Report on visit to Westminster Cathedral 18/10/2010 by David Sutton

Westminster CathedralA group of 18 members gathered under the gallery at the west end just before ‘closing time’ in the atmospheric and historic environ of Westminster Cathedral. The lights were low and the smell of incense heavy on the air, and we were all eagerly awaiting that moment when Martin Baker, the musical director, and our host for the evening was to arrive.

That moment came and we trooped upstairs to the gallery and organ loft. Martin gave us a brief history of the 4 manual Willis and then demonstrated the rich diversity of the various choruses and then gave us the freedom of the bench. It was surprising that although the console was attached and surrounded by the various departments the organist, to my mind at least, still had that sense of space and distance. (The modified apse console - behind the high altar - has only a very limited and concentrated control of the grand organ in the west end). The writer broke the ice of the hands-on time and experienced five minutes or so of a glimpse of aural heaven. The solo tuba and 32 foot pedal reed did figure in his efforts but also a very time-limited exploration of the wealth of quiet registers including the delicious undulating flute rank (the cor de nuit). We did not have to crowd round the console as there was plenty of space to wander in the triforium gallery which stretched from one end of the building to the other. Here we could more readily appreciate the grandeur of the instrument and the building which housed it. The non-players sat in chairs in the semi-darkness of the evening reveling in the glorious sound which enveloped them. One such person had literally joined CLESO on the night and was ‘blown away’ by the experience. It would be invidious to single out any particular contribution as I think we all – subject to the limited time we had (and no dry run either!) – appreciated the complexity and difficulties of handling a large instrument such as this. However perhaps I could be permitted to mention what seemed to me a flawless and exciting rendition of the Widor Toccata by Chris South and a lovely piece of Herbert Howells by Chris Morris. Others of us will have their own highlights to remember.

The hands-on time of 90 minutes we were allotted was fully utilized by the 12 players (out of the 13 originally down to play – David Garner had unfortunately sustained an injury). We had a time-referee and console aide in the very capable person of our member Edward Kemp-Luck. He was there to ensure we did not overrun our allotted slot of bench-time. His expertise and quiet ready help with the registration was very much appreciated by all players.

Sadly our visit had to come to an end as we were due to be followed by David Hill who had come to practise for his forthcoming recital on the Wednesday. Martin sorted David out and, to the strains of his practising, then led us out of the building, via the high altar and the choir stalls in the apse space behind the altar – showing us the apse console and the 2 manual Lewis organ en route. We exited the rear of the cathedral building after negotiating some very grand corridors augustly decorated with many portraits of cardinals, archbishops and other important personages.

CLESO is deeply indebted to the cathedral authorities and heartfelt thanks are due to Martin Baker for an experience which will never be forgotten in a hurry.  

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