St Albans festival pulls out all the stops

By Thomas Wrench | 06 October 2021

As society awoke from the slumber of the COVID-19 restrictions, the thunderous roar of organ pipes filled the streets of south west Hertfordshire.

The biennial St Albans International Organ Festival (IOF), founded by Peter Hurford in 1963, is not just a celebration of the ‘King of Instruments’, but also a platform for a diverse variety of choirs, solo instrumentalists, ensembles and orchestras from across the world.

Alongside a series of concerts, there are two main competitions – the interpretation competition, and the improvisation competition – which attract entrants from across the world. Past winners and judges include many of the great names in modern organ music, including Dame Gillian Weir, Marie-Claire Alain, and Daniel Roth.

St Albans City and District Council is a longstanding supporter of the Festival. In 2020 and 2021, the Council offered organisers advice about the complex COVID-19 Government grant schemes and other funding sources. The Mayor of the City and District of St Albans is a patron of the Festival and in ‘normal’ times holds a civic reception for international guests and families who host contestants.

I attended three concerts during the July 2021 Festival. These were given by the Festival’s president, Thomas Trotter, organ scholar at Westminster Abbey, Charles Maxtone-Smith, and saxophonist and broadcaster Jess Gillam and her ensemble. The Festival organisers are to be commended for their adaptability in staging these concerts safely within the context of COVID-19, and the free IOF art exhibition in the Cathedral provided another worthwhile dimension to the fortnight of music.

Since joining the National Graduate Development Programme at St Albans City and District Council in October 2019, I have worked on a range of interesting and engaging projects.  As a member of the Council’s COVID-19 Incident Management Team, I quickly came to understand the needs of the District’s residents and businesses, and the crucial role that local authorities play during major incidents. By working on the Government’s Welcome Back Fund, I have seen how the impetus of councils can stimulate economic growth and drive creativity. Similarly, attending New Local’s ‘Stronger Things’ 2020 conference at the City of London Corporation increased my awareness of the benefits of empowering community groups to bring about positive change and increase opportunities available to all. Building on these experiences, I recently helped the Council consider how improvements could be made to the IOF to make it more diverse, more accessible and of even greater value to the District.

It is often said that music is a language that brings people together. The IOF offers St Albans District a significant cultural event and its international status helps to develop the local visitor economy. Perhaps more importantly, however, the positive effect that music has on mental health should be recognised, and the scope for the Festival to reach out to a range of socio-economic groups by offering educational opportunities bodes well for future development. The arts and culture more widely will be intrinsic to COVID -19 recovery, and local authorities’ investment in such festivals will be beneficial in bringing communities together.

Thomas Wrench is a National Management Trainee at St Albans City & District Council

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