MUSIC, Minstrels and Mystery is the theme of the York Early Music Christmas Festival 2023, running from tomorrow to December 9.
This annual celebration conjures up the spirit of Christmas past with an array of atmospheric music, primarily at the National Centre for Early Music, in the medieval St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, complemented by concerts at Bedern Hall and the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York.
Opening at the beginning of Advent, the festival features a host of world-class artists from the Early Music world, celebrating the extraordinary wealth of music associated with Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, from the medieval to the baroque.
To complete the Christmas experience, many concerts take place by candlelight, with mince pies and mulled wine available at most events.
Already the festival has been previewed on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune on November 26, when festival artists the Gesualdo Six spoke to Katie Derham and performed a selection of their work.
Both immersive Gesualdo Six concerts with the Fretwork Viol Consort at 6pm and 8.30pm on Saturday have sold out. Marking composer William Byrd’s 400th anniversary, Secret Byrd will theatrically intersperse Byrd’s private mass for secret worship with his virtuosic music for strings.
Sold out too are Saturday’s opening concert, European Court and Salon Music, by Flutes & Frets (Beth Stone, flute, and Daniel Murphy, lute, theorbo, guitar) at Bedern Hall at 11am, backed by funding from the European Festival Fund for Emerging Artists, and December 9’s Bach Christmas Oratorio concert at 7pm by the Yorkshire Bach Choir and Yorkshire Baroque Soloists at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall.
Festival director Delma Tomlin will host an introductory talk at Sunday’s 6.30pm concert, A Christmas Song – The “original” Messiah, by festival debutants The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen at the NCEM. The Harmonious Society’s 14 musicians and singers face a busy three days of travel, playing Canterbury on Saturday, York on Sunday and Durham on Monday.
Fiddlesticks, a new ensemble featuring former festival advisers Kati Debretzeni and Steven Devine, will make their festival debut too with Monday’s 7pm NCEM programme of European court music for three violins and continuo. Earlier that day, the NCEM’s youth instrumental ensemble, Minster Minstrels, will be working on Christmas repertory with Fiddlesticks in the afternoon.
Further festival highlights will be The Marian Consort, performing music written for the festive court, on Thursday and Ceruleo’s Love Restor’d, a theatrical Restoration England programme of Henry Purcell, John Blow and John Eccles works, on Friday, both at 7pm at the NCEM.
On December 9, Baroque In The North will play this festival for the first time, performing Panettone or Bûche de Noël?, Festive Sweetmeats, featuring works by Esprit-Philippe, Chédeville, Vivaldi and Corelli at the NCEM at 11am.
In addition, the Minster Minstrels will work with the Harmonious Society’s baroque trumpeter Will Russell on Sunday, while Owain Park, director of The Gesualdo Six, is inviting singers to join him for a choral workshop, designed to celebrate the music of Willam Byrd on Saturday and Sunday at Bedern Hall.
The York Early Music Festival Christmas Box Set, featuring a selection of recorded highlights from the festival, plus this year’s York Early Music Festival and Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival, is on sale now and will be available to enjoy online from December 15 to the end of January 2024. Highlights include concerts by violinist Rachel Podger and the Dunedin Consort, the Scottish baroque ensemble. The box set costs £50 or concerts can be bought individually at ncem.co.uk.
Ahead of the week of festive music, NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “Our Christmas festival is one of the highlights of the city’s Christmas calendar. This December we are delighted to present an array of atmospheric Christmas concerts featuring music from the medieval times, through the ages and ending with Bach’s glorious Christmas Oratorio.
“The concerts are the perfect way to celebrate Yuletide and we look forward to seeing old friends and welcoming new ones at the special time of year.”
Full programme details can be found at ncem.co.uk/yemcf/. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk.
York Early Music Christmas Festival programme highlights
Saturday, 11am: Flutes & Frets, European Court and Salon Music, Bedern Hall, Bedern. SOLD OUT.
FLUTES, lutes, theorbo and guitar introducing music of European courts across the ages, performed by NCEM Platform Artists Beth Stone and Daniel Murphy, who received grant from European Festivals Fund for Emerging Artists, leading to concerts in Antwerp, Krakow and York. Final concert of tour for young duo selected for annual International Artist Presentation in Flanders. Flutes & Frets will return to York next spring for Baroque Around The Books library tour.
