Joan of Arc: a first for London

St Joan of Arc’s Church, 60 Highbury Park. London N5 2XH

The Catholic parish of St Joan of Arc in north London (UK) achieved a certain prominence during the 1990s when it was the local church of choice for the former British Labour Party leader and later Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family. However, the parish has two rather more interesting claims on posterity.

Firstly, ths buidling is the immediate succesor of the first Catholic church anywhere in the world dedicated to St Joan of Arc. From 1918 local Highbury Catholics had worshipped in the chapel of a convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns but increasing numbers of worshippers required the provision of a separate church.

This new church was opened on 13 October 1920 just five monrths after Joan’s canonisation (16 May 1920). When the Carmelites left Highbury in 1953 the convent site was used for a new and much larger church designed by Stanley Kerr Bate (b.1906–?), which opened on 23 September 1962.

The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower c.1990
The church of St Joan of Arc church in Highbury, London; detail of west fron and tower, c.1990

Secondly, the new church tower was the first in England to be provided with a radioactive lightning rod. (Taking Stock). The idea behind this device –  Early Streamer Emission theory – was that a small quantity of radioactive isotopes at the tip of the rod greatly increased the lightning capture area. The theory has since been discredited. Worriyingly, with such devices there is always a risk that the effects of weathering and poor maintenance allows radioactive material to be released in an uncontolled way into the environment. I have no idea if this dubious device is still in place on the tower at St Joan’s.

The very nice neo-baroque pipe organ (1963) is by J. W. Walker and Sons Ltd, and is divided either side of the front wall of a spacious choir gallery at the west end of the nave. The largest pedal pipes are in a separate case on the gallery.


Jane Parker-Smith in recital

Freemasons Hall, London WC2

Yesterday I went along to an early evening organ recital performed by Jane Parker-Smith on the recently restored and enlarged pipe organ in the Grand Temple of the Freemasons Hall in central London, UK.

It is some thirty or more years since I last heard Jane Parker-Smith perform – my fault and not hers – and I was looking forward to hearing and seeing again the showy technical brilliance and the vivacious stage presence that I remembered so clearly as her hallmark. To give you some idea think of a ‘Kate Bush’ of the organ world.

These days  Jane Parker-Smith presents a more strikingly sober figure than in her early career, and there is a less obvious desire to dazzle as was evident in her modest introductory speech and black concert attire; the programme notes went so far as to compare her with the famously serious pianist Martha Agerich.

Despite her demurely presented introductory speech Parker-Smith’s demanding programme was  brilliantly performed. Technical wizardry is still in evidence – as seen in close up via two large video screens relaying the console – but here now is also a considered interpretative authority.

Of all the organists I have heard so far in this short series of recitals – part of celebrations marking 300 years of the Grand Lodge of English freemasons – Jane Parker-Smith seemed to be the most at home with this instrument. The Grand Temple has a dry acoustic, designed for clarity of speech rather than the presentation of music; every note and the silences between notes are crystal clear. It is perhaps Jane Parker-Smith’s life lived more in the demanding acoustic of the international concert hall than the looser acoustics of the average church buidling that contributed to her entirely assured playing on this occasion.

The programme was largely of (to me) unfamiliar pieces of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this regard I was particularly struck by the virtuosic concluding pages of Variations on ‘Adeste Fideles’ by Belgian-American organist/composer Gaston Marie Dethie (1875-1958).

An evening such as this would not be properly concluded without an encore, and Jane Parker-Smith gave us an arrangement of Flight of the Bumble Bee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), effortlessly and impishly thrown-off con brio as we could all see and hear, and it was rapturously received. Go Jane!

So maybe Jane Parker-Smith’s excuberant dazzle is not entirely a thing of the past?