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Seen and Heard Festival Review


SEMLEY MUSIC FESTIVAL: Semley Village, August 6th-8th, 2004 (CC)


Semley is perhaps an unlikely venue for a music festival, a small village near Shaftesbury. Yet that is part of its charm and its strength - set amongst beautiful English countryside, Semley’s Festival breathes a curious but elevating mix of the relaxed and the thrill of discovery. Lasting from Friday evening through Sunday lunchtime, the Festival embraced classics, jazz, modern music and a show by the remarkable Zoë Martlew that was unclassifiable (in the best sense, I hasten to add.)


The primary venue was St Leonard’s Church, Semley, a sweet building notable for an acoustic that was drier than one might think at first glance. No disadvantage, this, for many works heard required a clear sense of line and minimal blurring of textures. And how encouraging that the first concert, ‘Birds, Dances and Lullabies’ was stuffed to the rafters. True, the parents of the children of Semley First School (who were participating in the concert) probably accounted for a fair few of the bums on seats, but nevertheless there was a distinct buzz of excitement.


The indefatigable Double Image was on duty for this inaugural event. Sadie Harrison herself provided the first item, Ring the Bells of St Leonards, in which school children (including fledgling instrumentalists) must have made their parents glow with pleasure and pride.


The strength of this programme lay in its diversity. It included works by the festival’s President, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, each of which was followed by a Children’s Piece. First up was Hector’s Dawn (for piano, 1987, making it the exact contemporary of the much more famous Endless Parade). David Carhart played the piece hypnotically, the wide-open registral spaces and bold gestures making for arresting listening. ‘Children’s Piece No. 1’ followed on immediately - how wonderful to have small children immersed in this music and taking it totally seriously, reacting to it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Berceuse de Jeanne, another Birtwistle piano piece, was identifiably a berceuse, remarkably modal for this composer, with a magnificently inconclusive end, the ideal way to issue in the next Children’s Piece. (Incidentally, Birtwistle’s work apparently lasts ‘as long as it takes for the baby to fall asleep’ - so presumably it could function like Satie’s Vexations in the case of a stubbornly insomniac infant.) The final Birtwistle came with The Ookooing Bird (the accent’s on the second syllable.) This early work (c1950) refers to a creature of Birtwistle’s imagination (a flight of fancy, if you will), a reference perhaps evoking the myths that were later to preoccupy the composer (and do to this day.) It is slow, ritualistic (well something had to be, this is Birtwistle), modal (mixolydian) and refers to both Debussy and Stravinsky in its short span. David Carhart played all the piano works with supreme musicality.


Also included was a Festival commission, Seven Short Pieces by Laurence Crane (presumably written in the last year or so - no dates of any compositions were given in the programme.) Written for five instruments (violin, bass flute, piano, ‘cello, clarinet), this showed great imagination (and required great concentration from the audience.) Works by Villa-Lobos (Chôros No 2 for flute and clarinet), Mozart (Rondo from the Haffner Serenade, arr. Kreisler) Glinka (a magnificent choice, the finale from Trio pathetique) and Bartók (Six Romanian Dances, arr. Sparling) provided freshness and contrast.


Saturday was launched by an astonishingly long afternoon concert yet the marathon was worthwhile. ‘Landscapes in Song’ was another wide-ranging programme, including works by Bach, Vaughan Williams, Finnissy, Alwyn, Alec Roth and Fauré. Lovely as it was to hear Bach’s sonata for flute and harp (continuo), BWV1035 complete (ornaments only slightly awkward from Siobhan Grealy), I did wonder if it was strictly necessary in the light of the remaining programme.


Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were given by Swedish baritone Håkan Vramsmo, with Lucy Wakeford as the excellent harpist. Vramsmo has a lovely voice, evenly produced almost throughout his entire range (there is some sense of strain at the very top). His diction was not faultless, however (‘wealth’ became ‘welfff’, for example), but he did achieve a simplicity of utterance at the echt-Vaughan Williamsisch ‘Whither must I wonder’ and a very specifically pastoral-English sense of melancholy was there for all to enjoy.

