It was entirely due to the encouragement and enthusiasm of the audience at the first English Music Festival, in October 2006, that a second Festival was organised at all. Without their unceasing support and their demands for the EMF to continue, I am not sure that I could yet again have 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 the 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.
I'm afraid that once again I allowed ambition to run away with me, so 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 in attendance some relatives of composers including Boughton, Bantock, and Holbrooke, as well as several eminent music critics. The EMF President, Boris Johnson, opened proceedings with a rousing speech welcoming the second Festival and praising its role in the current resurgence of interest in English music. As in 2006, we used the BBC Concert Orchestra for the first concert, this time under the baton of Barry Wordsworth. The orchestra members played their hearts out, and it was extremely gratifying to see so many smiles and grins from the players at this chance to perform 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. It was a splendid start to the Festival.
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. After the performance the Revd. Dr Ian Bradley, Preacher for the service, gave a talk on Sullivan's hymn tunes and sacred music. The day's first concert took place at All Saints Church, Sutton Courtenay, a favourite venue from the inaugural Festival, and featured Vox Musica and the Southbank Sinfonia, directed respectively 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 some better-known works (such as Elgar's Serenade for Strings, Holst's Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis, and Finzi's Romance) with more obscure pieces, including the Vaughan Williams Concerto Accademico, played masterfully by Thomas Jackson as 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. Then it was back to Dorchester's Abbey Guest House for a pre-concert talk by Giles Easterbrook on Arthur 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 Suite for Strings by Frank Bridge, 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 David Owen Norris's sparkling and vivacious performance of (and stories about) Billy Mayerl's jazz piano music.
On Sunday it poured, and a damp procession made its way to the Chapel of Radley College, Oxford, 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 with the encore of an arrangement of Cherry Ripe, in which a basket of cherries was handed round to accompany the melody. After a break for lunch, the Festival continued with a concert in the College'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 a superb soloist), Ireland's Downland Suite, and Elgar's much-loved Introduction and Allegro.
Back in Dorchester, John Leeman gave a pre-concert talk tracing English literature's influence 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, before the composer was 16)—gorgeous stuff, expertly conducted by Andrews and sung by soprano Elena Xanthoudakis. The second half consisted of Arne's Judgement of Paris, a radiant performance marked by an exceptional standard of musicianship, with Xanthoudakis as Venus, Sara Jonsson as Athena, Sonya Prentice as Juno, Ed Lyon as Paris, and Peter Mitchell as Mercury. I was pleased by the audience's reaction: many of them told me afterwards that despite their initial scepticism, the concert had converted them to Linley and Arne. The day closed with another concert (again in the side-chapel) in which the Dufay Collective presented music from mediaeval England that sent the audience off in a buoyant mood.
The Monday morning concert took place 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 premieres (The Owl, Diaphenia, Goldenhair, and TheWitches' Song). The concert also featured pieces by Sullivan, Quilter, Elgar (the enchanting Where Corals Lie from Sea Pictures), Jeffreys, Purcell, Boyce, Wood, and Williamson. Swait's heavenly, crystal-clear voice put a lump in more than one throat, and his air of innocence went well with Bowman's more theatrical manner. There was tremendous rapport between all three performers, and the music-making and programming went down extremely well with the audience. Then it was off 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 "Oh! 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, and David Coram the accomplished organist.
The final day began with a recital of premiere performances of Holbrooke works, excellently played by the hugely talented young Greek pianist Panagiotis Trochopoulos, and warmly received by the audience. The afternoon concert was held at Radley's Silk Hall, and I was overjoyed to note that audience numbers had stayed consistently much higher than for the first Festival. 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, all performed with intensity and flair. Barry Marsh gave the final talk of the Festival, a lively discussion of E. J. Moeran. Then the sun finally graced us with its presence, just long enough for the garden party, held in the gardens of Dorchester Manor House—a thoroughly congenial gathering.
The Festival's closing concert was the one of my most ambitious devising, the one that had been most complicated to organise, and the most worrying, but also the one that I had anticipated most eagerly: Ronald Corp was to conduct the Southern Sinfonia and the London Chorus in a full programme of new works that I had commissioned. 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 that I'd ever have the privilege to attend. The Overture, a wonderfully rousing piece, was the perfect concert opener. It was followed by Paul Carr's Oboe Concerto, with Nicholas Daniel as the virtuosic soloist: this wonderful piece, lyrical and beautiful, was also original and interesting. Cecilia McDowall's striking The Skies in Their Magnificence ensued, and Corp's attractive Jubilate ended the first half. 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 dedicatee to overly laud the work written for her -however, the final piece, a Piano Concerto, was utterly brilliant. A masterful, tightly-constructed combination of effervescent fire and energy with some extremely moving passages, it was innovative, unusual, and completely idiosyncratic, whilst remaining based in the great English tradition. The Concerto was directed by its composer, David Owen Norris, who allowed his showmanship free reign as he leapt up and down at the keyboard, sometimes playing with one hand and conducting with the other, and occasionally even conducting with nods of his head! An exhilarating conclusion to a highly-charged concert, it was greeted with rapturous applause by the audience.
I believe we can safely say that the EMF is going from strength to strength. My only wish is that an increasing number of people will come to hear about it and support this worthwhile, and much-needed, venture.--Em Marshall, Director, the English Music Festival