The long-established concert season at Huddersfield Town Hall has been under threat for some time now, but it was still something of a shock when borough organist Dr Gordon Stewart found a redundancy letter on his doormat.
He is enormously saddened that, after 25 years of providing a popular programme of world-class music, his services will no longer be required when the current season ends.
And he’s concerned that his Monday lunchtime audiences are being left in the lurch.
“I would hate people to think that I was letting them down,” he said. “I have found the Yorkshire audiences to be tremendously honest and loyal, which in my experience is quite unique.”
Savage cuts to local government funding up and down the country are affecting arts provision and it was announced over a year ago that the public concert series in Kirklees’ town halls, which includes lunchtime recitals and evenings with the Orchestra of Opera North and other leading ensembles, would be affected.
While Gordon knew his concerts were at risk, he hoped he would be given time to prepare for a final farewell season. Instead, he had already drawn up the new season’s programme when he received his redundancy notice.
Despite this, Gordon remains philosophical.
He said: “Everything comes to an end and I would have retired eventually, but I would have liked to make that decision for myself.”
His years as borough organist began at the same time he was appointed to a teaching position at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – an institution that is, coincidentally, welcoming him back. At the time he arrived in Huddersfield the lunchtime concerts attracted only 40 or 50 people. But he embarked on a campaign to revive audiences and over the years built up a dedicated following.
It could be argued that the concerts, which have a particular appeal to the retired, are now largely self-supporting.
“We now get up to 300 people to the town hall,” says Gordon, who lives in New Mills in Derbyshire and commutes regularly over the Pennines.
“You can imagine that after 25 years I have made a real relationship with the audience here, which is very unusual. I am always available before concerts and have my lunch downstairs so I can speak to people.
“I am very aware that some of these people might go a whole day without speaking to anybody else, I’m conscious of the isolation of old age.
“They come to have their lunch, listen to an hour of music and people speak to them. As they leave I say goodbye to them one by one – there is a real sense of community and that has been terribly important to me.”
Gordon, who was born and raised in Dundee and was a church organist by the age of 14, says he is grateful he had the opportunity to entertain audiences in Huddersfield and added: “I am already feeling sad walking along from the station to the town hall knowing that I won’t be doing it for much longer.”
His years in Huddersfield have had many highlights and include premiering and recording an organ concerto by Yorkshire composer Andrew Carter. “I have promoted the music of Yorkshire composers while I’ve been here,” he explained, “and made many CDs here.
“The town hall organ is the finest concert organ in the world.”
A graduate of the Royal Manchester College of Music and Geneva Conservatoire, Gordon is recognised as one of the leading virtuoso organists of his generation – he opened the current concert season with a performance of Leo Sowerby’s Pageant, a work widely thought of as the most difficult piece of organ music ever written.
For 15 years he was a regular conductor of the BBC’s Songs of Praise.
But it’s not just his own virtuosity that has been showcased at the town hall, his personal contacts within the world of organ music have meant that he could secure other talented musicians for the venue.
Over the years he has performed around 2,000 pieces of music at more than 300 concerts in the town hall.
For each concert he practices for a minimum of 40 hours, which all adds up to a lot of time spent entertaining Huddersfield audiences and preparing to entertain them.
But this season will be his swan song in Huddersfield. And, in a change to the published programme, he will be devising a special concert season finale on February 29 next year.
“I’m also going to book a room and have a reception,” said Gordon, “so I can say farewell properly.”
Gordon’s next lunchtime concert is on Monday, September 21, at 1pm and will feature works by Bach, Marchand and Yorkshire composer Andrew Carter.