2008 report

It was entirely due to the encouragement and enthusiasm of the audience at the first English Music Festival back in October 2006 that a second Festival was organised. Without their unceasing support and their demands for the EMF to continue, I am not sure I could have yet again braved the cold shoulders of governmental funding bodies and corporate sponsors who are so dismissive of, and disinterested in, English classical music. However, thanks to the commitment of the musicians themselves to this project, and to the immense generosity of several individuals, various Trusts and Funds, and the composer societies, Dorchester-on-Thames hosted the second Festival in May 2008.

Hilary Davan Wetton and the City of London Choir
Composers at the New Commissions concert

I must confess that yet again ambition rather ran away with me, and the programme was rather packed and challenging! The Festival opened on the Friday night of the May Whitsun bank holiday weekend with a pre-concert press reception in the cloister gallery, where we were delighted to have an array of relatives of composers (including those of Boughton, Bantock and Holbrooke), as well as several eminent music critics. Boris Johnson, EMF President, opened proceedings with a rousing speech welcoming the second Festival and praising its role in the current resurgence of interest in English music. As we all rose to sing Jerusalem, he muttered to me: ‘Now, this is how every Festival should start!’ As in 2006, we used the BBC Concert Orchestra for the first concert of the Festival – this time under the baton of Barry Wordsworth. The members of the orchestra played their hearts out, and it was extremely gratifying to see so many smiles and grins from the players, given this chance to play such interesting and beautiful works. The first half consisted of Holbrooke’s Birds of Rhiannon, Mackenzie’s gorgeous Benedictus and Rawsthorne’s deeply nostalgic and moving Practical Cats, with Jeremy Nicholas as the evocative narrator. In the second half, Bantock’s Celtic Symphony was extremely well received by an enthusiastic audience – a splendid start to the Festival!

Andrew Plant, Andrew Swait and James Bowman

The second day dawned relatively sunny, and we headed over to Keble College, Oxford, for a service of Sullivan’s sacred music in the imposing Chapel. The Sullivan Singers were directed by David Owen Norris, with David Bednall on the organ, and Ian Partridge as tenor soloist. This was followed by a talk by Revd Dr Ian Bradley, the preacher for the service, on Sullivan’s hymn tunes and sacred music. The first concert of the day took place at All Saints’ Church, Sutton Courtenay, a favourite venue from the inaugural Festival, and featured Vox Musica and the Southbank Sinfonia, directed by Michael Berman and Thomas Jackson. The church was packed with an audience who had flocked to hear choral and chamber works by Elgar, Holst, Finzi, Vaughan Williams and Howells. The concert combined slightly better-known works (such as Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Holst’s Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis and Finzi’s Romance) with slightly more obscure pieces – such as Vaughan Williams’s Concerto Accademico, with Thomas Jackson the masterful soloist. Several of the audience were reduced to tears by the incredible power of pieces such as Finzi’s Welcome, Sweet and Sacred Feast, Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge and Finzi’s Magnificat, which concluded a concert of outstanding music-making.

The Carducci Quartet

Back to Dorchester’s Abbey Guest House for the pre-concert talk by Giles Easterbrook on Bliss – ‘The Consummate Anthologist’. The concert itself took place in the Abbey a few hours later. Hilary Davan Wetton conducted the Milton Keynes City Orchestra and City of London Choir in Holst’s Brook Green Suite, Norman O’Neill's rarely-heard Pastorale, the lovely Bridge Suite for Strings, Vaughan Williams’s intense Te Deum and Bliss’s alluring Pastoral – Lie Strewn the White Flocks, with Heather Shipp and Ileanna Ruhemann solo soprano and flute respectively. Another audience went home touched and uplifted by excellent renditions of some splendid works – those, that is, who did not stay on for the late-night event. We held this in the side chapel, creating an intimate atmosphere that was perfect for the irrepressive David Owen Norris’s sparkling and vivacious performance of (and stories about) Billy Mayerl’s piano music.

Hilary Davan Wetton and the Milton Keynes City Orchestra

On Sunday it poured, and a damp procession made its way to the Chapel of Radley College for a concert by the Bridge Quartet, consisting of the Britten / Purcell Chacony, Alwyn’s appealing Sonatina, Bridge’s Rhapsody Trio, Delius’s Late Swallows and Bridge’s Second String Quartet. The quartet played with conviction and expertise, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed both the music and the impressive (if slightly cold!) venue. They were particularly delighted to find themselves treated to an encore of an arrangement of Cherry Ripe, with a basket of cherries handed round to accompany the melody! After a break for lunch, the Festival continued with a concert in Radley’s Silk Hall, the Amaretti Orchestra providing a very popular programme of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto (with David Campbell the superb soloist), Ireland’s Downland Suite and Elgar’s much-loved Introduction and Allegro.

