James O'Donnell (copyright Clare Clifford)

When Christ Church graduate and theoretical physicist Dr Andrew Chamblin died suddenly in February 2006, aged just 36, it was a tragic end to a promising career. 

Since then, friends and colleagues have been keeping his memory alive with the Andrew Chamblin Memorial Concert series, which takes place annually at Christ Church Cathedral and reflects Andrew’s passion for the organ and his love of baroque music.

This year’s recital on Thursday will be given by Westminster Abbey organist James O’Donnell, the latest in a line of distinguished organists who have played on the magnificent Rieger organ in Andrew’s memory. 

As with previous recitalists, James has been asked to focus on the baroque repertoire – which, he says, “does suit the organ in Christ Church Cathedral very well”.

Andrew Chamblin

And, of course, it gives him plenty of repertoire to choose from. The hour-long concert will include music by Bach, Handel, de Grigny, Gibbons and Byrd, representing different traditions.

“There’s quite a lot of English music,” James says. “I include Handel in that, even though of course he was German, but he’s kind of an adopted Englishman, and we rather possessively consider him to be an Englishman!

“So there’s the famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba to begin with, from his oratorio Solomon.”

Less familiar, perhaps, is the suite of hymn tunes by French composer and organist Nicolas de Grigny, taken from his only surviving volume of music, the Premier livre d’orgue, published in Paris in 1699, with a second edition following in 1711.

“The livre d’orgue contains a number of movements from the Mass, and the organ plays alternatively with the singers,” James explains.

“The piece I’m playing is the same. There are seven verses of the hymn and the organ has five verses, so I’ve create a little suite out of this, and we will have the plainsong alternately with the verses, so you get the tune it’s based on.

Christchurch organ

There are also pieces by the Oxford-born composer Orlando Gibbons and his contemporary William Byrd, as well as Bach’s Chorale Partita – which, like de Grigny’s music, was based on familiar hymn tunes of the day.

“A lot of Bach’s church music is based on hymn melodies of the Lutheran church and I think that will be absolutely amazing on Christ Church’s Rieger organ.”

The final piece, another Bach work, also links to de Grigny. “The fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist, is another chorale version of a well-known hymn, so it harks back to the piece I play by de Grigny. It’s not based on the same melody, but it’s the same theme, and it’s in the pedal of the organ. So it’s held by the bass part of the organ, over which there’s this exhilarating figuration of the manuals.

“So I hope that within the constraints of the period that has been requested there is something for everybody. I’m really looking forward to playing it.”

As with last year’s recital, this one will be livestreamed with no audience present. How does it feel to be giving a recital in this way?

James O’Donnell (copyright Clare Clifford)

“Well, it will be a bit odd,” James admits. “but this is the kind of new normal, so I’m really pleased to be able to do it. In this day and age we have to be pragmatic and just do whatever is appropriate and feasible.”

Born in Scotland but brought up in England, James studied at the Royal College of Music and later at Jesus College, Cambridge, as an organ scholar. Currently Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, a position he has held since 2000, he says: “I’ve been here for just over 21 years, which is extraordinary,” he says. “But what a place to be!”

Meanwhile, James is hoping as many people as possible will tune in to hear his Christ Church recital this Thursday.

“I would love to encourage people who are not familiar with organ music to dip their toe into it,” he says. “we need to grasp these opportunities when they come up.”

The 15th annual Andrew Chamblin Memorial Concert is on Thursday 24th June at 8pm, and is free. The livestream link is https://youtu.be/VRwt-a4aK41