On Wednesday 3rd May 2023 our very own Pete Gunstone will play the organ at the Cathedral at our next recital of the 2023 summer season. In this edition of ‘Notes from an Organist’ we discover more about him, including working as a freelance musician, directing music at the Lambeth Conference, and the real meaning of ‘opportunity to retire’…
Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?
I grew up in a family of church ministers and musicians and was encouraged in my faith and in music from an early age. After some ill-disciplined and inglorious early years as a violinist and pianist, my imagination was captured and efforts inspired when I was offered and accepted organ lessons, sponsored by the Royal School of Church Music. I went on to study music at university and then music college, and then found myself falling into a career as a freelance musician, specializing in choral conducting and the performance of early music.
Alongside this, I was regularly involved in my local church as a leader of music involving what is often seen as the nemesis of organists and choir trainers: a worship band. That I feel completely at home in both traditions and see them both as essential and complementary rather than competing traditions has meant that I have found myself leading on some unusual projects in which multicultural eclecticism is a virtue. The most recent example of this was directing music for the Lambeth Conference, in which the team I assembled moved effortlessly from classical Anglican music to music from around the global Anglican Communion, from choral music to lively music with drums and dancing. It is great to now be Canon-designate for Worship and Nurture in Bradford, where our city and diocese reflects something of the cultures of the church across the world.
What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?
An adventure through the sonic landscape of the organ!
We begin with the sounds of the English organ from 500 years ago, with a piece by Thomas Tallis that represents the immediate pre-reformation liturgical tradition. This will be played on the Wingfield Organ, a copy of an instrument from that very era.
We will then move to the Grand Organ with a piece that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year: Riff-Raff, by Giles Swayne, dedicated to ‘the one-armed bandit who occasionally helps me out’. Riff-Raff explores the breadth of the tonalities of the cathedral’s organ through repeating patterns and mesmerising shots of sound.
The programme concludes with William Walton’s Crown Imperial, a piece associated with coronations in the mid-twentieth century that celebrates its 80th anniversary in the form to be performed. Although composed for the aborted coronation of King Edward VIII in 1937, it was first performed at the coronation of King George 1937 later that year, and then substantially revised for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Why do you enjoy playing the organ?
I enjoy the physicality of playing the organ as well as its musical possibilities. As the audience will see from the performance of Riff-Raff, playing the organ is often close to dancing. The physicalities of playing the organ also bring challenges: whilst many the consoles of many organs (the interface by which an organist plays the organ) are similar, they are often quite different, and – in some cases – a great deal of exertion is required to play the instrument. Having not played the organ regularly for eight years, it has been a great joy – and sometimes challenge – to reacquaint myself with the physicalities of performing music on the organ.
Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?
Riff-Raff by Giles Swayne. It evokes a soundscape rarely heard in the organ repertoire and it revels in the joy of the organ’s tonal characteristics. It requires a great deal of setup on the organ to realise the musical vision of the composer, as well as learning the notes. That setup has involved getting to know the organ, selecting a number of revolving schemes of different combinations of sounds, and then programming them into a device called a sequencer, which enables the performer to advance through the 200 or so combinations that a performance of this piece requires. An epic task! Having not played this piece for almost twenty years, performing this piece is going to be the highlight of the recital for me.
This recital season we are celebrating ‘music for royal occasions’. Have you ever met any royalty and / or played for them?
I once met the now Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh – Edward and Sophie – when they visited the Lee Abbey community, and international community of Christians who host a retreat and conference centre on the Exmoor coast in North Devon. Whilst I did organize some music for them to participate in, my abiding memory of the occasion is that their schedule include the shyly named ‘opportunity to retire’, a circumlocutionary term for a royal visit to the WC! We later created a spoof plaque, stating that ‘here the royal posterior once retired’.
You are the Canon-Designate for Worship and Nurture having been Interim Precentor since September 2022 – how has your time been so far here?
It has been fast-paced and fulfilling. There has been a lot to learn and organise and I have never before received such a vast quantity of email. Yet, over the course of the days, weeks and months, one sees the fruits of ones labours enabling spaces in which people can gather for worship, a space in which we meet God and go away somehow transformed. A particular joy has been growing in relationship with the congregation and my clergy and staff colleagues. I look forward to remaining at Bradford Cathedral as we imaginatively discern what it means to be a local Christian community, a Parish Church, a Civic Church, a Mother Church, a place of tourism and pilgrimage, and an events venue in the diverse context of twenty first century Bradford.
Finally, how would you sum up your upcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?
Something of a revival of my own musicianship as an organist and an occasion which I hope that the audience will enjoy as much as the performer. If all else fails, luncheon will fill a gap!
You can join us on Wednesday 3rd May at 1pm for Pete Gunstone’s organ recital, with an optional £4 buffet lunch beforehand at 12:30pm.
You can discover more about our organ recital season on our dedicated page