Andrew Swait

Back in Dorchester, the pre-concert talk was given by John Leeman on the influence of English Literature on European Romantic music, before one of the highlights of the entire Festival – a concert by the Cannons Scholars, conducted by John Andrews. This commenced with Thomas Arne’s Fourth symphony, followed by Linley’s In Yonder Grove, written, incredibly enough, before he was 16. Gorgeous stuff, and expertly conducted by John and sung by soprano Elena Xanthoudakis. The second half consisted of Arne’s Judgement of Paris, which was a given a radiant performance, with an outstanding standard of musicianship. Elena Xanthoudakis played the part of Venus, Sara Jonsson Athena, a Sonya Prentice Juno, Ed Lyon Paris, and Peter Mitchell Mercury. I was pleased by the reaction of the audience, many of whom told me that it wasn’t really their type of stuff but that it was one of the best concerts they’d ever been to, and that they were now converts to Linley and Arne! The day closed with a further concert, again in the side chapel, with the Dufay Collective presenting music from Mediaeval England, sending the audience off in buoyant mood.

David Owen Norris

The Monday morning concert took place back in the Abbey, and we were delighted to have the renowned counter-tenor James Bowman, treble Andrew Swait, and pianist Andrew Plant performing works by Britten – including several premières (The Owl, Diaphenia, Goldenhair and The Witches’ Song), Sullivan, Quilter, Elgar (the enchanting Where corals lie from Sea Pictures), Jeffreys, Purcell, Boyce, Wood and Williamson. Swait’s heavenly, crystal clear voice probably resulted in lumps in more than one throat, and his air of purity and innocence worked well with Bowman’s more theatrical manner. There was clearly great rapport between all three performers, and the music-making and programming went down extremely well with the audience. Over then to All Saints’ Church, where the Carducci Quartet thrilled us with passionate, yet polished renditions of Vaughan Williams’s two string quartets and Moeran’s glorious String Quartet in E flat. A talk by Paul Spicer on George Dyson and his Agincourt, entitled ‘O For a Muse of Fire’ preceded the final concert of the day, with David Owen Norris conducting the Andover Choral Society in Elgar’s Banner of St George and Dyson’s Agincourt, with David Coram the accomplished organist.

Jeremy Nicholas and Em Marshall

The final day started with a recital of première performances of works by Joseph Holbrooke. They were excellently played by the hugely talented young Greek pianist, Panagiotis Trochopoulos, and were warmly received by the audience. The afternoon concert was held back in the Silk Hall at Radley College, and I was overjoyed to see that audience numbers had remained consistently much higher than for the first year’s Festival (the word is clearly spreading!). Here, acclaimed violinist Philippe Graffin was accompanied by Marisa Gupta in a programme of Delius’s Legende and second Violin Sonata, Alwyn’s Sonatina and Britten’s Suite, op.6, which he performed with intensity and flair. Barry Marsh gave the final, lively, talk of the Festival on E.J. Moeran. The sun graced us then with its presence – just long enough for the garden party, held in the gardens of Dorchester Manor House, to which eminent musicologists, critics and writers, artists, authors, living composers and the relatives of past composers, lecturers, musicians, EMF Vice-Presidents and members of the EMF Friends’ Scheme had been invited, and which was a thoroughly congenial affair.

Paul Carr hugs Ronald Corp

The final concert of the Festival had been the one of my most ambitious devising, the one which had been the most complicated to organise, the most worrying, and yet also the one which I had been most eagerly anticipating. Ronald Corp was conducting the Southern Sinfonia and the London Chorus in an entire programme of works that I had commissioned for this closing concert of the second EMF. From the very first note of Matthew Curtis’s Festival Overture, I realised that this was going to be one of the most amazing concerts I'd ever have the privilege to attend. The Overture was a wonderfully rousing piece, and the perfect opener to the concert. It was followed by Paul Carr’s Oboe Concerto, with Nicholas Daniel as the rather virtuosic soloist – another wonderful piece – lyrical, beautiful, and yet original and interesting. Cecilia's McDowall’s striking The Skies in their Magnificence ensued, and Corp’s attractive Jubilate ended the first half.

The Sullivan Singers at Keble

After the interval, Philip Lane’s Lyric Dances comprised a set of utterly charming and expertly composed movements. It is perhaps not the place of the dedicatée to overly laud the work dedicated to her – however, the concluding work of the concert – and the entire Festival – was utterly brilliant. A masterful, and tightly-constructed, combination of effervescent fire and energy, with some extremely gorgeous and moving passages – innovative, unusual and, like its author, completely idiosyncratic, whilst remaining based in the great English tradition. It was directed from the keyboard by the composer, David Owen Norris, who allowed his virtuosic showmanship free reign as he leapt up and down at the keyboard, sometimes playing with one hand and conducting with the other, occasionally conducting with nods of his head! This was an exhilarating conclusion to a highly-charged, and excellently performed, concert, and was greeted with rapturous applause from an enthusiastic audience.

I believe that we can safely say that the EMF is going from strength to strength, and my only wish is that an increasing number of people will come to hear about it, and will support this worthwhile, and much-needed, venture.