Today was a festive day in the Roman Catholic St. Catharine cathedral in Utrecht. The new choir organ was welcomed with a special concert, featuring the choirs of both the cathedral and the choir school. For years, it has been a wish of organist Wouter van Belle to have an organ that was suited to accompany the choir during liturgical services. In recent times they were only accompanied by the great organ above the entrance while the choir were located left of the high altar. Now, this is also the place where the newly installed choir organ is placed, above a newly built kind of wooden choir stalls with steps on several levels. The organ was built in 1852 by Daniel Gray (so it’s exactly 160 years old this year :)) and in 1989 bought and restored by Dutch organ builder Feenstra in the province of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands. After moving from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands it has been in use at a church in the orthodox reformed tradition, and now, as of 2012, it serves the worship at the seat of the Dutch Roman Catholic archbishop.
Though small, the instrument has a lot of colour and depth, with lovely elegant flute sounds and deep sounding pedals. Wouter van Belle demonstrated this in a few pieces, in particular by variations on a theme by Corelli, showing off all the different possibilities of the organ.
The real treat I came for though (ofcourse 😉 was the choir performance. We got to hear the choirs first in the position they normally take during worship, left of the altar and later also in front of it -‘centre stage’, so to speak. During the first part, they sang works by Herman Strategier and moved me especially with a Marian antiphon (Ave Regina coelorum) and a beautiful, radiant setting of the Gloria. Unfortunately, even from our relative good view from our pew, the view of the choir was partly obscured by a large pillar. Which was funny, because at one point I thought, there are so few men in this choir – and then I realised that most of them were simply hidden from view 🙂 The choir is mixed, by the way, so it has boys as well as girls and it was nice to hear their mixed voices, just after having recently changed my viewpoint that the traditional English church choirs should be opened up to girls as well. Maybe I’ll write a separate blog about that sometime.
After the choir moved to the centre, the first piece they sang was Laudate Dominum by Mozart, an exquisetely beautiful piece with a soprano and violinist. I am recently in a Mozart craze so I was delighted to hear this, though I was not overly enthusiastic about the soprano. The organ played really smoothly and tenderly, making it sound like the song was gently rocking on waves or on a mother’s lap. The moment the choir entered for the final part sounded wonderful.
Next up was Elgar’s Ave verum, a piece I love but I thought their performance lacked some strength and focus. That was soon forgotten though when the next piece came: the Jubilate Deo) from the Collegium Regale service by Herbert Howells. Such a dynamic, complex piece which had me glued to my seat when my attention was attracted to a boy soprano and a few girl sopranos on my left side who sang with strong, clear voices. The boy especially sang with unmatched focus and direction, really singing towards the people in the church, not only with his voice but also with his whole expression and body language. He stood out in that respect because as usual (sadly) with the choir of the choir school there is a big variety in concentration and sense of ‘togetherness’. It was so refreshing to see this kid being so into it and he had a great voice to match. At one point, for the text ‘The Lord is gracious’, Howells paints the word ‘gracious’ for the sopranos solo and the final note stays on as the other voices blend, like a small red thread running through the rest of the fabric, and this one boy especially held it just beautifully. Perhaps the best moment of the concert. But the entire piece is, and was, marvelous. (I was actually surprised because I never associate Howells with joyfulness ;)) What was also nice was to see a choir member I praised earlier on this blog still in the choir, though I was surprised he seemed to be singing with the altos and not with the tenors as I would expect. I was seated on the side where he stood and often I could pick out his voice which was very nice to hear.
In order to put the organ once more in the spotlight, cathedral organist Paul Houdijk was helped to the instrument (he is blind, which makes it even more moving to watch him play). He played two lovely elegant pieces, one by Lemmens and one by Lefébure Wely, with soft flutes and a very reverent sound throughout, that were very touching, and two beautiful pieces by César Franck.
If you’re ever in the opportunity to listen to this rather English instrument, do so. You won’t be disappointed.