Pipeworks International Organ Festival

Belfasts hosts the prestigious competition at the Ulster Hall and elsewhere from June 25

First, in 1980, there was the Dublin International Organ Festival, operating on a triennial basis. Then, when the brief expanded, it became the Dublin International Organ and Choral Festival.

Finally, in the early 2000s, there was Pipeworks, a snappier, more media-friendly title for a festival which has gradually extended its reach and influence as one of the premier forums for rising stars of the international organ-playing circuit.

Pipeworks continues to push the envelope: this year, for the first time, the final round of the organ competition at the heart of the festival will consist of a concerto accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra, and the venue will be Belfast, not Dublin, as Pipeworks looks to broaden its geographical footprint and audience outreach further.

New Zealander Mark Duley, himself an organist of international stature, is in his 13th year as artistic director of Pipeworks. He views Belfast as a natural choice for the festival’s showcase finale, with the presence in the city’s Ulster Hall of the magnificent Mulholland Grand Organ.

‘The Ulster Hall organ is one of the great 19th century town hall organs,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s an authoritative instrument. So many concert hall organs are disappointing, because they don’t really get the room moving, as it were. This one really does. It’s certainly the finest concert hall organ we have in Ireland, and we’re delighted to have it as part of the festival.’

While the age-range for the Pipeworks competition is 18-35, the tendency is, says Duley, for most of the entrants to be drawn from the younger end of that spectrum. ‘The main constituency would be third-level organ students, studying at a conservatory. All would be hoping to have some sort of career as a solo recitalist. Some of them are already embarked on solo careers.’

Duley is in no doubt that during his personal tenure of the Pipeworks competition, the players entering it have been getting better and better, and there have been more of them.

‘The standards have risen hugely,’ he comments. ‘In terms of the numbers, the first festival that I ran we were struggling to get enough people to have a viable quarter-final round. For this festival we had 57 entries, which we had to whittle down to 16 quarter-finalists.

‘And in terms of standards, we’re seeing applications from some of the top conservatoires now. There’s a feeling that Pipeworks has got a niche on the international scene, and it’s very well respected by some of the key teachers round the world.’

Duley also identifies renewed interest in the organ itself as an important factor in the expansion of the Pipeworks festival in the past decade. ‘The profile of the organ is certainly on the increase.'

Paradoxically, Duley argues, the fall of congregations in churches – where the vast majority of pipe organs are located – has enabled the instrument to emerge more fully into the consciousness of the general concert-going public.

‘Also quite a few organisations now, including Pipeworks, are making education projects to identify young talent, and also to open up the instrument to people who’ve never seen or heard an organ before, getting it out of the ecclesiastical ghetto, if I can put it like that, so that people see it as more of an instrument in its own right, not just an accompaniment to services.’

Duley, who has lived and worked in Ireland for over two decades, is an enthusiastic advocate of his adopted country. He concedes, however, that many of the organists who come to compete in Pipeworks have little prior knowledge of the island’s rich heritage of players and instruments.

‘I don’t think it has had anything like the exposure it should have. It’s a surprise to many when they discover some of the organs we have here. We make sure they see the right ones.'

Duley also views the traditional friendliness and warmth of welcome extended to visitors by Irish people as a key influence in the growing popularity of the Pipeworks festival.

‘I think the hospitality we offer is probably second to none when it comes to organ competitions,’ he says proudly. ‘We house our competitors with local families, we look after them very well, we make sure they get from A to B. We have a reputation for competitors enjoying their time here, no matter how they do in the competition.’

Duley is equally proud of the fact that most of the unsung logistical work enabling the festival to run smoothly is done by a loyal team of local people, volunteering to work for nothing.

‘There’s an enormous amount of volunteer effort in the background,’ he explains. ‘In Dublin we have 16 practice organs on the go, and we have teams of people ferrying competitors about. It’s a huge undertaking, but the organ world is quite a close-knit world, everyone knows everyone else. And a thing like an organ festival everyone gets behind really.’

The three-day visit of the Pipeworks festival to Belfast from June 25-27 promises to be a uniquely exciting occasion for the city’s music lovers. Beginning with a concert in St Peter’s Cathedral featuring the remarkable Hilliard Ensemble – one of the last-ever appearances by the elite vocal group before they retire in December – it continues with a recital on the Mulholland Grand by renowned American organist, Todd Wilson.

Then, of course, there is the grand concerto finale, on Friday, June 27, when three finalists will slug it out to see who wins the Pipeworks 2014 competition. The decision will, says Duley, be made immediately on the evening, not taken back to Dublin for further consideration.

‘The five adjudicators will be there. They’ll retire to discuss the verdict, and hopefully half an hour or so later we’ll have white smoke and the announcement of a winner.’

Pipeworks International Organ Competition Final is at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on June 27.