On Wednesday 21st February we welcome Louisa Denby for our seventh 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 putting a spin on this season’s theme; being a liturgy geek; and researching cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?
I come from a musical family, in that there was always music around when I was a kid, but no one at home was a professional musician. I came to the organ quite late in my teens, through the ‘Pipeline’ Scheme in the Diocese of Portsmouth, which was designed for anyone of any age who had reached a good standard on the piano to be trained in liturgical organ-playing. I enjoyed exploring the organ at that point but the thought of pursuing it seriously never crossed my mind.

When I went to university I attended chapel services but was adamant I didn’t want to be an organ or choral scholar. My main instrument was – and remains – the bassoon, but I was gradually ‘sucked back in’ to choirs and organ-playing and ended up as an organ scholar as a graduate student.

What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?
I’ve tried to put a slightly different spin on the ‘Trios and Trio Sonatas’ theme! The audience can expect a variety of styles and genres, ranging from baroque fugues to contemporary film music…

Why do you enjoy playing the organ?
I’m terribly dyslexic and dyspraxic, and so playing the organ is a challenge I have to work very hard to overcome. I think this makes it more rewarding when things go well! I’m also a bit of a liturgy geek, and am happiest when accompanying the choir during a service, or leading the congregation in a hymn. To be totally honest I’m not all that interested in playing solo pieces, beyond service voluntaries!

Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?
Buxtehude’s ‘take’ on the Nun komm chorale. It’s spooky and slightly odd. The Blow is also a favourite – it’s very intricate and I love trying to bring out the different characters and to make the whole thing dance.

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 am not playing one of Bach’s six trio sonatas; instead I’m playing his chorale prelude on Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (BWV 647) which has the chorale melody in the pedals, and some lovely melodies in the manuals. It’s another slightly spooky piece, of which I am very fond.

What are your hopes or plans musically for 2024?
I am taking the Chapel Choir of Downing College on tour to the US: we’re singing concerts and services in New York and Connecticut, and then heading up to Vermont to take part in a Music and Liturgy Festival. We were last in the States in 2018, and it was quite an adventure, so I’m sure this trip will be just as memorable. I’m also looking forward to revisiting St Davids with Vox Cantab. It’s one of my favourite places in the entire world, and always a really lovely week. Aside from tours I’m looking forward to more chamber recitals (playing bassoon), and hopefully finding some time to put some work into a book about wind music I’m writing in collaboration with a colleague from the US.

You did a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology & Religious Studies. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I realised during the course of my Masters (in Choral Studies) that I really wanted – needed to do a PhD, but I lacked the requisite theological training for the project I wanted to undertake. I was advised to do the PG diploma, which essentially consisted of cramming the entire Theology Tripos into nine months, due to the papers I took. It did nearly kill me but I am very glad I did it. My research has now drifted into cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology, so it certainly expanded my horizons!

You are also a bassoonist. What do you most enjoy about playing that instrument?
The bassoon is very much my main instrument. It just feels like the most natural thing in the world whenever I pick it up. It’s difficult to explain really!

Finally, how would you sum up your forthcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?
A mixed bag!

You can join us on Wednesday 21st February at 1pm to hear Louisa’s organ recital, with an optional £4 buffet lunch beforehand at 12:30pm.

Louisa is also leading ‘Choral and Organ Awards at Oxbridge – A Masterclass’ on Tuesday 20th February at 6:30pm. You can find out more details here.

You can discover more about our organ recital season on our dedicated page.

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