On Wednesday 7th February we welcome James Bowstead from Wakefield for our fifth organ recital of the 2024 season. In this edition of ‘Notes from an Organist’ we discover more about them, and what to expect from their recital, including playing music by a former Wakefield chorister; trying out our new vox humana stop; and what his first year as Wakefield Cathedral’s Director of Music has been like.
Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?
Music’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember, having started piano lessons at the age of five. I was never a cathedral or parish church chorister, but I did sing in various choirs throughout my childhood. When I was sixteen, my school was given a 3-manual Viscount electronic organ and started offering organ lessons; I thought I might as well give it a try and quickly realised it was the instrument for me. I was soon given opportunities to accompany my school choir and play for services at my family church.
I’d grown up in the Methodist Church, which meant I had lots of experience of hymn-singing, but the Anglican choral tradition was essentially unknown to me. Through a gap-year organ scholarship at a local parish church I was introduced to this tradition, and then I was fortunate enough to get an organ scholarship at Jesus College, Oxford, where I quickly decided I wanted to pursue a career in cathedral music.
I spent a year as organist at a boarding school in Berkshire, alongside an organ scholarship at All Saints Church, Fulham, before a year and a half as organ scholar at Peterborough Cathedral where I got to know the intricacies of a cathedral music department. I came to Wakefield as Assistant Director of Music in 2018 and nearly six years later I’m still here, now as Director of Music.
What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?
People can expect a variety of organ music from different eras, hopefully demonstrating the range of repertoire for this instrument. I always try to include plenty of light and shade in my programmes, so there’ll be some reflective moments contrasted with some thrilling (and probably very loud!) ones.
Why do you enjoy playing the organ?
I think what I most enjoy about the organ is the range of sounds and colours it can produce, from the softest, most delicate strings to the grand full organ and everything between. I love finding new combinations of stops to use – it can feel like having a full orchestra at your fingertips.
Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?
I like all of them for different reasons – Bach is obviously always a favourite of organists, and I always enjoy playing music by Leighton, a former chorister at Wakefield, whose Paean I’ll be opening the recital with.
But I think if I had to choose a favourite it would have to be the Franck Chorale in E major which I’m finishing with. This is one of a set of three which Franck wrote near the end of his life, all of which I played after three successive Sunday Evensongs in 2022, which was the 200th anniversary of Franck’s birth. Each of them is nearly 15 minutes long, and I love the way Franck develops and combines various musical ideas throughout each piece, really taking the audience on an extraordinary musical journey. I also understand from Graham Thorpe that the organ has a new vox humana stop since I last played it – this stop is a particular characteristic of Franck’s music so I’m looking forward to trying it out!
This season’s theme is ‘Trios and Trio Sonatas’ which features JS Bach’s six trio sonatas in full. Are you playing one and, if so, which one is it, why did you choose this one, and why are you looking forward to playing it?
I’m playing the second sonata in C minor. The short answer as to why I’m playing it is because it’s the one I can play all the way through! The reason I decided to learn this one in its entirety, though, was because I really enjoy the busy and fairly angsty outer movements, contrasted with the beautiful and reflective central movement in the relative major.
What are your hopes or plans musically for 2024?
If I’m honest probably nothing majorly out of the ordinary! My main aim at the moment is to keep solidifying the new set-up for the music department at the cathedral, and continue expanding and strengthening the choir’s repertoire.
You became the Director of Music at Wakefield Cathedral in September, having been in the interim role since January 2023. How has your first year been?
I’m loving it! It’s certainly not been without its challenges, and spending nearly nine months running the department by myself without an Assistant was certainly hard work! But we now have an excellent Assistant DoM, Alana Brook, and all seems to be going smoothly. I’ve made a few changes to the structure, including combining our boy and girl choristers into one mixed treble line, and we’ve been working on expanding the repertoire of all our various choirs.
What have you been up to musically over the Christmas and New Year period?
December was very busy, as you might expect! I conduct two choirs outside of the cathedral, a chamber choir and a choral society, so I had concerts with each of them as well as cathedral duties. At the cathedral we had two sold out performances of our Carols by Candlelight concert, as well as various extra services. Over New Year I did as little as possible to have a bit of a break (!) but since then it’s been back to it with Epiphany services and welcoming our new Precentor a couple of weeks ago.
Finally, how would you sum up your upcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?
It should be a varied and enjoyable selection of music, hopefully with something for everyone.
You can join us on Wednesday 7th February at 1pm to hear James’ 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.