Visit to Bury St Edmunds on 17/08/2013 by David Sutton
15 CLESO members (including supporters) wended their way by car and train to a town in Suffolk which, in my view, has everything. It has a market (lovely fresh fruit and veg and those so useful household knick-knacks), a well-known brewery, museums, welcoming pubs, a collection of delightful ancient buildings, parks, an historic theatre, a thriving modern shopping centre, and of course a cathedral.
As cathedrals go it is not old as the diocese was formed about 100 years ago. To me the choice of a parish church being 'upgraded' was inspired. A great deal of money has been spent on the building to make it fully fit for purpose culminating in the completion of the splendid new tower on the turn of the millennium. It looks as though it has always been there. Inside tells the same story. The quire and tower space are a jaw-dropping sight with their beautifully decorated ceilings. And to crown it all, the organ! Nowadays it is customary to have a decent case (as opposed to previous times when it seems all that was necessary was a box of panelling topped with a pipe-rack (sometimes generously decorated with fleur-de-lys). Here the effect is stunning as the previous organ had been something of a poor relation in this area as money was tight. It now looks superb and what emerges from inside is even better.
We were met by the cathedral organist James Thomas and his assistant Daniel. James gave us a potted history and distributed sheets giving the specification and other interesting literature. Included in this was a sheet detailing what he was going to play – with stops/combinations noted for each item. Usually the demo consists of comments from the bench as we went along but for obvious reasons this was not possible as James had to climb up a substantial spiral staircase to get to the console which was situated high above the chancel floor. On the question of the altitude of the loft we were told to look out for the labels on the wall of the staircase when it came to our turn to play. These marked the equivalent heights of various other cathedral organ lofts. There are quite a lot of them!
We all had our customary 'go'. Janet Baldacci opened with a stirring account of CS Lang’s Tuba Tune using that stop we humble parish organists normally do not have, namely a Solo Tuba. There followed a real mixture of styles played by our members. Yours truly rendered his version of David German’s Festive Trumpet Tune which featured the other big solo reed plus his usual meanderings which explored the vast range of tone colour you can get from a four manual. The time limit of about 10 minutes for each of us was not really enough to get to grips with such an instrument. I am afraid I didn’t take notes as to who played what but I do remember Chris doing his French style extemporisation to great effect. Indeed all of us who had their try had a fantastic time and those who had difficulties with the registration were helped by James so we all gave a good account of ourselves. Daniel carried on hosting downstairs answering questions and was so very helpful.
On the non-playing front Janet’s husband and two children went exploring with a pencil and sheet of paper on a fact-finding trail and they discovered all sorts of interesting things. One must say that the modern cathedral does seem to pull out all the stops when it comes to dealing with the visitor these days. Gone are the times when you entered a vast interior with virtually nothing to tell you about the place and no welcome to speak of. Bury St Edmunds is the complete antithesis of this. Yes, it was summer and, despite the sun not shining that day and rain threatened, the impression given was of light and joy.
Although the set pieces in the surrounding Abbey Gardens were not (surprisingly!) to everyone’s tastes, Bury St Edmunds exuded colour and a sense of exuberance which certainly affected me. After we had had our session in the cathedral the group broke up and we went our separate ways to explore the town and have lunch. Various familiar faces were spied during the afternoon as we did our own thing at the Greene King brewery museum, the town museum, the Theatre Royal and the Saturday market.
James Thomas and his assistant Daniel are to be heartily thanked for giving us such an enjoyable time in the cathedral and for being such genial hosts, together with the Cathedral Chapter for allowing us to play such a wonderful testament to the modern organ-builder Harrison and Harrison.