Quiet revolution in the south

by
12 February 2008

Two neighbouring cathedrals have just appointed women as organist and choir director. Roderic Dunnett talked to them

Katherine Dienes-Williams with Guildford Cathedral Choir

Katherine Dienes-Williams with Guildford Cathedral Choir

GUILDFORD CATHEDRAL, the first new Church of England cathedral to be built in the south of the country since the Reformation, is vying with its older sister in Chichester for another first.

At Guildford on 1 January, Katherine Dienes-Williams became the first serving woman organist and master of the choristers in any of England’s 43 Anglican cathedrals. But, before her appointment was announced, Chichester had already let it be known that Winchester’s assistant organist, Sarah Baldock, was to be its next organist and master of the choristers. She takes up her new post just after Easter.

Mrs Dienes-Williams was born in New Zealand, and on arriving in Guildford, was struck by some coincidences: “The first thing I spotted was that Lanesborough, the school in Guildford most of the choristers attend, is on Maori Road. Guildford Cathedral, like Wellington, has windows engraved by the New Zealand-born John Hutton, and there’s even a window here with a bird that looks like a kiwi. Most important was the building itself: I was struck by a huge feeling of spirituality here, strangely similar to that in the cathedral where I began, Wellington.”

Katherine Dienes — she is now married to Patrick Williams, librarian to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London — arrived in England more than 18 years ago, to be the first organ scholar at Winchester, under David Hill. She has held two assistantships since then, at the Roman Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral for four years, and then a similar post at Norwich Cathedral.

Until Christmas Day 2007, she was Organist and Master of the Choristers at St Mary’s, Warwick, which has both a boys’ and a girls’ choir, as at Guildford.

Her Guildford appointment is the icing on the cake. “I feel utterly elated, thrilled to have got it. I certainly hit the ground running: we moved on 29 December; I was due to start on 1 January; and I was also called in to play a service on New Year’s Eve,” Mrs Dienes-Williams says.

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Most of the 14-16 Guildford boys go to Lanesborough, with which the choir was linked from the very beginning, under the pioneering Barry Rose. Several go on to the Royal Grammar School, another source of talent. Guildford’s girls’ choir is directed by her assistant, David Davies, who was acting Organist after the departure of Mrs Dienes-Williams’s predecessor, Stephen Farr (whose wife, Jennifer, continues as the Guildford choristers’ voice coach).

Most of the 14-16 Guildford boys go to Lanesborough, with which the choir was linked from the very beginning, under the pioneering Barry Rose. Several go on to the Royal Grammar School, another source of talent. Guildford’s girls’ choir is directed by her assistant, David Davies, who was acting Organist after the departure of Mrs Dienes-Williams’s predecessor, Stephen Farr (whose wife, Jennifer, continues as the Guildford choristers’ voice coach).

The girls’ contribution includes regularly singing evensong on Fridays and one service on Sundays, as well as “several major liturgical events, when all the choirs come together”.

Mrs Dienes-Williams started piano in Wellington, aged six, and was encouraged by her piano teacher, a Christian Scientist, to take up the organ. At 13, she was given a scholarship to study organ at secondary school, but persevered with the piano, and took up the organ only when she was 17.

The next year, she embarked on a music degree at the Victoria University in Wellington (she is an accomplished composer as well as player: her setting of the Mass is performed at Wellington Cathedral), taking also a degree in French and German.

At university, she had organ lessons with Douglas Mews (son of a celebrated Newfoundland-born New Zealand composer). Another key influence was Professor Peter Godfrey, now in his 80s. “It was Peter who really sat me down and said: ‘This is how you play a hymn. This is how you play a psalm.’”

Professor Godfrey, a contemporary of Sir David Willcocks, was a chorister and bass choral scholar at King’s, Cambridge. In 1978, he returned to King’s to cover for Philip Ledger as acting Director of Music, while Ledger ran his choir back in New Zealand.

When she isn’t playing the organ or conducting, Mrs Deanes-Williams remains a fanatical supporter of the New Zealand rugby team, the All-Blacks.

“One of the nicest things,” she says, “is that I’m doing more playing now: playing more organ voluntaries, and accompanying Friday-night evensongs. Just to sit down and play the psalms for a service is a really wonderful experience.

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“We’re definitely on a journey here. We’ve got this marvellous position, as the beacon on top of the hill. A hundred yards from where I am now is the University, where the lay clerks often drink in the graduates’ bar.

“We’re definitely on a journey here. We’ve got this marvellous position, as the beacon on top of the hill. A hundred yards from where I am now is the University, where the lay clerks often drink in the graduates’ bar.

“But we also want to look outwards, to involve ourselves in the diocese, local schools, and so on. One can envisage a situation where one group goes out into the community, at the same time as another is singing a service. It’s all part of networking, taking ourselves out to the local community, and encouraging people to come here.”

Choir-school status and the possibilities envisaged in the government-supported Sing Up! Project (www.singup.org) may all have a bearing in future.

WINCHESTER is where the young Katherine Dienes served her first apprenticeship. At the end of Lent, Sarah Baldock’s connection with Winchester will cease, too. She will play her last service there on Easter Day, when it will be the venue for Choral Evensong on Radio 3.

