Mick Duggan

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Breaking with tradition but still very much in tune

As the first Catholic organist at Westminister Abbey, James O’Donnell led the music for the royal wedding and Obama’s visit, writesMick Duggan

JAMES O’DONNELL is the first Catholic since the Reformation to hold the position of organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey in London. Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1961, but raised in England, O’Donnell claims Irish descent, with roots in Co Roscommon.

In his office overlooking the great west door of Westminster Abbey, O’Donnell has planned the music for some great national and international occasions: last year’s royal wedding, the service of evening prayer attended by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a visit by Barack Obama and many others.

On such days, the eyes and ears of the world are on the abbey. For the choir, these events join a programme of services, concerts, tours and recordings that in most other places would already seem extraordinary enough.

“The position of the abbey in national life means that we have to be ready for anything — to be part of the national response to events that are unforeseen, extraordinary, happy, and sometimes terrible,” says O’Donnell, recalling in particular a service held days after September 11. “Each one is unique and has its own integrity, but we can tackle them because we are singing here every day, striving to be as good as we can be, so that everyone who hears us has an excellent experience. Then, when we need to extend ourselves, the basic mechanisms are sound. We don’t have peaks and troughs. We don’t have to raise our game by a lot of notches.”

Before taking up his current post in 2000, O’Donnell was master of the music in Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral at the other end of Victoria Street, leading to him being dubbed “the master of two Westminster traditions”.

Then, as now, he was sustaining a tradition of sung daily worship that stretches back into antiquity and indeed into the abbey’s own origins as a Benedictine monastery. It is a theme he warms to readily. “We perform music written a matter of weeks ago and music from the monastic period. The structure of the services is old and incredibly strong, but also really versatile. It won’t snap. As a musician, this is inspiring.”

O’Donnell is overseeing a rehearsal that includes some pieces by Mendelssohn for evensong later that day and a recent setting of the Mass by Judith Bingham for Sung Eucharist. He describes the process of selecting the pieces for the choir as one of the best bits of the job. But it’s daunting too. O’Donnell and his team plan about three months ahead for the programme of music that will accompany worship every day.

The choir has also released several recordings under O’Donnell on Hyperion records. A CD of music by 16th century composer Christopher Tye is due shortly. Recordings are an obvious way of bringing the choir to a wider audience, but there is even more to it than that. “I feel very strongly that we have an ambassadorial role. The choir speaks volumes about what the abbey holds dear, its identity, its values, the belief that the choral tradition is an integral part of Christian worship.”

Another unique facet of music at the abbey is its choir school. It is the only remaining choir school in England in which all of the pupils are also choristers.

“Part of my job is functional. We can’t ‘grade’ the music the choir sings, so the boys need to know the notes. They have to become self-sufficient musically. But motivating them isn’t hard. The choir is a constant presence in all of their lives. Music is their top priority and the top priority of the friends they have around them. They are used to putting their best foot forward on a daily basis. And 10-year-olds are not over-awed in the way more worldly adults might imagine.”

O’Donnell’s contribution to music stretches out beyond the confines of the abbey. He has recently conducted St James Baroque and the BBC Singers in a concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and performed organ pieces by Bach and others in St David’s Hall, Cardiff. He is visiting professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2010 he was artist in residence at Yale.

His passion for his job is palpable, unquenchable it seems. “You can never put your feet up, however good you think you are. You have never turned over every stone. There is always something to address, something not quite right. But there are also no limits to the directions we can go in.”

The traditions and the future of this great choir could hardly be in safer hands.

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