GOA Chairman’s Afternoon “Alec Rowley and his Music”

Glos-Cheltenham-St-Stephen-North-Choir-cases-002x[1]A good number of GOA members and locals (53 in total) turned up on a wild and windy afternoon to St Stephen’s Church, Cheltenham to
hear Chairman Ken Stephens’ presentation on the organ music of Alec Rowley. The church was a warm haven on this blustery day, and we were welcomed by Father Brian Torode. Ken gave an exceptionally well prepared talk on the biography and music of this composer (1892 to 1958), who has been quite prolific, though much of the music has fallen from favour. The talk was illustrated with several pieces played by Cameron Luke on the 1912 3-manual Norman & Beard organ. Glos-Cheltenham-St-Stephen-Console-RHS-Jamb-008x[1] The first piece played was the Benedictus, probably Rowley’s best known (and possibly easiest and most approachable) organ work. We were treated to several other pieces illustrating different styles, concluding with his substantial Symphony in four movements. What struck this ‘casual’ listener was the continual key-shifting in the music, contributing to a generally unsettled feel
that did not allow for comfortable listening. Several pieces sounded as if they were created for an RCO composition exam to demonstrate the composer’s musicological abilities, rather than to convey a meaningful musical message. Comparisons were inevitably drawn with Percy Whitlock’s music which can be equally complex, but is considerably more communicative. Glos-Cheltenham-St-Stephen-Console-LHS-Jamb-007x[1]That said, Cameron’s playing was of the highest order, and his registration choices held the interest and helped to enliven the music – all seemingly achieved without page-turning assistance and with much hand-registration. The organ has a most attractive double case, but is unfortunately well buried under the chancel arch with a small amount of projection into the Nave via the aisle opening.
Consequently, though it sounds well at the console, the tone heard in the Nave is quite muted. As one passes behind the organ (on the way to the WC), then the voicing is fresh and bright and very satisfactory. Of course the N & B period sound is entirely suited to this music. Following the talk, the ladies of the church served a fine tea in the converted S Transept room, most efficiently heated, and good social
time was had by all. Some folk also got to try the organ. These larger meetings are such a useful opportunity for GOA members to reconnect with each other. Our thanks go to both Ken and Cameron for this presentation, acknowledging particularly their considerable task of thorough preparation. Also to Mike Eddy for providing much of the food, and the church ladies for serving it. Kleiner Erzahler