On Wednesday 13th March we welcome Ashley Wagner from Birmingham for our tenth 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 how a choir trip started his professional choir; how student drinking songs have inspired the programme; and taking part in last year’s Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.

Could you introduce yourself, how you got into music / become an organist and your musical journey to where you are today?

My name is Ashley Wagner and I’m the Assistant Head of Music at Birmingham Cathedral. My parents are both keen amateur musicians and I started piano and trombone lessons at primary school. I went to a secondary school that had a very strong music department so did lots of orchestral and ensemble playing but it didn’t have anything in terms of organ.

A friend was doing a grade exam and their accompanist was the organist at the local parish church, which had a good choral set-up. I said I fancied having a go and so started learning the organ and joined the choir. A little later we went on a choir trip to sing at Norwich Cathedral and the organist who played for us played the first movement of Vierne’s 3rd symphony after the Eucharist (at which we sang Vierne’s Messe Solennelle) and I decided that I wanted to do music (specifically the organ) professionally. I concentrated on my organ playing for a while in London and then went to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to do an undergraduate degree. In my final year I got the job at the cathedral and I have been here since!

What can people expect from your recital at Bradford Cathedral?

Generally I like varied programmes so I hope that there will be something people like in there. It’s a largely new programme for me and I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces. The Brahms Academic Festival has some great tunes in it (taken from student drinking songs), the Vierne is a piece I have known for a long time, the Dove is exciting and was well received when I played it for the first time and the Bach will be the first time I have performed a complete trio sonata live (usually I have just played some of the individual chorale trios).

Why do you enjoy playing the organ?

I always like learning something new or digging into a new project. There’s loads of great music written for the organ and by the end of my life I will have probably only performed a small percentage of it. The same goes for accompaniments or ensemble music as well. The process of getting to grips with the notes and then trying to sell the piece.

Do you have a particular favourite piece out of those you are playing?

I like them all. I have wanted to learn the Brahms and Dove for a while so I’m glad to be playing those. Vierne has a special place for me. In some ways I think the Bach will be the hardest sell for me and I still feel like I can get more out of it.

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 6th trio sonata. I learnt the first two movements for a competition a while ago so I decided it was time to complete it. It’s the first time I will have performed a whole trio sonata live so I’m looking forward to doing that. It’s difficult (though they all are) but the movements are quite tuneful.

What are your hopes or plans musically for 2024?

I have several recitals (including this one) that I’m looking forward to and I’m looking forward to learning some new repertoire too. I’m looking forward to playing the Bach big e minor prelude and fugue later in the year and also the Reubke Sonata. Some chances to play organs abroad which is nice. You never know what’s round the corner!

You are the Assistant Head of Music of Birmingham Cathedral – how are you finding that role?

I enjoy my role here and there is a sense of purpose or achievement basically every day which is good. I got into all this to play the organ and feel very fortunate that I’m basically able to do quite a bit of that for a living. I like playing for services. I enjoy working with the kids, both in the choir and in the school projects that we do. It’s always rewarding when they enjoy something or there is a palpable sense of achievement or a job well done.

We have a stellar group of lay clerks here at the moment and we have just recorded a CD. I enjoy the wider stuff too, I organise the recital series, play for a choral society, do a fair bit of teaching now. It’s good and there are good people here.

Last year you took part in the ‘Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition’ – how was that experience?

A good experience. My first time to America and I ‘did’ Philadelphia and New York as a tourist. I spent a lot of time at Longwood Gardens, which is an amazing place just to walk around. Lovely people, both the staff and competitors. My first time with a big American symphonic organ too, though the Longwood Organ is sort of one of a kind.

Finally, how would you sum up your upcoming recital at Bradford Cathedral?

Hopefully there will be something for everyone. Some exciting firsts, lots of colour, romantic lyricism. I have enjoyed spending time with these pieces and I hope other people will enjoy them too.

You can join us on Wednesday 13th March at 1pm to hear Ashley’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.

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