Charles Wood Festival Celebrates Armagh Composer Who Left Behind a Sacred Body of Works

The chorister turned Cambridge professor's legacy is preserved for another year with a week of major concerts and more in his native city

With two cathedrals perched high on adjoining hill-tops, the city of Armagh is considered the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.

It's also the birthplace of renowned composer Charles Wood, who received his early musical education as a chorister at the Church of Ireland cathedral opposite his Vicars' Hill home. Wood later studied at the Royal College of Music, before going on to become Professor of Music at Cambridge University. When he passed away in 1926, he left behind a legacy of over 250 sacred works, for which he is mainly remembered today.

So it's fitting that the city plays host every year to the Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School, a week-long schedule of events for singers, organists and choir directors, which will take place in all the main churches across Armagh.

Under the artistic directorship of David Hill, chief conductor of the BBC Singers, the festival has flourished and become a highlight in Ireland's choral music calendar. According to Hill, who will direct the 40-strong Charles Wood Singers at the heart of the festival, this year's programme promises to be bigger and better than before, with a stand-out event taking place daily throughout the week.

Armagh Cathedrals

'As artistic director, the thinking was that there should be one person leading the week and the singers principally, rather than having a collection of conductors,' he says. 'The idea was that I could bring some thought musically over the whole week, instead of a number of people just putting forward ideas. This way, there is much more of an integrity about how we can unite everything that we are doing throughout the week and make it a complete artistic whole.

'I've definitely noticed that the level of talent has been improving, over the last seven or eight years particularly. Some of our singers who come back have had training either through the Charles Wood Singers, or music college or have studied singing and bring this experience with them. But if a person can read well, is very musical and has the right credentials, it shouldn't be daunting.

Hill adds that 'Yes, we are operating at a high level within the Charles Wood Singers, but the group isn't exclusive or snobbish. It's very inclusive and features people from all backgrounds who have had exposure to choral singing.'

At the beginning of the week, the Charles Wood Singers, along with David and Philip Scriven, assistant conductor and accompanist of the Bach Choir, come together to prepare music for an extensive programme including two major concerts, choral evensongs, sung masses and a BBC Radio 3 broadcast. The choir is made up predominantly of young people and Hill is delighted to see that many of the female sopranos come from Ireland.

19554080_467370100266265_2854576735397370783_n

Charles Wood Singers

New to the line-up this year is the Charles Wood Girls' Choir, a residential course for girl choristers aged 12-18. Participants will undergo training in singing and choral music under the direction of Ian Keatley, organist and director of music at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, assisted by Stephen Disley, the girls' choir organist. The girls will also take part in workshops with Hill and composer and conductor John Rutter. The girls' schedule includes opportunities to perform at services and concerts in the Church of Ireland cathedral, where Charles Wood himself first sang, and St Malachy's church as well as a BBC Radio Ulster broadcast.

'We used to have a boys' choir and it worked well, but it was difficult to get choristers together,' says Hill. 'Ian Keatley suggested we start a younger girls' choir then. If this develops over the next five years, those girls will be ideal for joining the Charles Wood Singers.

'The educational aspect of the week is important too. The Girls' Choir will do their own services and join us for the final evensong as well as doing the Radio Ulster morning service broadcast.

'It's very exciting in terms of innovation and it's great to see the committee embracing new ideas so enthusiastically.'

Will Todd

Will Todd

Another new aspect to the week is the inclusion of composer Will Todd, who will play the piano for a performance of his Mass in Blue at the Gala Concert on Friday, August 25 and then give a jazz workshop the following day.

'Will's Mass in Blue is a wonderfully vibrant, tuneful, melodic carefree work that has real style and musical integrity,' says Hill. 'I think people will really enjoy it.'

Other highlights of the week include the return of John Rutter, who will lead the Come and Sing event on Thursday, August 24 – a chance to sing a selection of Rutter's pieces under the direction of the composer himself, workshops, private tuition and a seminar on 'How The Voice Works' by internationally renowned vocal coach Paul Farrington and the Concert by Candlelight at St Patrick's Catholic cathedral on Wednesday, August 23. Hill is also looking forward to the final of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, chaired by Thomas Trotter, Birmingham city organist.

'Choirs and organs are inextricably linked throughout the week,' he explains. 'We have Thomas Trotter, one of the world's greatest organists, who will listen to amazing talent of players competing and from this, other things will develop. Open rehearsals, lunch-time concerts and vocal and organ master-classes will have this link all the time.'

Thomas Trotter

Thomas Trotter

David is particularly proud of the ecumenical feel of the festival and he says that there is something to suit everyone of faith and none. And he believes the legacy of Charles Wood should live on and be celebrated in his native city.

'Where else would you find two cathedrals sitting on hills looking at each other and where two archbishops reside? The festival brings people together,' he says.

'Charles Wood's name may not be well known outside of church circles but he was a great composer and educator who took the massive step from being a chorister in Northern Ireland to Professor of Music at Cambridge. He left behind a huge body of work and it's hard to come across a piece that can't be admired in some way.

'It is only right that the people of Armagh remember him and embrace his music warmly, which they do. There is a tremendous community pride in the city and any time I've been around the place, people do know his name. Of course for us, that is fantastic as it means "job done".'

The Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School takes place from August 20 to 27. Full details of the programme can be found at www.charleswoodsummerschool.org. Bookings can be made online at www.armagh.co.uk/charleswood or by contacting Armagh Visitor Information Centre (Phone 028 3752 1800; Email vic@armaghbanbridgecraigavon.gov.uk).