Ex-Cathedral: Matthew Larkin steps into a new future

There comes a time in any career when a change is required. It’s not always because the job has become onerous or even odious. Sometimes it’s just that you have ambitions that you want to pursue.

Matthew Larkin has reached that point. After more than a dozen years as the highly respected organist and music director at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, Larkin played his last postlude in the venerable church on Sunday. It was a version of The Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

At 53, Larkin is taking a risk. He is launching a new choral project in Ottawa called the Caelis Academy Ensemble and as well starting Aug. 1, he’ll be commuting to Toronto weekly where he will be the organist and music director at St. Thomas Anglican Church.

Larkin is also a well-known and in-demand performer in Ottawa and beyond. And he has been a music director and choral director in Ottawa for more than 20 years, first at St. Matthew’s Church and then at the Cathedral. His choirs at Christ Church are routinely praised for their impeccable performance standard. Over the years at the Cathedral, Larkin says he has worked with hundreds of young students. Larkin was himself a boy chorister at St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston, Ontario. Before St. Matthew’s Larkin worked in Victoria, B.C. He is a fellow of the Royal Canadian College of Organists and the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (for his work with young choristers) and he holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology (honoris causa) from Thorneloe University, Sudbury. He was also the music director of the Ottawa Choral Society from 2005 to 2012.

“For a variety of reasons,” he said in an interview, “I felt it was time to try something else. I have been at Cathedral for 14 years and in the diocese for 22 years. … I’m 53 now and I didn’t want to wait (much longer) before doing something different.”

Larkin had actually accepted a position in Britain last year but decided against that move. Still, he says, “it was apparent to me by mid-winter that it was time for a change.”

His job in Toronto, while similar, isn’t as demanding in terms of time, as the Cathedral post, leaving Larkin the flexibility, he says, to develop his Caelis Ensemble and to do more work as a soloist, including finally having more time to practice. He says he will be in Toronto half the week and Ottawa the rest. He will maintain his family home in Ottawa.

“The situation in Toronto is on the University of Toronto campus. It’s a place I have known for many years (Larkin studied at U of T on a scholarship) and my teacher John Tuttle was the organist there until his retirement a year ago. He is a great musician and a great person. He is still teaching, but he decided to give up church work. It’s a very well appointed and lovely place.

“One of the benefactors of the church in mid-20th century was a fellow named Gerald Larkin who is no relation whatsoever and who made his money running Salada Tea.

“When I applied for organ scholarship at Trinity, this was in 1982, I think they thought I was related. For the first few weeks I was invited to various societies, then they realized I was a barbarian and that was end of that.”

Despite his ‘barbarian’ background, at St. Thomas he will lead an adult choir but Larkin says he hopes he will be able to work with children again.

“That’s my favourite thing to do.”

One of his last assignments with the Cathedral was a tour of Britain which saw his Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys sing in several famous churches including Gloucester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The choir also sang at Canada House for a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip. The choir returned home last week.

The Caelis Academy Ensemble already has a gig or two booked in the fall. It will perform a full range of music from early music to Baroque and Renaissance material.

“I love moderns as well, so we’ll do a lot of that.”

In many ways, Larkin says, there is a shifting landscape in church music with community choirs and chamber choirs replacing church choirs in much the same way that community centres have replaced churches as places to go for community involvement.

He says the Anglican church has always invested resources in serious music making, more, perhaps, than other denominations have. But, he says, there are challenges to doing this consistently.

“I guess I see limits to future growth and … for my professional needs at this time it was time to do something else.

“But I fundamentally believe that the choral heritage of the Church has given us the most beautiful music, and that its rightful place is in the liturgy. The tradition of cathedral music will always be at the heart of my work.”

This move also gives Larkin a chance to pursue a long-held ambition.

“I had a dream when I first went to the cathedral in 2003. I wanted to do was set up a school.”

The model he had in mind is in place in Britain where there are cathedral schools that are heavily based on music. The students are responsible for daily duties in the cathedrals. But they also receive a liberal arts education.

This dream “still burns within me. This new venture of mine (the Caelis Academy Ensemble) is first step to realizing that dream.”

He knows it’s one step at a time. But that’s the goal and the journey starts now.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.

  • Kim McGill

    Great article about an exceptional human being and musician. Thank you, Peter Robb, for this spotlight on a much admired church musician and choral director. Wishing him all the best in his new adventures.

  • Stephanie Martin

    Thanks for this!