Inaugural Northern Ireland Organ Competition

Winner Ben Comeau on scooping the top prize with Stravinsky's 'Firebird' suite

'January.' I wait for Richard Yarr to tell me more. I've asked him when he started planning the inaugural Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, which took place on August 22-23 in Armagh. 'January 2009 or 2010?' I prompt helpfully. 'No,' Yarr grins back at me. 'January. As in this January, 2011.'

Flicking through the press releases, surfing the competition website, and surveying the mountain of logistical activity required to get a show like this rolling, I'm tempted to conclude that this is not humanly possible in such a short space of time.

Especially when you factor in Yarr's demanding day job as a music producer at BBC Northern Ireland. He's had help from others, naturally, but start to finish it's been very much his personal baby. Why do it? Isn't life busy enough already?

'I've been involved in judging the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year competition for the last number of years,' Yarr explains. 'We get lots of bagpipers, drummers, all sorts of other things. But I noticed that you can't actually participate in that competition as an organist. It's just not a portable instrument. So I suddenly thought, being an organist myself, there are such talented people around here. So where are they being catered for?'

From that question grew the idea of what Yarr calls a 'multi-layered, multi-levelled competition, a place where organists can actually meet, that's going to draw other people from outside of Northern Ireland in'. The issue of venue was easily settled.

'The natural home for this was the Charles Wood Summer School in Armagh, with the wonderful setting of the cathedrals and churches there. And they've already got an established festival atmosphere, developed over a number of years. They've been absolutely brilliant in facilitating us.'

Did Yarr worry about attracting sufficient entrants with the relatively short run-in to this year's inaugural competition? If he did, he doesn't show it. 'The number of applications has been incredible,' he says. 'There's such an appetite for it. We're absolutely delighted.'

No fewer than 15 young organists competed in the Senior section in St Patrick's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral, with others in the Intermediate and Junior classes.

Yarr is vocal in his appreciation of two organisations which have particularly supported the competition initiative, the Royal College of Organists and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. 'Those are two great seals of approval for us,' he enthuses. 'It's really shown competitors that we mean business.'

Crucial also in gleaning credibility for the event is the impressive roster of patrons Yarr has attracted, including Dame Gillian Weir and James O'Donnell, stellar figures on the international organ circuit. 'These people are big names, and they are endorsing the competition,' Yarr comments. 'They're not going to be endorsing something which they think is going to be a one-hit wonder and vanish.'

So how do you win an organ competition? What were Yarr and his jury looking for in the young players?

'Someone who can get the notes right!,' Yarr says, laughing, which is no easy feat, given some of the repertoire choices on offer. Then, more seriously, 'someone who's got a special quality about the performance, who's very inventive with the instrument, who can really get that extra-special colour from it. Someone who is an excellent interpreter and can touch the audience.'

18-year old Ben Comeau from Truro, in his first major competition, was the organist who touched the audience and jury most on the day, winning the £1,000 prize and three invaluable recital opportunities in Belfast, Dublin and Cambridge.

Encoring his own stunning transcription of excerpts from Stravinsky's 'Firebird' suite, Comeau revealed he almost hadn't included it in his programme. 'I had no idea how the judges would respond to it really,' he explained. 'I changed my mind several times. But I thought it would be very nice to try something a bit unusual and a bit different.'

Leading choral conductor and jury member, David Hill confirmed the particular impact Comeau's Stravinsky transcription (he also played a Bach trio sonata) had made on the three-man panel. 'We opened this score which he had put together, and realised that this was firstly an extraordinary piece of work from someone so young. We wondered whether he could actually deliver the notes on the page from that.'

It turned out that Comeau could, almost literally with bells on, as he milked the bold Romantic colorations of the St Patrick's pipework to flamboyant effect. 'He just transported us,' Hill comments. 'Some of the things that he was doing from his own writing were very difficult indeed technically. He's got the nerve, he's got fire in his belly. He was quite the right winner.'

'Incredibly high' was Hill's verdict on the overall standard of the 15 players in the competition. 'It's been a very happy day, not least because people feel that the result is right, and outstanding musicianship has been justly rewarded.'

Comeau declared himself 'elated' by his victory, and by his experience of the Armagh competition. 'It's been brilliant. I really, really enjoyed my time here, I've made some great friends. It's been a very, very friendly atmosphere, and it's been very well organised, given that it's in its first year.'

Comeau also rates the St Patrick's organ highly. 'It's very good, very nice indeed. I played the whole Stravinsky transcription on the Truro Cathedral organ a few weeks ago, and that was also very good. But I felt this had more power, particularly with the 32-foot reeds and a brilliant tuba on the choir.'

Having completed a masterclass with jury chair Thierry Mechler, Comeau returns to Cornwall to mull over the programmes for his three prize-winning recitals, and to ponder his musical future (he is also a gifted pianist, jazz player and composer).

His forthcoming appearance at St Peter's, Belfast is a prime opportunity for local organ fanciers to view a budding master of the instrument, and to hear his richly-plumed incarnation of Stravinsky's exotic 'Firebird' swirl headily into the cathedral ether.

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