For a die-hard modernists such as myself a World Première by Michael Finnissy made it seem like Christmas had relocated to August. And here it was - Medea, a Semley Festival Commission. The idea behind the work refers to a Greece of the imagination. Finnissy himself filled us in with the famous story, leaving the music to speak for itself. And speak it did. In its eight minutes, it evoked a mystic time outside of time itself in its modal allusions and its uncompromising language. Words were frequently separated (indeed ripped) into their constituent syllables. Gavin Carr was the simply superb soloist, hitting notes bang in the middle, presenting the florid vocal line with ease. He seemed to have intimately studied the text, too (the Greek ‘xs’ sound, a hard ‘k’ followed by sibilant ‘s’, was excellent.) Unfortunately, this was followed by William Alwyn’s Naiades (‘Water nymphs’, for flute and harp.) The Greek link was well-intentioned, but Alwyn’s watered-down language seemed a little too easy. The film music composer in him was evident in some gestures, and the piece lasted too long for its material. The first performance of Romantic Residues by Alec Roth (the title refers to past romantic encounters) introduced us to a piece that was effective if undemanding (traces of Britten’s Cabaret Songs here and there) and whose comedic elements were most welcome.


Fauré’s Quatre Mélodies de Venise, here on baritone and harp by Håkan Vramsmo and Lucy Wakeford, were fluent (good French) and restful (although a surprise restart for one song was disruptive to the flow.) It is the Finnissy that will live long in my memory, however, and I hope to see it on disc before long… I have an (unconfirmed) suspicion that Metier may oblige.


Saturday was to be a long day. But it just got better and better. ‘Music & Love Songs from Afghanistan’ was a treat (see my review of the Afghan/Sadie Harrison concert in London.) Here Veronica Doubleday (voice and framedrum) and John Baily (rubâbs and dutârs), both of the Ensemble Bakhtar, were joined by Abdul Wahab Madadi, a respected native Harati singer now resident in Hamburg.


This was an amazing event that fully lived up to the expectations of that concert and its attendant Metier CD. The concert was recorded for the BBC World Service. This is mesmeric music, hypnotic in effect - you feel it could go on forever. Many of the songs are about love in its various guises. The improvised feel adds greatly to the almost meditative, intoxicating feel of this music. The three performers seemed to think almost telepathically, their communication complete, their enthusiasm total; the music (from Heart and Kabul) was absolutely intoxicating. And if that wasn’t memorable enough…


Saturday’s final event was, well, stimulating. If you like PVC and whips, that is (and who doesn’t, after all?) It was the astonishing Zoë Martlew (billed as ‘cellist/performer, a virtuoso show of understatement) in her spectacular ‘Zoë Unleashed …. Unhinged, uncensored, underwired!’ No kiddies shuffling in their pew for this one … some of Martlew’s own compositions (for which she included tape playback) vied with sassy songs and hot chat. I’m not quite sure some Semley residents quite know what had hit them (not literally, the whip could have had more of an airing), but the whole was so well prepared, and given with such confidence, that this was an unforgettable experience. Martlew had to cope with an awkward performing space, situated in the middle of a very long room (The Barn at Hatts Farm, Semley), and if she talked to one half of the room her back was necessarily showing to the other half. But with those hot pants, how can that possibly be a bad thing?


Martlew’s CV speaks of conservatoire training and that was reflected in her excellent playing. As for the sheer sass and balls of it all… entirely appropriate to a late night event, I would say.


This was an unforgettable, thrilling festival, its success itself eloquent testimony to the hard work and dogged dedication of its organisers, Sadie Harrison and David Lefeber (of Metier). This was the first such event in this village but, one hopes, not the last. And given the positive reactions I heard all the way through from all sides (including local residents), there will be many more festivals to come… perhaps Sir Harrison Birtwistle might be persuaded to attend next time (editor adds: I have it on good authority that he was preparing for his own mini festival at Lucerne.) And it is perhaps with characteristic modesty that Sadie Harrison programmed so little of her own music… perhaps something more substantial next year?


Bravo to all concerned.


Colin Clarke




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