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S & H Festival Review

A Weekend of English Song : An Overview. Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, 3rd to 6th June, 2004 (AO)


Genius loci, the "spirit of place" exerts a fascination in the English musical psyche. The spirit of much English song and poetry stems from a sense of English identity rooted in the countryside, and in nature. It may be purely imaginary – Housman was no "Shropshire Lad" – but it is a fertile source of creative inspiration, which has shaped the character of English song. How appropriate then, that the Weekend of English Song should take place in a beautiful country town, redolent with associations of music and poetry.

Finzi Friends and their Artistic Director, Iain Burnside, compiled a truly remarkable celebration of the richness of the genre. The programmes in the six concerts were well planned, highlighting different aspects of English song by intelligently chosen repertoire – repertoire that challenged and stretched the listener in a delightful way. Rarely are programmes this well created, for these stretched the genre and showed that is still a living, vibrant tradition. English song keeps developing. In addition to old favourites like Finzi, Gurney and Vaughan Williams, there were lesser known, settings of famous poems, and songs by under rated composers like Rebecca Clarke. Two new cycles were specially commissioned : Songs of Eternity and Sorrow by Ian Venables and An American Song Book, by Julian Philips. Due to car problems, I missed the first programme featuring Venables’ cycle and the singers Howard Wong and Andrew Kennedy. The undercurrent of satire that underpins some English attitudes also shows up in song. Noel Coward, and Flanders and Swann have a place in the genre, too, for their vibrant use of language.

Performances were uniformly good. Dame Felicity Lott, the much loved grande dame of British music, illuminated the glories of English song in a special concert in the local church. Outstanding in a very strong field which included Susan Bickley and Brett Polegato, were Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist, both of whom showed dramatic flair as well as musical sparkle. Their approach to English song is firm and distinctive, clear and direct. Iain Burnside played at all but the first concert (featuring Simon Lepper), a phenomenal feat, considering the number and range of songs included, some of which were virtuoso pieces.

The concerts were enhanced by talks given by the finest specialists in the field : Stephen Banfield on Victorian poetry, Gabriel Woolf on A E Housman , Michael Kennedy on Vaughan Williams, Andrew Burn on composers associated with Finzi, Diane McVeagh pondering the implications of Finzi’s statement that "a song outlasts a dynasty" and Paul Spicer on Finzi’s musical style. It would be hard to put together a more knowledgeable group – and entertaining they were, too. They certainly were an integral part of a weekend characterised by intelligence and insight.

The underlying theme of the weekend was to celebrate song in the context of nature, wild and cultivated, countryside and gardens. In addition to the concerts and talks, there were art exhibitions, garden visits and town walks. There was a tour of major local gardens and the talk by Sir Roy Strong. I enjoyed the exhibition of paintings by synaesthete Jane Mackay, who can express her feelings about music in painting.

Organising a festival of this calibre, on a small scale and with private resources, is quite an achievement. It follows in the tradition of Gerald Finzi himself who started weekends of British music many years ago. The logistics and planning of such an enterprise is exceptional, particularly since it was very much the work of one truly dedicated individual, Jim Page of the Finzi Friends. In the words of Paul Spicer, Jim Page is "an extraordinary man with a great sense of vision and a determination to see these projects come to fruition…..I pay homage to Jim, who has given something of real importance and long lasting value to the cause of English music". Credit too goes to the Artistic Director, Iain Burnside, whose wonderfully imaginative programmes and playing made this such a brilliant experience. Quality abounded all round – even the programme book was a joy, full of information and well set out. The trouble with a festival this good is that its intimacy, erudite standards and atmosphere might be compromised if it grew too large. I feel guilty letting the secret out.

Anne Ozorio

 


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