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Ripon International Festival, 10th September - 2nd October 2008 : a report from John Leeman (JL)

Ripon is a small city in the middle of North Yorkshire, the county that last year was voted the most beautiful in England. Apart from the cathedral there are in the vicinity, a wealth of splendid buildings that are exploited by the Festival in presenting its unusual range of events. I took a stroll to high ground above Fountains Abbey, one of Europe's great medieval sites, and could see in the distance the tower of the cathedral whilst below, within the Abbey grounds, there is the Elizabethan mansion that hosted in its lovely baronial hall a Chinese harp recital by Jiang Shu. Appropriately in Olympic year it was China that provided much of the international dimension of this year's festival with Kung Fu Masters from the famous Shaolin Buddhist monastery in North West China joining forces with The Black Eagles Acrobats from Dar-Es -Salam in a spectacular show, whilst punters could also attend martial arts workshops run by the monks.

One chamber recital allowed a chance to hear cellist Jamie Walton, fresh from his recording triumph of the Elgar concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in the intimate setting of the Cathedral Quire. Another concert featured the up-and-coming baroque Consort 1700 playing in the moated medieval Markenfield Hall.

There were two major orchestral concerts in the Cathedral proper. The first was given by the versatile Orchestra of Opera North, the only permanent ensemble in Britain that combines duties in the opera house with a regular programme of orchestral concerts. The second half centre-piece was Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony but the opening first half work was Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude which was a revelation to me. When I first heard the piece as a child I thought it the most ethereal noise it was possible to hear this side of the grave. For the first time though I was able to hear it in a context and setting that seemed made for it. The split string sounds rose to the Cathedral’s magnificent medieval roof and reflected down again, diffused and diaphanous as if from heaven. The Shostakovich, in contrast, was driven by conductor (and festival artistic director) Janusz Piotrowicz to bring out a particularly energetic form of Shostakovichian angst. The slower music is that which is most flattered by the spacious acoustic and the slow introduction to the last movement was particularly moving. Central to it is an oboe solo and I had the opportunity of congratulating the player, Richard Hewitt, afterwards, mentioning that I thought it a pivotal emotional/spiritual moment in the work. “Good job it went alright then”, he replied.

The other major orchestral concert later in the festival gave a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to resume its relationship with Piotrowicz after his conducting of a complete Beethoven symphony cycle in the orchestra’s London home last year. The concert reflected the conductor’s favoured approach to programming that he calls the “twin pillar principle”. That means two hefty works either side of the interval, in this case Dvorak’s “New World” and Brahms’ First Symphony. Both were given refreshing performances that were hard driven in parts where the music positively fizzed. The RPO players responded magnificently to some tempi that were surely faster than they were used to and they really did look as if they were enjoying themselves – in my experience something that is not always the case when major orchestras are churning out such standard symphonic repertoire. As with the Lohengrin Prelude, the famous – and beautifully played - cor anglais solo in the “New World “ slow movement was a revelation, seeming to float into space and come at me from above and all sides at once.

I regretfully missed most of the other events (including popular poet Wendy Cope reading her own works and the amazing Rossica Choir of St Petersburg) but I did get to hear famous Northumbrian Piper Kathryn Tickell with her own folk band. The last time I heard her was when she premiered a work that Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davis had written for her (see review: ) This time the music was more on her home ground but I did have some doubts about hearing her intimate and evocative instrument heavily amplified in the large space of Ripon’s Holy Trinity Church. For the first time I heard her play fiddle at which she also excels, playing duets with her brother, one of them an extraordinarily imaginative composition of her own that she said was inspired by the wild Cheviot Hills. As a Northumbrian myself the music seemed to speak very directly to me.

The Ripon Festival, a decade old now, goes from strength to strength, establishing a style that combines a rare eclecticism with real international quality. Organising arts festivals in this country can be a frustrating nightmare of fundraising, seeking and maintaining sponsors in these hard times, and keeping an army of hard pressed volunteers on side. Susan Goldsbrough, the director, must be congratulated on Ripon’s success at a time when some annual festivals are going to the wall. At least the city can look forward positively to next year.

John Leeman

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