Robert Sharpe is the Director of Music at York Minster, and the second organist at our spring 2020 season of Wednesday@One. We spoke to him about his upcoming organ recital to find out what we can expect from his programme as well as finding out more about his career.
York Minster is currently auditioning for new choristers. How is that going?
The actual auditions are happening on Friday 24th January and we’re very much looking forward to the audition day. It’s not too late to apply and we would be keen to hear from more girls in current school year 2!
Could you tell us about your background as a musician?
My home town is Lincoln and, like York, has a large cathedral with an impressive organ. After having organ lessons in a local church, I was lucky enough to be able to study there with the assistant organist. From there I won various organ scholarships and then went to Oxford University where I got into choir training as well. Since then I have held three cathedral jobs: I became the assistant organist at Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire for eight very happy years; then six years as the Director of Music in Truro, Cornwall; and since 2008 I’ve been at York Minster.
You’re the Director of Music at York Minster. How has that role been?
It’s an exciting role, but the work is very much non-stop. We sing eight services a week with large numbers of people in attendance, with just one day off each week. In that sense in term-time it’s very busy but it’s also very rewarding as well, and we have good resources to hand.
We have two chorister treble lines, educated at the school next to the Minster. The girl and boy choirs alternate the eight services and the adult singers in the choir are professional Songmen, in part, and choral scholars at the University of York in the other part.
How did you pick the pieces for your organ recital with us?
They are pieces that I thought would work well on the Bradford organ, which I’ve played several times before. The Buxtehude at the beginning is particularly sparkly and bright in feel and suits the semi-classical style of the Bradford organ well, and the light acoustic there. Similarly with the Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B minor: I always like to include a major Bach work in these sort of recitals. The Vierne piece, and then the Cochereau piece which follows it and is based on the Vierne piece, are included because I think they are both very beautiful. The original Berceuse shows off the quiet, gentle side of the organ: it’s a cradle song. Then the Cochereau improvisation in memory of Vierne, developed the piece in a very symphonic way and again this way will suit the way the Bradford organ builds up which is, in some ways, a little bit like the more stringent tones, which you can hear in Notre Dame where Vierne was the organist.
Then at the end of the programme, Francis Jackson’s Prelude on “East Acklam” is an acknowledgement of my predecessor at York who was in the Minister from 1946 to 1982 and is 102 years old now, which is quite a thing! Over the years he’s had associations with Bradford in an advisory role. Then the final piece, an arrangement of Eric Coates’ Knightsbridge March is a lollipop-piece, because that kind of piece is very popular at the end of a lunchtime recital. It’s the kind of piece that will make people leave with a spring in their step.
When it comes to an organ recital, what do you think it should it aim to do?
It’s a good question, and audiences will vary depending on when and where the recital is. You have what you might call the town-hall type of programme, which tend include one or two arrangements of an orchestral piece, as that’s very much the tradition of those organs when they were made in the late 19th or early 20th century. It was intended for audiences to hear orchestral music that they might not be able to hear in the days before orchestral recordings. That sort of programming is very useful for lunchtime recitals in cathedrals, including an orchestral transcription which I’m doing at the end of my programme.
It’s important to think that a programme which is aimed at what might be called a popular-audience, who might not be intellectually curious about the music but know what they enjoy, also includes some more important works as well, such as the Bach piece. But, again, this piece is accessible to the audience. What I tend to avoid in a lunchtime recital environment is what you might call the more serious organ works which require a little more concentration on the instrument to appreciate, works like the larger romantic works by Liszt for example. Those have their place in a recital programme that’s more for the specialist organ audience, so maybe in an evening concert in a cathedral series, where most people attending are keen to hear that kind of work.
In the end I want the programme to be enjoyed by those who are there. I think it’s important that people stay for the whole programme and not walk out in the middle.
You were awarded the Cornwhylen Cross; what did you receive that for?
It’s a Cornish award that’s presented each year to a different person. It’s almost like a cup really where you get your name engraved on it. I was very lucky to be given that in my final year in Cornwall for distinguished services to church music.
What are your plans for the rest of 2020? It’s a busy year with the work on the organ?
Very much so. The resetting or the Minster organ is the main focus of the year and I’m also taking some time in this term on some sabbatical leave to study some other choirs at work, which is a personal project for me, but it’s very much the organ after that.
The organ will be re-built between May and August this year, and then the scaffolding comes down, and during the autumn the tonal finishing of the instrument will take place, and then most excitingly at the end of November, going into December, we bring the organ back into use for the big Christmas services.
Join us for our weekly Wednesday@One Organ Recitals at 1pm, with a lunch buffet available from 12:30pm. Robert Sharpe will be playing on Wednesday 22nd January 2020. More information on this recital, all others and this season’s coffee concerts can be found in the programme available to buy from the recitals and concerts.