Who composes music for those enormous pipe organs in old churches? With three levels of keys to contend with, a bewildering plethora of knobs (or ‘stops’) and a rather austere legacy of composition by the likes of Bach, who would be brave enough to tackle composing on the pipe organ? Step forward a tutti of Northern Ireland’s leading composers, each bringing their own experience in different fields and genres of music, and each committing to composing a short piece (or ‘prelude’) on what Mozart famously called the ‘king of instruments’.
Thanks to funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Renewal and Stability Fund, the Portico of Ards, an arts and heritage venue in Portaferry, has announced an ambitious initiative to create ‘The Portico Preludes’. Taking inspiration from Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’, Portico has commissioned ten pieces from a diverse range of composers: Scott Flanigan, Deirdre Gribbin, Piers Hellawell, Linley Hamilton, Philip Hammond, Brian Irvine, Ruth McGinley, Michael McHale, Matthew Owens and Stevie Scullion. Simon Johnston, Organist at St Paul’s Cathedral London will act as Music Editor.
Portico’s Chair, Neil McClure, said “Whilst many composers have written individually for the organ, we are not aware of any other volume of organ music where composers from classical, jazz, pop and, of course, organ backgrounds have come together to write a series of ‘preludes’ - short pieces of music based on a favourite hymn tune. We are hugely grateful to the Arts Council for their generosity which will make this uniquely exciting project a reality”.
Maria McAlister, Development Officer for Music, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented, “The Arts Council is delighted to support Portico through our Stability and Renewal Programme for Organisations, a vital funding scheme designed to help organisations respond to the negative impact of the Covid-19 crisis by helping to stabilise them financially. Portico Preludes is hugely exciting and the team at Portico has gathered some of the finest musicians and composers from Northern Ireland together for this inspirational project. Congratulations to all involved.”
One of the commissioned composers, Stevie Scullion, from the pop group Malojian, was at Portico on Saturday playing a live-streamed ‘behind closed doors’ gig. “I’ve never played on a church organ let alone composed on it. So yeah, a bit scary... But I’m hoping it will be a style experience no matter what!”
A central part of Portico’s £1.6m restoration in 2015 was a complete rebuild of the organ by the late David McElderry of Wells Kennedy Partnership in Lisburn. “David McElderry’s recent death has been a terrible blow for us all” said Neil McClure “and the Board of Portico is pleased to dedicate this collection of music to his memory. David was a great friend of Portico and he has left us an incredible legacy in this instrument”.