Marcus leaves his musical mark on Hexham Abbey’s proud history

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FOR the tenant of a job that dates back 1300 years, the lure to move on had to be a good one.

And so it was. The opportunity to become director of music and organist at renowned Beckenham Parish Church in south-east London proved too much to resist for Marcus Wibberley, who until last Sunday held the same posts at Hexham Abbey.

“Beckenham will be very different,” he said. “I’m moving to a huge suburban parish from a fantastic rural abbey with long historic traditions.

“The position of director of music/choir master at the Abbey is the oldest such post in the country – it dates back to when Bishop Acca brought the tradition of church music over from Rome – so from my perspective, it’s going to be an interesting journey!”

Beckenham Parish Church, otherwise known as St George’s, boasts a church choir that has been described as the best in the country and it is often used as a base for broadcasting radio and television programmes reflecting music and worship.

It doesn’t have choristers. Rather, it has an adult chamber choir that has at its core a bank of singers who have worked in either a professional or semi-professional capacity at some point in their lives.

Marcus said: “They have a big choral scholar scheme there, run in conjunction with London colleges, which accounts for half the choir, and the other half are men and women with a history of singing.”

The church also has an honourable roll of distinguished previous organists that includes noted composer Healey Willan.

A significant part of the attraction of the move for Marcus is that his new job will be part-time, freeing him up to pursue another ambition – to travel more widely giving organ recitals.

London will be the perfect jumping off point for the tours of Europe and the Far East that are already taking shape. France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Japan are on the horizon.

Marcus, who has been here since 2011, says he will certainly miss Hexham Abbey’s famous Phelps organ. “The one at Beckenham is a big organ with four keyboards,” he said. “It’s a cathedral-type instrument, but a British one from the Edwardian era, so it doesn’t quite have the continental spark that the Phelps does.”

The joy of being a British organist is that the diverse range of instruments in this fair isle’s churches means he or she can play just about anything.

“We have to master all genres of organ and choral music here and that stands me in good stead when travelling to give recitals,” he said.

“If I’m going to Germany, I tend to play music from the Baroque or Romantic eras, which suits a lot of the instruments they have there. In France, it will be a completely different style of music.

“I always look ahead to see what type of instrument I’ll be playing and then choose my programme accordingly.”

Marcus is returning to home territory in that he hails from London, and Greenwich in particular, although it has been 20 years since he last lived there.

When he departs Hexham at the end of the month, he will leave behind a proud record of having enhanced the calibre and repertoire of the Abbey’s choirs and expanded the platform for top-flight organ recitals by internationally-acclaimed exponents.

For five years he was also director of the Hexham Abbey Music Festival, which takes place each September.

He distinguished himself during that time by not only winning £128,000 from the Arts Council to fund the festival, but also by throwing open the doors to younger generations.

His innovative approach resulted in the free-running (Parkour) troupe 3Run turning the Abbey’s old bones into springboards for their acrobatics, while African drummers Tanante and baroque rockers Red Priest lifted the rafters.

They are but three examples of the shows that drew in fresh audiences of families who had probably never before crossed the Abbey’s doors.

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