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Ex-Westminster Abbey choir conductor to appear at Trinity Cathedral

by Frank E. Lockwood | March 4, 2023 at 3:02 a.m.
This is a photo of James O'Donnell, professor in the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music and former organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey. He is visiting Little Rock in March 2023. (Courtesy photo)

For more than two decades, when the House of Windsor needed music for royal occasions, James O'Donnell was there to ensure flawless, majestic performances.

Since January, however, he has been based in New Haven, Conn., where he serves as a professor in the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Next week, the former organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey is coming to Arkansas' capital city for a residency at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

On Thursday and March 11, O'Donnell will lead Trinity's choir rehearsals. At 7 p.m. Friday, he'll deliver a public lecture. On March 12, he'll conduct the choir at the 10:30 a.m. Choral Eucharist and the 4 p.m. Evensong, playing its postlude before attending a closing reception.

"I think this is going to be a unique and historic event here in Little Rock and, in fact, the whole region," said Colin MacKnight, the cathedral's director of music.

Trinity Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, was built in 1884.

Westminster Abbey was begun by Benedictine monks in about 960.

The Abbey is a royal church, a stone's throw from Parliament on the north side of the Thames.

Queen Elizabeth I is among those buried there.

During his tenure, O'Donnell, 61, witnessed history again and again.

"He was the music director for lots of important occasions, including Queen Elizabeth's funeral and the wedding of William and Kate [now the Prince and Princess of Wales]. Important moments in the British monarchy, plus," MacKnight said.

On top of that, he oversaw the "regular regimen of daily choral services, concert tours, broadcasts and recordings," MacKnight said, adding, "He's really one of the top, top people in sacred music alive today."

A native of Scotland, O'Donnell was an organ scholar at Cambridge University's Jesus College, graduating in 1982. Initially, he worked at Westminster Cathedral, seat of the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, first as assistant master of music (1982-1988), then as master of music.

While he was there, the Westminster Cathedral Choir won the 1998 Gramophone Award for Record of the Year for its recording of Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir and Ildebrando Pizzetti's Requiem.

"[It] was the only time that any cathedral choir had ever won it, so that was quite a feather in our cap and it was great to have that kind of general musical recognition," O'Donnell said.

In 1999, he was chosen to be the Abbey's organist and master of choristers, the first Catholic to fill the role since the Reformation.

At the Abbey, O'Donnell's skills impressed clergy and royalty alike.

On multiple occasions, he was presented to the queen.

The interactions were brief but lovely, he said.

"It was always a thrill to do it," he said.

"She was wonderful, I thought. She was great. She was always very smiley and very pleasant and very relaxed, but I rarely had more than a few words with her," he said.

The feedback, when he received it, was positive.

In April, when O'Donnell announced he was headed to New England, the dean of Westminster, the Very Rev. Dr. David Hoyle, used superlatives to describe his tenure.

"In Westminster Abbey we strive for excellence. That is a difficult thing to deliver; it is a hard discipline. Yet, for 23 years, it is precisely what James O'Donnell has given us," Hoyle said.

Expressing "profound admiration" for O'Donnell's "breath-taking and sustained achievement," Hoyle concluded: "We have been privileged to listen to the music he has made. Yale [has] chosen well. He has given glory to God."

O'Donnell was returning from a visit to the Ivy League school on the day that the queen died.

"I was at the airport already when I heard that there was going to be an announcement about her health but they didn't say anything more," he said. "I heard the culmination of the news as I landed in London, some some hours later."

The days that followed were busy.

"I felt very, very privileged to be directing the music for Her Majesty's funeral," he said.

In addition to directing the Choir of Westminster Abbey and the Choir of the Chapel Royal, St James' Palace, he also did the arrangements for two of the hymns that were sung: "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended'' and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.''

In the Abbey and all around it, multitudes turned out to pay their respects.

"I think she was definitely held in great affection and you got a sense of that during the funeral," O'Donnell said. "It felt like an act of farewell and thanksgiving for a wonderful person, not just a state occasion with formality. It had a real sort of human aspect to it, which was quite tangible."

O'Donnell's service to the queen was appreciated by the royal family.

Over the holidays, King Charles III named O'Donnell as a lieutenant in the Royal Victorian Order, an award for those who have provided the sovereign with distinguished service.

O'Donnell, who gave an organ concert at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in 2012, said he's glad to be returning to Arkansas. "I much enjoyed Little Rock. I'm looking forward to it," he said.

If you go: James O'Donnell will appear at Trinity Cathedral, 310 W. 17th St., Little Rock, Friday and March 12. More information at

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