Charles Wood Festival in Armagh, a place of historical notes

The 'city of saints and scholars' will be filled with seven days of music this month as the enduring event returns with its special concerts, masterclasses and competitions

The city of Armagh has an ancient history. Named after the Celtic goddess Macha – in Irish, Ard Mhacha means 'the high place of Macha' – Armagh was, for centuries before Christianity arrived, the capital of the Province of Ulster. St Patrick chose it as his ecclesiastical centre for the island of Ireland in the mid-fifth century.

As a place of learning based in the monastery founded by St Patrick, Armagh is often cited as the ‘city of saints and scholars’. It is singularly appropriate then that the Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School has been held in Armagh annually for the past 26 years.

This year, due to the stasis at Stormont, its public funding has been reduced and, like many arts organizations in Northern Ireland, the Festival had the rug pulled from under it and suddenly found itself facing an uncertain future. Thanks to the support of a local business with an international reputation – Ulster Carpets Ltd. – the situation has been stabilized at least for this year.

If you are one of those people with an embracing interest in church music, the name of Charles Wood will be familiar. Born in Armagh, where his father was Lay Vicar Choral in the St. Patrick's Cathedral (Church of Ireland) choir and also the Diocesan Registrar of the church, the young Charles had the full benefit of a chorister’s education – something not to be underestimated even nowadays.

The summer school named after him seeks to offer an abridged version of that type of experience. The Charles Wood Singers, who individually apply to join this fortunate grouping earlier in the year, provide the core of the school’s 'curriculum' through a series of open rehearsals, choral concerts and services.

The Singers are directed again this year by David Hill, former Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers; his knowledge and expertise, built up over a formidable career in the world of choral training, are a continuing and invaluable asset to the school.

Amongst the works this year’s Charles Wood Singers will explore and perform are wide varieties of choral masterpieces from Haydn, Mozart, Tippet and, of course de rigueur, Wood – his immortal 'Hail! Gladdening Light' – as well as a special centennial celebration of the great Leonard Bernstein in the organ accompanied version of his cross-cultural Chichester Psalms.

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Vocal Coach Paul Farrington with some pupils pictured after a Singers’ Concert

The current Anglican choral tradition is, however, founded on and dominated by late 20th century and early 20th century English (with apologies to Sir Charles Villiers Stanford) composers. It being exactly one hundred years since his death, Sir Hubert Parry, in particular, is highlighted in this year’s summer school by a series of specially chosen works. Professor Jeremy Dibble, Parry’s indefatigable biographer, will be present to give insights into the life and music of this imperiously Victorian/Edwardian composer.

Parry’s music is interspersed throughout the week’s programming and is featured in the works sung by the Charles Wood Girls' Choir, which has members drawn from all parts of Ireland. This choir is conducted by its founding director, Belfast-born Ian Keatley, who is now Director of Music for Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

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Charles Wood Girls’ Choir, with director Ian Keatley and accompanist Stephen Disley

The wider title of this week of events in Armagh is the Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School. So it is no surprise to find it punctuated and peppered with a number of concerts and masterclasses.

The Festival's opening concert will feature Sinéad O’Kelly (mezzo-soprano) and Peter Davoren (tenor), alongside the multi award-winning organist Martin Ennis. Internationally famous specialist voice coach, Paul Farrington, will conduct workshops and give individual tuition.

There will be a Festival of Hymns organised in collaboration with the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland with Belfast’s Credemus Choir conducted by Edward Craig.

Meanwhile, one of the world's finest organists, Dame Gillian Weir, will be giving tips with her inimitable style in a 'Performance Workshop' on how to programme a concert effectively and engage audiences.

Philip Scriven

Philip Scriven

And perhaps most attractive of all in my musical opinion, organist Philip Scriven will present a programme of organ music, performed by organists associated with the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, entitled 'Bach at Twilight'.

This Festival importantly chooses its venues from churches across the Christian spectrum in Armagh, and I think that is what makes it so significant and so emblematic of what can be done when people work in concert with one another.

In a land which has been beset with a history of religious quarrels and squabbles, the Charles Wood Festival and Summer School presents the better side of religion and its practice through its artistic element, and it teaches that music surpasses the petty divisions of personal beliefs and insubstantial dogma.

The Charles Wood Festival of Music and Summer School runs from August 12 - 19 2018. For details of timetable, programme content and booking information, visit the website www.charleswoodsumerschool.org.