by Daniel Hathaway

O'Donnell-JamesJames O’Donnell made headlines in 2000 when he moved from Westminster Cathedral to Westminster Abbey — which gave him the distinction of becoming the first Roman Catholic musician to serve as organist and master of the choristers at the Abbey since the Church of England declared its independence from the authority of the Pope in the sixteenth century.

In his post at Westminster Abbey, a “Royal Peculiar” which falls under the personal jurisdiction of the Queen and serves as the burial place for a millennium’s worth of British notables, making it one of London’s major tourist destinations, James O’Donnell oversees the music both for daily sung services and for a variety of special events ranging from royal weddings and funerals to state visitations.

O’Donnell will play a free, solo recital at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron on Sunday, February 16 at 4:00 pm. We reached him by telephone in London, where he noted that “it was blowing a gale today,” much like it was in Cleveland.

Daniel Hathaway: Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have very different liturgical and choral traditions. How much of an adjustment was the move for you?

James O’Donnell: First of all, the role of the choir is very different. At Westminster Cathedral, the choir mainly sings for masses. At Westminster Abbey, the choir predominantly sings for offices like evensong but also for eucharists. For me, it was a question of getting back into the offices again and exploring the extraordinary possibilities of the Anglican repertoire with its wide musical variety and its huge choice of musical styles. The choir sings a different set of canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) every day and we strive for consistently high standards.

DH: And there are differences in the vocal styles of the two choirs.

JOD: Westminster Cathedral inculcated a distinctive vocal style under George Malcolm since World War II that was called the “continental” style, but that’s now rather meaningless because many Anglican choirs have been informed by it. Malcolm developed a style with a gutsier, more emotionally engaged technique rather than the floaty head voice that he regarded as an old-fashioned, rather precious Anglican style. Anglican choirs now routinely sing repertoire they wouldn’t have done 25 or 30 years ago — Latin masses and other kinds of music. Everything has become much more of a melting pot. And with the advent of CDs, there aren’t any backwaters nobody knows about anymore.

DH: Tell us about the program you’ll be playing in Akron.

JOD: Constructing programs is an imprecise thing. I try to assume that the audience will include both organ-savvy people and people who have never heard an organ concert before, and I plan the program so that it will be attractive to everyone, at least in part. And also that it will suit the organ. Since all instruments are unique and stand in unique buildings, there’s always an element of hoping for the best.

I’m beginning with the Marchand Grand dialogue in C, a grandiose, rhetorical piece with the vivid sounds and pungency of the “Grand Jeux” and a gentler episode in minor. I’ll follow that with Bach’s C-major Trio Sonata, music I think people can relate to because it’s so conversational — it’s like chamber music that can draw the listener in through its intimacy and disciplined textures.

The Bossi Scherzo in g is a virtuosic, show-offy piece, frothy but quite dramatic. The first movement of Elgar’s Sonata in G was his first attempt at a substantial, symphonic opening movement. I like playing it in the states because it was actually inspired by a visit by American organists to Westminster Cathedral at the end of the nineteenth century.

Frank Bridge was Benjamin Britten’s teacher and his Adagio in E is beautifully crafted, slightly Wagnerian in style. Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on the Name of ALAIN is a tribute to Jehan Alain, who died at the age of 29 in World War I — a tribute both through using a theme from his most famous organ piece, Litanies, and using the letters of his surname as a fugue subject. It’s so suave and polished, so lyrical, a pure tribute.

Dupré’s Cortège et Litanie is another kind of tribute piece, restrained but passionate, and building to a blazing climax. Finally, Walton’s coronation march, Orb and Scepter, is just a piece of joie de vivre with a British “stiff upper lip” section in the middle. It was arranged by Sir William McKie, my predecessor, who was in charge of the music for the 1953 coronation.

DH: There must have been many highlights for you at the Abbey over the last fourteen years.

JOD: It’s easy to pick out the big ones, but really, working here is fascinating and absorbing all the time. The daily services are always a highlight, even on winter evenings at 5 pm. We’re lucky to have a couple hundred people at Evensong even in off season, and there’s the feeling of really communicating with the congregation. Singing simple Tudor music well in a focused divine office is very satisfying to me.

Other highlights were the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, when we sang a modified, ecumenical evensong service. He was delighted by the visit and very interested in the music. And of course, the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — a fantastic and historic occasion that occupied us for months in planning. And the choir tours — twice to the US, Australia, Hong Kong, Russia, Hungary.

DH: And the Abbey choir’s visit to Rome to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir must have been an occasion that brought the two sides of your own religious and musical life together.

JOD: That was an absolute, one-off event which brought all the stars into alignment. It was the most amazing experience. Despite our different traditions, the two choirs sang beautifully together. One Sistine Chapel singer said, “As soon as I felt we were breathing together I knew this was going to be successful”. Musicians just find a way of working together. It was a great honor for us all, and we’ll never forget it.

Published on February 11, 2014

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