2010 report

Every year, the English Music Festival seems to become increasingly successful, attracting larger audiences (and from farther afield – this year we had two audience members who had both travelled to us from Australia), and with ever-higher standards of performance. There was a real buzz about this year’s Festival – an almost tangible atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, that was also evident from the animated discussions that took place in local hostelries and at the box office as audiences gathered for our events.

The Fourth EMF opened, unusually, on a Thursday evening, with a free concert – a piano recital of Rawsthorne’s Four Pieces, Lennox Berkeley’s Six Interludes and the substantial Ferguson Sonata. Radley’s own Anthony Williams performed with virtuosity and aplomb in the Silk Hall.

The next day, Friday 28 May, we were yet again lucky with the weather for our Drinks Reception in the Manor House. EMF Friends were joined by artists, press and Vice-Presidents and enjoyed champagne, canapés and conversation in the sun in the Broadbents’ beautiful and extensive gardens.

David Owen Norris and Gavin Sutherland

Back in the Abbey, the main evening concert (our flagship event) featured the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Sutherland. A warm introduction by Revd. Sue Booys and few words of welcome from myself preceded Parry’s Jerusalem (in accordance with EMF tradition!). The programme also included the first performance for over a century of Quilter’s Serenade, Moeran’s evocative Lonely Waters, and Montague Phillips’s First Piano Concerto, played as effervescently as always by David Owen Norris. The highlight of the concert was the world première of York Bowen’s First Symphony, written whilst the composer was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. The audience response to this unaccountably overlooked work was overwhelming, and Festival audiences left exhilarated, and looking forward to the next day's music-making.

The Saturday morning recital, given by the violinist Rupert Luck and pianist Matthew Rickard, was especially exciting, including, as it did, the world premières of Violin Sonatas by Arthur Bliss and Henry Walford Davies, both of which have languished in manuscript form for almost one hundred years. The concert concluded with York Bowen’s gorgeous Violin Sonata. The performance was outstanding, with Luck playing with searing passion and intensity, sympathetically accompanied by Rickard, and the large audience was tremendously impressed.

Over to Radley’s Silk Hall for the afternoon concert, given by the skillful and dynamic Orchestra of St Paul’s, conducted by Ben Palmer. The programme comprised Purcell’s Incidental Music to ‘Abdelazar’, Armstrong Gibbs’s Threnody, Elgar’s Elegy, Warlock’s Capriol Suite and the world première of Paul Carr’s A Gentle Music, which I was extremely flattered to have dedicated to me.

Barry Marsh’s ensuing talk on E.J. Moeran, back in the Abbey Guest House at Dorchester, was packed out – and rightly, too, as it was both a fascinating and moving lecture.

The evening concert, in the Abbey, was given by the City of London Choir, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, and this staged a work which it has been a long-held ambition of mine to present: Holst’s The Coming of Christ. The first half included choral works by Wood, Pearsall, Elgar, Stanford, Finzi and Bridge, and organ pieces by Howells and Britten. The Coming of Christ, in the second half, was an intriguing work, and well-received.

This was followed by the first of our late-evening concerts, which are always highly atmospheric: there is something very special about the sense of warm enclosure that results from the contrast of the darkness outside and the gently-lit interior of the Abbey. Oxford Liedertafel excelled themselves this year, in a wonderfully varied programme of a cappella music, with composers ranging from Byrd to Vaughan Williams. Quite magical.

Sunday started at Radley College, with a concert by the Tippett Quartet of Tovey, Arnell and Britten string quartets, and the launch of their new CD. We returned to The Church of All Saints at Sutton Courteney – a venue we’ve not been able to use for the past couple of years – for the afternoon concert, given by the Elysian Singers under their conductor, Sam Laughton. The concert was sold-out, and it was with difficulty that I found a small area of floor space to squeeze into! The programme included pieces by Britten, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as well as Stanford’s much-loved The Blue Bird, and Howells’s Requiem. I found the latter – which combines a devotional directness of expression with an emotional punch, especially moving in that particular setting, with the sun pouring through the windows of the ancient and beautiful church, and the bird song drifting in to combine with the glorious Howells.

Back over to Dorchester for Neil Williams’s talk on Holst, and the evening concert, again back in the Abbey. The first half was Delius’s incidental music to the Flecker play, Hassan, with a précis specially written and read by Radio 3 presenter Paul Guinery. The blood-thirsty story rather shocked some members of the audience, but the music was superb under the assured directorship of George Vass. The second half consisted of a work that has intense significance for me, Holst’s opera Sāvitri – this, again, is a piece that I have long had an ambition to stage. The performance (semi-staged) was a dramatic one, with atmospheric costumes and lighting, whilst the performers – Janice Watson, David Wilson-Johnson and Mark Chaundy – sang with staggering power and conviction, and did full justice to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century.

A very different concert ensued, with the mediaeval band Joglaresa presenting traditional and early songs. It was a fascinating programme, with all works based around the supernatural, and, continuing the themes of love and death initiated in Hassan and Sāvitri, made the perfect conclusion to an emotional evening.

The final day was the most frantic, with rehearsals for the evening’s ‘Come and Sing’ event interspersed with the concerts – all taking place in the Abbey. The first event featured the Syred Consort, directed by Ben Palmer. The group was in superb voice and their recital included such gems as Finzi’s Magnificat, Ireland’s Five Part-Songs and little-known works by Vaughan Williams.

A large crowd congregated for the afternoon concert by the Jaguar (Coventry) Band. This was a revelation to many, as it highlighted the expressive power of a medium with which not all of our audience members were familiar. Also evident was the skill of composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bantock in writing for these forces. Percy Fletcher’s Epic Symphonyis a fiendishly difficult work, and gave the band the opportunity for true showmanship. I was particularly thrilled to hear Holst’s Suites for Brass Band live for the first time – especially in such a fantastic performance, and the Band appeared most gratified to perform in what they described as a ‘magnificent venue’.

After Robin Wilson’s insightful talk on Sullivan (‘without Gilbert’!), the final concert of this year’s EMF was the ‘Come and Sing’ event. EMF Vice-President Brian Kay conducted a choir comprising enthusiastic Festival-goers, and elicited a warm response. The programme opened with Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs, with soloist David Wilson-Johnson, who then went on to perform Somervell’s powerful song-cycle Maud, with pianist David Owen Norris. The second half was Elgar’s memorably tuneful Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, and the Festival concluded with kind words from EMF Vice-President Paul Guinery.

A party for Friends and helpers in the Abbey Guest House rounded off the triumphant Fourth English Music Festival, and left me with an aching hole not to be filled until next year’s EMF!