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'I loved being at the Westminster Abbey of Northern Ireland, but it's sad the way my time there ended'

Former musical director of St Anne's Cathedral Philip Stopford has broken his silence following his dismissal from the post he loved. The English composer tells Stephanie Bell how he wanted to settle in Belfast, and of his success in the years since

Published 09/09/2015

Difficult time: former musical director of St Anne’s Cathedral, Philip Stopford,
Difficult time: former musical director of St Anne’s Cathedral, Philip Stopford,
Billy Miskimmin outside St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast
St Anne's Cathedral on Donegal Street.
Philip Stopford and members of chamber choir Ecclesium at recording session in Belfast Cathedral, October 2006
Philip Stopford with Mary McAleese

The musical director whose controversial sacking rocked St Anne's Cathedral has become a massive international hit in the classical music scene, and is poised to start a new job in America next week.

Speaking for the first time about the row which made big headlines in 2010, Philip Stopford says he now views his contentious departure from Northern Ireland as a blessing in disguise.

Philip (38) was forced to sign a confidentiality clause barring him from discussing the events which led to the axing of his post, and which the Cathedral officially said at the time was for financial reasons.

Now, though, the English composer claims, had his position not been made redundant he would still be in Belfast - a city he said he loved.

In what was an extraordinary storm embroiling one of the province's best-known religious buildings, top churchmen faced calls to resign over the axing of Mr Stopford's post.

The decision led to five members of the ruling board walking out in protest and choristers threatening to stop singing unless the former musical director was reinstated.

Although still bound by his agreement not to speak about the storm, he says: "I loved it at St Anne's. It is a gem of a building, with fantastic acoustics and, of course, the famous Harrison organ.

"I saw it as the Westminster Abbey of Northern Ireland.

"I was a little bit nervous when I started, as I had never been to Northern Ireland before, but I had some good moments there and enjoyed working with the choir and going round the schools looking for new choristers among the children.

"Many things happened before my departure, but I signed a confidentiality agreement when I was leaving - but maybe one day I will be able to talk about it.

"It is sad the way it ended, but five years on, here I am and I have done things I would never have been able to do had I stayed.

"I have been able to do regular workshops in America and I am much freer to travel and go to different things, and also build my career as a composer and educator."

At the time of his shock redundancy, board member Billy Miskimmin, who resigned in protest, told the Belfast Telegraph that his decision to resign from the board and choir was one of the "most painful" he had ever made and he called for senior Church of Ireland clergy and officials involved in the matter to stand down. They included board chairman and Bishop of Connor, Rev Alan Abernethy, and the Dean of St Anne's, Houston McKelvey.

Dean McKelvey declined at the time to comment on the issue, but in a letter to the choir and congregation he said the decision had been taken due to "an extremely serious overall financial situation".

A Facebook group, Save the Choral Tradition of St Anne's Cathedral, was also launched.

Five years on and Stopford has become an internationally-renowned composer whose career has gone from strength to strength.

He has had over 60 pieces of choral music published by two American publishing companies and three of his pieces have been included in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

A version of Ave Maria he composed for St Anne's is among two pieces which will be sung at services conducted by the Pope next month when he visits Philadelphia. The other is The Spirit of the Lord, which he composed for the Cathedral Basilica, Philadelphia.

He is also looking forward to an exciting new chapter in his career when he flies to New York next week to begin a post as interim director of music at Christ Church, Bronxville.

Stopford claims, if he hadn't left Northern Ireland, he would be following in the footsteps of the cathedral's former organist, the late Charles Brennan OBE, who held the post for 60 years. He says: “When I went to Belfast I was 25, and the youngest cathedral organist in the UK at the time. Just like Captain Brennan who was there for 60 years, I could have stayed, as I certainly loved the job and working with the choir in that building.

“Life has a funny way of changing things for you and had I stayed I wouldn’t have been free to do what I am doing now.”

Philip, who is single and lives in Chester, began his musical career as a chorister at Westminster Abbey. After winning a major music scholarship to Bedford School, he became organ scholar at Truro Cathedral.

He went on to Oxford University to study music at Keble College, where he was also organ scholar. At Keble, he was responsible for recruiting and directing the chapel choir, and made two recordings. Lux Mundi (light of the world) was followed by one volume of the Priory series Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

From 1999 to 2000, he was appointed organ scholar at Canterbury Cathedral, moving to Chester Cathedral as assistant organist before being appointed director of music at St Anne’s Cathedral in January 2003, where to took charge of the recruitment and training of the choir, and directing the choir at cathedral services.

The cathedral choirs recorded three CDs under Philip’s direction — Mysterium (Christmas Music), Celtic Inspirations and a volume of Hymns for Priory Records and also broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, as well as featuring in two Songs of Praise programmes from St Anne’s.

As a composer, Philip is perhaps best known for his compositio the Coventry Carol, titled Lucy, Lulla, Lullay. Other popular works include a Te Deum, a Latin Mass and various Latin canticles.

Now, with his talent recognised on both sides of the Atlantic, he has become a regular commuter across the pond and is excited about his new post in New York, which he starts soon.

He is also thrilled that Ave Maria, which he composed for St Anne’s, and The Spirit of the Lord will be sung at services conducted by the Pope in Philadelphia next month.

He says: “I’m very, very excited about that. I wrote The Spirit of the Lord in 2012 for the launch of a new orchestra in Philadelphia, so it is fitting that it is being sung there when at the Pope’s service.

“It is special, too, that a piece I wrote for St Anne’s is being performed all over the world.

“I love New York and I am really happy to be appointed interim director of music and composer in residence for the Christ Church in Bronxville.

“I will be looking after the choir, which is a semi-professional choir of adults, and I will be there for their Christmas carol service which will be great.

“I’ve visited New York before but it will be a big change living and working there and being able to experience the city on my days off.

“I’m really excited about it. It is a new chapter and I am looking forward to it.”

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