Liam Murphy

It is great to have another festival in the South East, and the time was so right to create a Waterford International Organ Festival to celebrate organ music and for Christ Church Cathedral to commemorate the legacy of the late Eric Sweeney, composer, educationalist as well as being organist and choirmaster in Cathedral Square.

Due to COVID restrictions, the inaugural festival had to be online, and this enabled the organisers to stream work from Waterford with international organists streaming from France, Switzerland, Germany and Japan. These included Olivier Salandini (France), Vincent Thevenaz (Switzerland), Stefan Viegelahn (Germany), Megumi Tokuoka (Japan) and Simon Harden (Waterford).

Three online concerts over three nights had themes of Despair, Promise, and Hope, with works by Bach and Sweeney featuring in each concert. Funding was provided by Waterford City and County Council and the Church Of Ireland Priorities Fund.

Concert 1 – Despair

The theme of Despair suggested to me De Profundis or Out of the Depths, Psalm 130. I was expecting a reflection of the horrible time of Covid with tragic, broken aspects of humanity with a touch of Leonard Cohen: “A million candles burning, for the help that never came. You want it darker”.

A Bach piece established a sonorous tone, and Salandini impressed with a Brahms passion and ache for respite, and his spirited playing of a Dupre Crucifixion was a powerful crescendo of grief and loss. Tokuoka chose a familiar Bach passage full of sadness and distress, and Viegelahn had an emotional, end of tether plunge into despair.

Olivier Salandini was one of many outstanding performers.

Harden wowed with Sweeney’s The Widening Gyre (2003), and this was an exciting mix of uncertainty, confusion and a quickening of the spirit. Thevenaz rocked with a wild Piazzolla, Muerte del Angel, that went into a powerhouse of crazy, almost out of mind music. This wasn’t how I imagined a church organ being played.

Concert 2 – Promise

A Bach Prelude and Fugue got the second concert off to a great start on the theme of Promise. This was about a greater truth than immediacy, a greater goodness than the evil we are experiencing. It was a hang-on-in-there occasion.

The Japanese organist, Megumi Tokuoka, playing on the Toyota City Concert Hall organ, a Widor symphonic extract full of beautiful meditation and sustained notes. She also delighted with lovely flights of imagination with a Tunder Fantasia. Simon Harden returned to Bach for a Grand Chorale, Pentecost Fantasia full of life and ‘Come Holy Spirit’. Vincent Thevenaz played an Agnus Dei from his countryman Frank Martin.

Harden played Eric Sweeney’s meditation, The Secret Rose, with promises from a deeper, more private place. Stefan Viegelahn impressed with the Felix Mendelssohn Sonata No2 from St Katherinen Church Frankfurt, where the composer premiered the sonata originally. It was majestic and joyful.

The late Eric Sweeney.

Concert 3 – Hope

The Japanese organist Megumi Tokuoka opened the Hope themed concert with a friendly and familiar Bach Toccata in E that was uplifting, and you could feel the shared humanity, shared vulnerability in the work leading to a better future. Vincent Thevenaz, the Swiss organist, swept me away with a Lionel Rogg – Sunset, Nocturne, Sunrise, that created such wonderful sound images. Olivier Salandini brought vitality and energy with his pacy Bach Allegro in C, and his Dupre Resurrection was dramatic as it rose in ‘adoro te devote’ to a glorious crescendo.

Simon Harden created luminosity and excitement with Eric Sweeney’s The Circle Of Light, and it was memorable and life-affirming, bringing back memories of meeting Eric down the years. Stefan Viegelahn created a humming-like tune with the Cesar Franck Fantasie Op 16 that reminded me of why I love Franck’s music. Harden completed the concert with a more contemporary work, Towards Hope by Thierry Escaich, and it had an urgent musical theatre, staccato style that carried you along.