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Organist James O'Donnell to join ISM/YSM faculty

James O'Donnell by Suzanne Bosman

James O'Donnell. Photo by Suzanne Bosman

Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) is pleased to announce the appointment of James ODonnell as professor in the practice in the ISM and Yale School of Music. Mr. ODonnell succeeds Thomas Murray as professor to graduate organ majors and other students in sacred music. Additionally, he will direct a newly formed professional liturgical vocal ensemble that will serve as a model and a vehicle for study for students preparing for careers in church music and liturgy.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to work and teach at Yale,” he says. "I will, of course, be very sorry to leave Westminster Abbey after twenty-three years and am deeply grateful for the rich experience, the friendship and support of my colleagues, and the privilege of playing a part in countless memorable occasions. However, after nearly forty years working mainly in cathedral music in the UK, the appointment at Yale will inspire me to draw fully on my experience and skills in new and different ways. I look forward to all that lies ahead.”

Robert Blocker, dean of Yale School of Music, says that “the appointment holds significance for the entire discipline of music, for James O'Donnell's extraordinary talent and experience will now be directed deeply to a new generation of young artists connected to the church and society. In him, we have a colleague whose humility embraces his musical gifts and whose very presence will enrich our community.”

James ODonnell is one of the most celebrated concert organists, choral conductors, and liturgical musicians of our time. He joins our faculty after over thirty years of service as director of music at two of the leading choral foundations in the world: Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. As organist and master of the choristers of Westminster Abbey since January 2000, he has led the celebrated choir of men and boys in daily choral services featuring repertoire from the Middle Ages to the present day. In addition to this regular cycle of services that gathers thousands of worshipers each week, he has led the music for numerous occasions of state that include the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Catherine Middleton), the funeral service for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the recent Service of Thanksgiving for the Duke of Edinburgh. He has toured with the choir to Asia, Australia, the United States, and throughout Europe, and made many acclaimed recordings. From 1997–2004, he was professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is now a visiting professor there.

As organ recitalist, he has performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls, cathedrals, and churches in the world, including Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles), the Meyerson Center (Dallas), Davies Hall (San Francisco), the Royal Festival Hall, and the Royal Albert Hall (for the BBC Proms), and has appeared as soloist with many orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

As a conductor, he has worked with the BBC Singers, English Concert, Academy of Ancient Music, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, as well as our own Yale Schola Cantorum. He is currently music director of St. James’ Baroque, London. He has over fifty organ and choral recordings to his name, of which several have garnered awards, including Gramophone’s Record of the Year and Best Choral Recording for his Hyperion recording of Masses by Frank Martin and Ildebrando Pizzetti with the Choir of Westminster Cathedral.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II bestowed on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory, and in 2013, Mr. ODonnell received an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen. He is past president of the Royal College of Organists, a fellow of the Royal College of Music and the Royal School of Church Music, and an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2011, he was elected an honorary fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.

In addition to teaching organ and sacred music at Yale, Mr. ODonnell will lead a newly established vocal ensemble consisting of professionals from the region that will sing regular liturgies in a variety of traditions in conjunction with local parishes, chaplaincies, and other Yale faculty and students. It will serve as a model and a vehicle for study for students preparing for careers in church music and liturgy.

Mr. ODonnell will also have a significant role in shaping important new outreach and collaborations with organists, choir directors, clergy, and theologians around the world who have leadership roles in church music and liturgy. He begins his work at Yale in January 2023 when he moves to the New Haven area with his husband Nauro and their four dogs.

“James O’Donnell brings a combination of gifts that seem unmatched in our field: command of a vast range of organ and choral repertoire; a deep engagement with multiple ecclesial and liturgical traditions, and a world-class reputation as an artist in multiple mediums,” said ISM director Martin Jean. “We are all excited to welcome him to Yale.”