Monday, June 7, 2010

Fourth English Music Festival 2010 at Dorchester Abbey

I, Em Marshall, am the Founder-Director of the English Music Festival, which celebrates the music of British composers throughout the centuries, with a strong focus on the Golden Renaissance of English music – the early twentieth century. Concerts and talks are staged in Dorchester Abbey and in the Abbey Guest House, as well as at the Silk Hall at Radley College and the Church of All Saints at Sutton Courtenay.
Friday 28 May
I returned to Oxfordshire yesterday evening from an interview for ‘In Tune’ on BBC Radio 3, travelling directly to Radley for the Festival’s opening (free) concert – a piano recital of music by Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley and Ferguson, given by Anthony Williams. This morning was spent co-ordinating final preparations for tonight’s concert: setting up the CD stall and the Box Office in the Abbey; ensuring that refreshments were available for the orchestra; and then partaking of lunch at The White Hart Hotel with fellow Trustees, EMF Vice-President, conductor and broadcaster Brian Kay, and a Friend of the Festival who had come from France to attend.
Following the afternoon rehearsal in the Abbey, the Garden Party for EMF Friends, Artists and Vice-Presidents was most generously hosted by an eminent Dorchester resident. Back in the Abbey, the main evening concert (our flagship event) featured the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Sutherland – after a warm introduction by Revd Sue Booys, I welcomed the audience, some of whom had travelled from the other side of the world. The programme commenced with Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’, as is the Festival’s custom; and 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 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.
At the end of each day, the Festival Trustees meet for a debriefing session in The White Hart, followed by a (very!) late meal.
Saturday 29 May
This morning’s recital, given by the violinist Rupert Luck and the pianist Matthew Rickard, was especially exciting, including, as it did, the world premières of the Violin Sonatas by Arthur Bliss and Henry Walford Davies, both of which have languished in manuscript form for almost one hundred years. This was followed by lunch, again at The White Hart, with the morning’s artists and the composer Lionel Sainsbury. Then on to Radley for a concert given by the Orchestra of St Paul’s, conducted by Ben Palmer, the programme for which contained the world première of Paul Carr’s ‘A Gentle Music’, which I was extremely flattered to have dedicated to me.
The late afternoon slots are dedicated to talks from eminent visiting speakers which take place in the Abbey Guest House. Today’s was, regrettably, the only talk which I was able to attend; and I hugely enjoyed Barry Marsh’s fascinating presentation on E. J. Moeran.

The evening concert, back 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: ‘The Coming of Christ’ by Gustav Holst. 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. Tonight, Oxford Liedertafel presented a wonderfully varied programme of a cappella music, with composers ranging from Byrd to Vaughan Williams.
Sunday 30 May
The day started at Radley College, with a recital by the Tippett Quartet to launch their new CD, during which I manned the Box Office, before a journey to Sutton Courtney for a swift lunch and the afternoon concert, given by the Elysian Singers. Their programme included the movingly beautiful ‘Requiem’ by Herbert Howells, a non-ecclesiastical setting which, nevertheless, combines a devotional directness of expression with an emotional punch.
The evening concert was of Delius’s ‘Hassan’, with a précis specially written and read by Radio 3 presenter Paul Guinery. The second half was 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; and the performers - Janice Watson, David Wilson-Johnson and Mark Chaundy - gave full justice to what is one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century.
A very different concert ensued, with the mediaeval band ‘Joglaresa’ presenting traditional and early songs of the supernatural.
Monday 31 May
The last day of Festival was packed with interspersed rehearsals and concerts. It opened with a concert in the Abbey given by the Syred Consort, directed by Ben Palmer. The group was in excellent voice and their recital included such gems as Finzi’s ‘Magnificat’. I then returned to Abingdon to begin the packing-up process – and to move my temporary residence! Lunch at a local hostelry was followed by a return to the Abbey and a 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 are familiar. Also evident was the skill of composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bantock in writing for these forces. The Band was extremely gratified to perform in what they described as such a “magnificent venue”.
The final concert was the ‘Come and Sing’ event. 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’.
A party for Friends and helpers in the Abbey Guest House rounded off the highly successful Fourth English Music Festival.

For more details of the English Music Festival, visit the Festival’s website: If you would like to join the mailing list, or would like details of the Friends scheme, please email the Founder-Director, Em Marshall, at

(Blogged by Em Marshall, Founder-Director of the English Music Festival)

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