Organ recital/Her Ensemble Concert
I’m tempted to call this my favorite highlight and it will be difficult to describe in words. In Pilgrimage #1, I attended a free organ concert at the Halifax Minster. The main organ here is famous and ancient, rumored to have been played by Anne herself, and it is huge, the sound overwhelming the interior when it is played. So, when I read about another organ concert for this trip, I was in, even before I read that the concert was the world premiere of an organ sonata inspired by Anne’s diaries. Here is the official announcement:
Premiere Anne Lister’s Organ Sonata with Her Ensemble Concert –Tonight at 7:30 pm at the Halifax Minster Price: £5.00 pp New Pop inspired Organ Work by Female Composer and Organist Dr Rebekah Okpoti “Anne Lister’s Organ Sonata” with Her Ensemble, the UK’s first Women and Non-binary String Orchestra. Composed to bring to life the sound world of Anne Lister. Research into Anne’s diaries and social circle lead us to believe she played both Organs housed at the Minster. Funded by Arts Council England, Calderdale Council and Halifax Organ and Choral Academy.
The concert begins with an introduction by Dr. Rebekah Okpoti, who describes the unusual agenda. This isn’t just an organ recital; this is a modern orchestral experience designed for the interior of the Minster to invoke the spirit of Anne Lister. Dr. Okpoti explains that the “Her Ensemble” (who rode the train up from London just for this concert) will perform first, immediately followed by performances on the main organ, the smaller chamber organ in the side chapel, and a flute arrangement from the west end of the Minster, under the prayer tree.
She also requests that the audience NOT REMAIN IN THEIR SEATS, but instead are free to wander anywhere in the Minster to experience the sound from different areas. The Minster is vast, dense, and open all at once and the organ pipes run through it’s structure like arteries. Of course, it would sound different depending on where one stood and Dr. Okpoti encourages us to hear it from all directions. (What a relief! The Minster pews are exceedingly uncomfortable and I was not looking forward to sitting still for two hours.)
Then, the “Her Ensemble” take their positions. About a dozen beautiful young people, non-binary as stated in their mission, dress in loose uniforms of oversized blazers, “…using fashion as a means for self expression, defying the stereotypical binary gendered dress codes that we so often see in classical scenes.”
The ensemble consists of a dozen string players (violin, viola, cello, upright bass, and harp). They encircle the stage, some with their backs to the audience. It is clear, from the first notes, that these are professional musicians performing, first, a cantata from a twelfth-century lesbian nun, followed by several original pieces arranged by members of the group. It is extraordinary and the audience is transfixed. So much so, that we forget to get out of our seats and wander around, but eventually some of us do begin to drift.
The audience is meager, embarrassingly so, about thirty people including the volunteers. I recognize only a couple of ALBW folks, not sure why there aren’t more. If you live in England and you EVER get a chance to hear them perform, for god’s sake, GO! https://www.herensemble.org/
As the “Her Ensemble” clears the stage (rushing, they explain, to catch the last train back to London, lugging their instrument cases to the train station in the rain), the first notes of the organ sonata rattle the Minster’s rafters.
By now, most of the audience is wandering the Minster, needing a break from the back-aching pews. The rumble of the organ fills the air, fills my lungs, vibrates the floor. I wander over and stand at the spot where we “think” Anne Lister is buried and I swear, I could feel the bass notes of the sonata shaking Lister’s bones in her lead coffin. Knowing that she was there, beneath my feet, had walked in this building, had played the very organ I was hearing, I knew Anne Lister was listening and enjoying it. I can only say, it was a bit of a spiritual experience for me.
Dr. Okpoti then moves to the chamber organ in the side chapel to continue the next movement of the sonata. I saw this organ in Pilgrimage #1, 2019, when it was needing renovation, unplayable. A theory at that time said that Anne’s body was entombed beneath or behind the dusty, dirty instrument. Now, the organ has been restored and that theory has been put away.
The third movement comes from under the prayer tree in a changing light show, where a single flute player fills the air with birdsong, and again, I imagine Anne Lister, the flautist, enjoying it. The concert is an unforgettable, highly moving experience. It is truly indescribable. I am so grateful to be there.