Ulster Hall's Organic Lunches

Belfast City Organist Colm Carey on curating a musical programme to be performed on the Mulholland Organ

Organic lunches are normally something that you eat. For Colm Carey, though, they’re something that you listen to.

Organic Lunches is a series of four monthly recitals on the Ulster Hall's Mulholland Grand Organ, the ‘Grand Dame’ of Bedford Street, who celebrated her 150th birthday a couple of years back.

No one knows the instrument better than Carey, the Belfast City Organist. His job involves playing the Mulholland Grand frequently, and unravelling its sonic splendours to a broader public in a variety of educational and outreach initiatives.

Organic Lunches was launched in January 2014, with Carey himself playing the opening recital. In curating the series, he has for the most part steered clear of obvious organ favourites in compiling programmes for the four recitals. His penchant for the new and less familiar is a very deliberate policy.

‘The organ has a huge repertoire,’ Carey explains. ‘And I think a lot of the time it suffers from the fact that people just play a really small part of it. The same things come round time and again. But I think it’s always interesting for audiences to hear new things.

‘I’m always amazed – and I find this particularly in Ireland – how receptive people are. In my experience the Irish are very open and musical people. They will take risks with things. I play a lot of contemporary music in Ireland that I would never play in England.’

‘New’ and ‘contemporary’ in classical music all too often mean ‘unlistenable'. Lest anyone, however, balk at the idea of being wrenched out of their normal comfort zone at an Organic Lunches concert, Carey is quick to offer reassurance.

‘All the music in all of the programmes is actually very approachable,’ he stresses, also highlighting some interesting historical links between Belfast and the music in the recitals.

‘There’s some Mendelssohn, for instance, because when the Ulster Hall instrument was first installed in the 19th century, the guy who came to see that it was erected properly was called Edmund Chipp. He was in Belfast for three years and did a lot of playing on the organ.

‘He and Mendelssohn knew each other really well, and Chipp did some of the first performances of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas. So it’s really appropriate that we had the 'Mendelssohn First Sonata'.’

One of the major functions of large municipal organs like the Mulholland Grand in the 19th century was to expose audiences to music not originally written for organ by the great classical composers. ‘When the instrument went in,’ explains Carey, ‘it would have been used a lot to play opera music of the day. There wasn’t an Ulster orchestra like there is now.’

Carey himself returns for the fourth and final recital, on Tuesday, April 29, in a programme celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal College of Organists. Among works by Widor, Vierne and Hindemith, Carey is, with typical enterprise, including a Northern Irish premiere.

‘I’m playing a new piece, which has been written for me by an Irish composer called David Coonan. He’s in his mid to late 20s, and I think he’s going to be a really important composer. I’m delighted he’s writing this big 15-minute piece, but I don’t know much about it yet. I haven’t seen the score!’

Above and beyond the specific details of the Organic Lunches programmes is the visceral thrill of hearing the Mulholland Grand itself, widely acclaimed as one of the finest organs of its type in the UK and Ireland.

Despite his vast experience playing a wide variety of instruments in different locations, Carey is still obviously tickled by the impact the Mulholland Grand can have on those who have never previously heard it snort and roar, particularly the younger generation.

‘On a whole number of occasions I have played to a hall full of kids,’ he relates. ‘Well, kids don’t go to church these days nearly as much as they used to, and a lot of them have never encountered a pipe organ.

‘The great thing about the Mulholland is that it has got incredible power, as well as a lot of very beautiful softer colours on it. And it’s amazing the reaction you get from kids who haven’t experienced it. I played once, and they just started screaming. It was incredible. Screaming for joy, that is,’ he adds hastily.

The Mulholland is, despite its ageing ‘Grand Dame’ status, still clearly sounding magnificent. 'Better now that when I started the job some years ago,’ as Carey puts it. But he sounds a cautionary note about the instrument’s future.

‘Despite the fact the organ has been rebuilt on a number of occasions, a lot of the woodwork inside is still original, and that is obviously going to be affected by age,’ he says. ‘In time it’s going to need a major job to ensure its longevity.’

Carey is in no doubt about the need to make a financial commitment to the Mulholland, and the value for money that the instrument will continue giving to the citizens of Belfast and its visitors. ‘It was donated to the people of Belfast, it’s there for the people of Belfast, it does need to be taken care of,’ he comments.

‘It’s part of the musical history of the city, and still has a large role to play,’ Carey continues. ‘It’s played for a lot of events that are not strictly musical events. Schools come in and use it, the School of Music come in and use it.

‘And we have a very open-door policy – if an organist turns up and they want to have a go on it, as long as the hall’s free they can usually go and do that. The Mulholland Grand is something that’s there to be enjoyed by people in a whole variety of ways.’

Organic Lunches concert series continues in the Ulster Hall, Belfast on April 29.