2009 report

Every year’s English Music Festival has grown upon the success of the previous one – and this year’s, the third Festival, was no exception – with music-making of the excellent standard that audiences have come to associate with the EMF, a wide range of music from mediaeval to contemporary, and from serious to light-hearted, and with larger and even more enthusiastic audiences than before.

Hilary Davan Wetton and the City of London choir

Friday 22nd May dawned sunny and bright; already the local hotels were patronised by EMF supporters, and members of the audience recognised each other in the streets, and stood to chat, anticipating the excitements to come! The Festival commenced with a concert by Vox Musica and the South Bank Sinfonia, conducted by Michael Berman. The programme was a wonderful combination of Finzi (including his beautiful Magnificat), Vaughan Williams, splendid Harris anthems, some soaring Howells, Tippett, Berkeley and Holst – the St Paul’s Suite, which moved me deeply, played, as it was, with tremendous vivacity. The key work of the concert was Dyson’s intense Hierusalem – the performance was described in the Observer review as ‘ravishing’. Spirits were high after such a fantastic opening concert – and particularly when we realised that the audience for this opening concert was 35% larger than for our opening concert last year – and that had been given by the BBC Concert Orchestra! A smaller but nevertheless appreciative audience then enjoyed David Owen Norris’s exuberant Billy Mayerl recital in the Lady Chapel.


The Saturday got off to a less auspicious start – a major accident on the M40 meant that numbers of both audience and artists were severely delayed. Nonetheless, all the concerts took place at the appointed times and were well-attended. Norris took the morning’s stage and proved himself as much master of deeply intense performances of the most serious and difficult music as he was of the previous evening’s virtuosic frolics. His monster programme included the Bax second and the Lambert Sonatas as well as Elgar’s Concert Allegro, works by that master of the miniature, Roger Quilter, Vaughan Williams, and Moeran’s enchanting Irish Love Song.

Over to Radley for the Bridge Quartet, performing the Elgar String Quartet, Rawsthorne Quartet and the Bridge Piano Quintet with Michael Dussek. Audiences enjoyed a dual spectacle, with a very English cricket match going on outside as well, and emerged delighted, rushing to the stall where the Quartet were signing copies of their latest disc.

Malcolm MacDonald had been unwell, so Dr John Grimshaw, Chairman of the Havergal Brian Society, replaced in him in an informative talk on Havergal Brian. This was followed by the first of two parties for EMF Friends, press and VIPs, hosted by the generous owners of the local manor house, the Broadbents. Wine and nibbles were greatly enjoyed in their beautiful and extensive gardens.

Cannons Scholars

Back to the Abbey – a full Abbey! – and so to the main event of this year’s EMF – the BBC Concert Orchestra with David Lloyd-Jones and a programme that intrigued and promised much – a promise that was, in the event, entirely fulfilled. The audience rose to sing Jerusalem – good in the first verse, they raised the roof with the second verse. Very moving. This was followed by Matthew Curtis’s Festival Overture – specially composed for our New Commissions Concert in the 2008 EMF – a fantastic work that gets any concert going with pizzazz. Havergal Brian’s Reverie (from his fifth English Suite) ensued, then Vaughan Williams’s lovely Willow Wood, with Jeremy Huw Williams the soloist. The first half closed with a sparkling performance of Elgar’s Sanguine Fan. An animated audience milled, anticipatory, in the interval, and enjoyed the local English wine. The second half opened with the world première performance of Delius’s Hiawatha – an early but important work that made its mark, here at the EMF, as a substantial piece, full of beauty, lyricism, originality and craftsmanship. Finally, the piece that had excited the most interest – the first performance for 100 years of Frederick Cliffe’s Violin Concerto. Philippe Graffin poured his heart and soul into this incredibly virtuosic work – a work itself of fire and spirit and passion! The audience were overwhelmed – demonstrated by wild applause – and comments I received afterwards included several of ‘pure magic’, a few of ‘one of the most wonderful concerts I have ever been to’, and one ‘now I can die happy’! Energised, many Trustee and audience members found their way to the White Hart afterwards to continue discussing a truly memorable concert.

All of Sunday’s events took place at Radley College, and the sun blessed us with its constant – and quite forceful – presence! The first recital was by Oxford Liedertafel, in the Chapel. Superb – gorgeous voices floating out in that wonderful space, and a lovely choice of songs from Sullivan and Stanford to Cornysh and Henry VIII. A heart-wrenching rendition of Linden Lea as the encore reduced the EMF Director to tears, joined, I think, by several other members of the audience! Lunch took place in the Foyer of the Silk Hall – sandwiches, wine and cakes provided by the EMF. Most took their lunch outside and then slept it off under the shade of a tree, or enjoyed reading a book or the EMF programme in the sunshine.

