On Friday evening, October 21st, at 7:30 pm, Martin Neary, renowned British organist and choir director, appeared at the Magill Hall of St. John's Episcopal Church here in Lynchburg, where he give an illustrated informal talk titled O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song in which he reminisced - with anecdotes and recordings - on experiences gained during his wide-ranging career in the upper echelons of English cathedral music-making. A free event open to the public, it was sponsored by the Lynchburg Chapter of the American Guild of Organists; and was aimed to appeal to a wide audience in our Central Virginia community - including and reaching beyond those who see themselves as musicians and/or concert-goers. The event included a reception afterwards, provided by the AGO chapter.
On Sunday afternoon, October 23rd, at 3:00 pm, Dr. Neary directed a choral festival concert - Lighten Our Darkness - in the worship space at St. John’s.
This visit was Dr. Neary’s second in town: his first was in April of 2013, when he directed St. John’s choirs, the choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and Cantate, in a concert of English choral music. The venue was filled to overflowing for the event. While the choirs were inspired by working with such a highly-skilled conductor, the audience, too, enjoyed a rare musical experience - as well as Dr. Neary’s delightful commentary.
The Sunday concert again featured combined choirs: Cantate joined St. John's Choir, Randolph College Chorale, and St. Paul's Choir. A freewill offering was taken afterwards. This event was sponsored by St. John's Concerts with contributions from the other groups participating.
The first portion of the concert was music for "Evensong" - a special afternoon or evening worship service which consists almost entirely of liturgy sung by the choir, in a long-standing tradition of the British Isles. It took place with an eye to St. John’s Choir residency at Gloucester Cathedral in 2018, and included works by Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, Geoffrey Burgon, Peter Hurford, and Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Music for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, formed the next portion, and included “Cantantibus Organis” by the Renaissance composer Peter Philips, and an equally rarely heard piece of the mid 20th-century, “A Hymn for St. Cecilia” by Herbert Howells. The next portion was Music for All Saints Day (which is on the church's calendar a week or so after the concert) and included works by Dering, Vaughan Williams, and the anthem “O how glorious is the kingdom” by Basil Harwood. The final work on the program was Benjamin Britten’s stunning cantata for organ, choir, and soloists, “Rejoice in the Lamb”, with 18th-century text from a poem of the same name written in extraordinary circumstances by George Herbert.
Martin Neary’s early musical education was as a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and in 1953 he sang at the Queen’s Coronation. At Cambridge University, where he read theology and music, he was organ scholar of Gonville and Caius College. His principal appointments have been Organist and Choirmaster at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster (1965-71), Organist and Master of the Choristers at Winchester Cathedral (1972-87) and at Westminster Abbey (1988-98). In 1999 he was the founder/conductor of the Royal School of Church Music’s Millennium Youth Choir, whose first engagement was to sing on New Year’s Eve at the Millennium Dome in London. As conductor, he has championed the works of many contemporary composers, in particular Jonathan Harvey and John Tavener, with over 30 premieres. With the Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey Choirs he introduced many works by contemporary British composers to audiences all over the world, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kremlin.
Martin Neary has also been very much a part of the early music movement in England; in 1978 he conducted the first complete performance with period instruments of the Saint Matthew Passion. His numerous recordings include a CD for Sony Classical of Purcell’s Music for Queen Mary, with the Westminster Abbey Choir, which was nominated for a Grammy, as well as highly praised CDs of Britten and Poulenc, Tavener and Harvey.
As organ soloist Martin Neary has given recitals all over the world, including numerous appearances at the Royal Festival Hall in London and Disney Hall in Los Angeles, with his Millennium Consort Singers. He was the organ soloist on the opening night of the 2004 BBC Proms.
He is a frequent visitor to the United States, as conductor, organist and lecturer; and since 2011 has been Associate Director of the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys.
Uniquely, Martin Neary has served two terms as President of the Royal College of Organists. His awards include an honorary doctorate of music from Southampton University, and his appointment by the Queen as Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in the 1998 New Year’s Honours, in respect of his services at the Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. In 2012 he was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate of Music by the Archbishop of Canterbury.