“Working in a cathedral is a wonderful apprenticeship,” she says. “I’ve learned a vast amount from both Andrew Lumsden and the Winchester sub-organists.

“Stephen Farr — as it happens, Katherine Dienes’s predecessor at Guildford — was here when I started, and taught me how to accompany; and from Philip Scriven I picked up a different kind of playing. You absorb a huge amount from your colleagues — and that learning process goes on.”

The four-manual Winchester organ is no small monster: a Willis organ, originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison. “It’s a friendly old beast,” says Sarah, who admits to being “very fond of Duruflé: I like to whack out his Suite now and then.”

She says: “A lot of organists are reasonably petite — both male and female. At five foot two inches, I’m relatively small, though my ‘small’ hands can still stretch a major ninth. But it’s one reason why I took up the organ and worked quite hard at it: I wasn’t interested in becoming a professional pianist: Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Liszt were not really open to me. On an organ, your feet cope with the bass line, which solves half the problem — although I had to get the left hand not to do what the pedals were doing.”

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Sarah Baldock started learning the piano and violin at four or five, winning a music scholarship at St Paul’s Girls’ School; but she started the organ only at 16, in her GSCE year. She took part in the Oundle International Organ Festival: “it’s a great inspiration, a great chance to meet your peers and find out what’s going on.” There, she says, “I was hugely encouraged by David Higgs, Professor of Organ at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York.

“He was really supportive. He insisted: ‘You’re a good player: keep at it.’ When you’re learning, that kind of encouragement is crucial.”

Later, she was organist to Tonbridge School, and Simon Preston was living near by. “He encouraged me to go in for competitions and give recitals.” She studied with David Sanger and Thomas Trotter, who “was a huge help. He plays music of every century, including contemporary. He’s a great performer, and a great entertainer, too.”

Later, she was organist to Tonbridge School, and Simon Preston was living near by. “He encouraged me to go in for competitions and give recitals.” She studied with David Sanger and Thomas Trotter, who “was a huge help. He plays music of every century, including contemporary. He’s a great performer, and a great entertainer, too.”

In no time, Sarah Baldock was elected organ scholar of Pembroke College, Cambridge. “Pembroke didn’t have choral scholarships: all the choir were volunteers. I wanted to attract people to the choir who perhaps had been choristers somewhere, and who were able to read music. You know what it’s like getting students to commit to anything, week after week.

“We survived on a few graduates from Westcott House, the odd medic from Clare. It was just Sunday evensongs, plus a Thursday choir practice. But you soon learn if you’re motivating your choir or not, as, if you don’t, they leave.”

Sarah went straight up to Cambridge without a gap year: “Luckily, we had an excellent senior organ scholar: Mark Williams, now a vicar in Southwark diocese, working at the Pembroke College Mission, at St Christopher’s, Walworth. He took me under his wing, and during my first year he and the Dean, Canon Brian Watchorn, tried to introduce me to church music.

“As senior organ scholar, I then ran the choir for two years. The chapel has a Mander organ, but no swell box, which means a lot of the traditional music — Stanford in B flat, etc. — was out. So we did a lot of unaccompanied music — Palestrina and Lassus, and all that fantastic Renaissance stuff, which is the kind of music I love most.

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“When you’re a sub-organist and you’ve been in the job for a while, concentrating on accompanying, you start looking around and thinking what you’d like to do next. English cathedrals are hugely different in what they offer musically. I’d had my eye on Chichester: it was the one place I had set my heart on, my dream job. Apparently there were a huge number of applications. When they appointed me, I was over the moon.”

At Chichester, Ms Baldock succeeds Alan Thurlow, vice-president of the Friends of Cathedral Music, and a former president of the Cathedral Organists Association, who is retiring after 27 years. As things stand, it will be an all-male choir she inherits, as there is neither funding for a girls’ choir at present, nor are there plans for one in the foreseeable future.

How will she cope with four or five organs, her 14 boy choristers (educated at the Prebendal School), and four probationers, plus six robust lay vicars? “I’m really looking forward to focusing on the boys. The first task is to get them to pay attention. It’s worth remembering they are very young children. You have to work to make them listen to what you’re saying.

“A lot of peer-learning goes on: the osmosis that passes down from the senior boy on the line; so you’re half teaching them — they’re half teaching one another.

“I’ve only heard Chichester a few times, but the chemistry has to be very different from the way one approaches Winchester, which is a much more cavernous, resonant space. The building determines what you do, and what the organ can do. At Winchester, we sing our Sunday-morning services from the nave, but I’m pretty certain Chichester sing almost all their services from the choir.

“It’s a more intimate space. There’s a sort of excitement attached to a forte sound there. The organ is quite a gentle instrument, partly because you’re so near it. You can use almost all of it for choir accompanying; whereas in a big space like, say, Salisbury, the instrument includes a lot you can’t use.”

So what does her husband think about it? “He’s David Hurley, the high countertenor in the King’s Singers. He has a boat in Portsmouth harbour, and is a keen sailor; so being near the sea couldn’t be better for him. It’s also near Gatwick, and that’s ideal, as he has to travel a lot with the group. And there are some nice shops in Chichester. It’s worked out really well for both of us.”

www.guildford-cathedral.org

katherinedienes.com

www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk

www.waynflete.hampshire.org.uk

www.chichestercathedral.org.uk

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