there for organisations to build their audience in preparation for the time when normal live events can resume.
Words: Mark Fitzgerald