Hampstead Parish Church new organist set to bring wealth of ideas

James Sherlock will start on September 2 bringing with him the flawless Anglican credentials of a one-time music specialist at Eton, Cambridge organ scholar and organist at St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield

There’s no place of worship in north London with a musical tradition that compares with Hampstead Parish Church – where, on an average Sunday, you can hear a Latin mass in the morning, followed by a full choral evensong in the afternoon, both sung by an Oxbridge-standard choir.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early 19th century, the only singing was supplied by poor-house children who, apparently, were poor in every sense. But by the middle of the century one Henry Willis, later to become a celebrated organ-builder, was in charge – raising the stakes and, in the process, giving the church the organ that is still in use today.

Jumping to 1946, the music fell into the hands of Martindale Sidwell who stayed for nearly 50 years, acquiring the official status of ‘legend’ and drawing in an army of musicians who went on to great things – like counter-tenor James Bowman, conductor Andrew Davis and baroque specialist of the moment Laurence Cummings. For the past 18 years (it’s called job stability) the organist has been Lee Ward, also head of music at Brompton Oratory School.

But Ward has now had a dramatic change of life, having moved to South America where he’ll run the music at a school there. And his successor is James Sherlock who arrives in office on September 2, bringing with him the flawless Anglican credentials of a one-time music specialist at Eton, Cambridge organ scholar and – most recently – organist at St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield.

Sherlock’s interests, though, extend beyond the church to the more secular business of conducting choral societies (he has one out in Essex) and piano accompaniment (he’s just come back from Austria where he’s been taking part in a prestigious teaching course led by the likes of Helmut Deutsch and Irwin Gage, the aristocracy of the profession).

“I think it’s important for church musicians not to get stuck in too narrow a world,” he told me the other day, “and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to turn this Hampstead post into something like the old German concept of a Kapellmeister, involving a range of musical functions beyond playing the organ and directing the choir.”

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What that will mean in practice has to be worked out. But Sherlock is ambitious, young and comes direct from a major London church where the choir is, by another name, the celebrated a cappella group Tenebrae with a serious recording profile. Used to working at that level, he’ll be wanting to do something similar in Hampstead. And he has ideas. It could be that the music at the parish church is set to raise its game. Again.