Oxford Liedertafel

The afternoon concert took place in the Silk Hall, and the Musicians of All Saints’ played an excellent programme of Parry’s Lady Radnor Suite, Bridge’s anguished Lament for Strings, Holst’s exquisite Fugal Concerto, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Copley’s Divertimento (a fantastic piece, and much enjoyed), and concluded with the Ireland Concertino. More wine and cakes before – and after – the talk. This, by Valerie Langfield, in the Silk Hall, was an enlightening personal insight into her experiences of writing Quilter’s biography. The main evening concert was held back in the Chapel – the Cannons Scholars under John Andrews’s assured direction, returning by popular demand, this time with a programme of Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord alway, I was Glad, Te Deum and Jubilate (to celebrate his anniversary year); Boyce’s Trio Sonata no.2; and in the second half, Eccles’s impressive and extensive Hymn to Harmony. A fantastic day’s music-making concluded with an intimate and staggeringly beautiful concert by early music band Joglaresa, performing a mixture of traditional, folk and early English music. Deeply moving, stirring, uplifting music, and given performances of the very highest commitment and quality. Emotional stuff!

left to right: Em Marshall; Brian Kay; Hilary Davan Wetton; Andrew Plant; and James Bowman

The final day had come about all too quickly, we Trustees realised, as we met up in the Abbey to set up for the last few concerts. Amazingly enough, it had all taken place without any major mishaps or disasters, and we were all still exhilarated by the success of Saturday night in particular, and also by our audience numbers not only bucking the current decreasing trend, but actually doubling previous years’ figures!

After consulting the performers and ticket sales figures, we decided to the leave the piano where it was and to hold James Bowman’s and Andrew Plant’s recital in the Lady Chapel. However, audience started pouring in – and they just kept coming – so that in the end we had to reluctantly move everyone and the piano over into the main body of the Abbey – not a problem we had envisaged! This recital was the most contemporary and cutting edge event in the EMF this year, with a work specially composed for it by Tom Rose, whom we were delighted to have in the audience.

Em Marshall

Apart from some Purcell songs, a Grainger, a few Britten songs and some of the Butterworth Shropshire Lad settings (to celebrate the 150th year of Housman’s birth), all the other composers featured were modern – from Andrew Gant to Peter Maxwell Davies. The concert was well-received, and many of the audience went on the lunch-seminar, held in Dorchester Village Hall afterwards. The panel consisted of Hilary Davan Wetton, who chaired the meeting, Dr Andrew Plant, James Bowman and broadcaster, presenter and conductor (and EMF VP) Brian Kay. After each speaker presented his thoughts on the topic of the Future of the British Choral Tradition, the meeting was opened up to the floor and a lively and productive discussion ensued, with several important points being raised and debated.

James Bowman

The final concert was one of the highlights of a Festival full of musical riches and revelation. Hilary Davan Wetton conducted the City of London Choir. He commenced with Vaughan Williams’s lovely Sun, Moon, Stars and Man, followed by one of the pieces that first turned my love of English music into a blazing passion and, therefore, one of the reasons for founding the EMF in the first place – Holst’s sublime Hymns from the Rig Veda. Britten’s brilliant and lively Choral Dances from ‘Gloriana’ closed the first half – a difficult work, and one that the choir pulled off superbly. Foulds’s rather gorgeous Keltic Lament ensued after the interval and Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor concluded the concert – and the Festival. And what a performance! I have had the good fortune to hear this amazing work live a number of number of times – but never before has it sounded so transcendent – the performance really was out of this world. Feedback afterwards was incredibly positive – many had been deeply touched and affected by the Mass, and while the Festival had ‘made’ one person’s ‘year’; for another couple it was the best musical event they had ever attended. Nor were they in the first flush of youth! Some said they were ‘privileged’ to have attended, and another commented on my being ‘as brave as a lioness’!

We brought the EMF Friends, at least, back down to earth again with another EMF Friends and VIP party, at which the Bridge Quartet launched their latest Somm CD. Bubbly and splendid malt whisky was enjoyed along with nibbles and tasters of Frank Bridge from the Quartet. And as people gradually began to drift away, and the party drew to a close, the first drops of rain that we’d had all weekend started falling outside...