Saturday, 6pm and 8.30pm, The Gesualdo Six & Fretwork Viol Consort, Secret Byrd, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate. Both SOLD OUT.
CREATED and directed by Bill Barclay, this 80-minute immersive experience marks the 400th anniversary of composer William Byrd with a mix of voices, viols and theatricality. A small number of audience members sit and stand among costumed musicians who gather by candlelight to worship in secret as Byrd’s setting of the Ordinary is mixed with his most probing instrumental works, played where the five Proper sections of the Mass would take place.
Sunday, 6.30pm, The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, A Christmas Song – The “original” Messiah, NCEM.
PRESENTING the only surviving Nativity story in England set to music in the baroque era: the original Messiah and possibly the first oratorio in English. Full title: the anonymous Messiah. A Christ -Mass Song for Voices and Instruments, circa 1720. Complete with tuneful shepherd dialogues, the joyful song of the Virgin Mary, Three Wise Men arias and even a ‘halleluia’ chorus. Plus offertory by Prague composer Simon Brixi.
Monday, 7pm, Fiddlesticks, Three Parts on a Ground: European Court Music for three violins and continuo, NCEM
VIOLINISTS Huw Davies, Kati Debretzeni and Debbie Diamond are joined by harpsichordist Steven Devine for glorious programme of the Pachelbel Canon, a new arrangement of the Corelli ‘Christmas’ Concerto and Bach Concerto for three violins.
Thursday, 7pm, The Marian Consort, For Delighting The People – A Jacobean Christmas, NCEM
DIRECTED by Rory McCleery, one of the festival’s favourite vocal groups returns for a special seasonal programme from the Golden Age of English composers at their most unbuttoned and celebratory, featuring music written for the famously festive Stuart court. Plus more intimate, introspective sacred works by Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes and Bull.
Friday, 7pm, Ceruleo, Love Restor’d, NCEM
IN the summer of 1660, London’s theatres are reopening after 18 long years of Puritan rule: time for one Henry Purcell – the “English Orpheus” – to make his entrance on the musical stage to lead a musical revolution and new English baroque music. Ceruleo’s programme runs the gamut of Restoration English music, encompassing some of Purcell’s most famous pieces, alongside his lesser-known works and those by John Blow and John Eccles, while also celebrating the first female stars of the English stage.
Saturday, December 9, 11am, Baroque In The North, Panettone or Bûche de Noël? Festive Sweetmeats, NCEM
THIS multi-instrumented programme by Amanda Babington (violin, recorder, musette), Clare Babington (cello) and David Francis (harpsichord) showcases their debut album, Music For French King. Be prepared to fly from Versailles to Rome with works by Esprit-Philippe and Nicholas Chédeville, Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli. Enjoy the Advent spirit too with a tempting set of “French Noëls”. Musette, you ask. 18th century French bagpipes.
Saturday, December 9, 7pm, Yorkshire Bach Choir & Yorkshire Baroque Soloists, Bach Christmas Oratorio, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. SOLD OUT.
WRITTEN in 1734, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is heard rarely in its complete form, encapsulating rituals of belief, the human spirit’s diversity and the ecstatic joy in the Christmas message. Enjoy all six cantatas written for the feast days of Christmas and New Year, works that demand the largest and most spectacular orchestral forces Bach ever required. Soloists will be soprano Bethany Seymour, countertenor Robin Blaize, tenor Jonathan Hanley and bass Frederick Long.
Festive folk concerts at NCEM
YULETIDE celebrations at the NCEM will be bookended by three festive folk nights: St Agnes Fountain, tonight; The Furrow Collective on December 5 and Green Matthews, December 19, all at 7.30pm.
Presented by the Black Swan Folk Club, St Agnes Fountain lines up with Chris While on vocals, guitar, bodhran, dulcimer, darbuka and percussion; Julie Matthews on vocals, piano, guitar, accordion and gazouki, and Chris Leslie on fiddle, mandolin, tenor guitar, bouzouki, ukulele, banjo, oud, whistle, Native American flute and “anything else he can lay his hands on”.
Postponed from last year, The Furrow Collective perform We Know By The Moon with Lucy Farrell on viola, voice and saw; Emily Portman on banjo, concertina and voice and Alasdair Roberts on guitars and voice.
Playing the NCEM for the second Christmas season in a row, Green Matthews turn Dickensian for A Christmas Carol In Concert, performed by Sophie Matthews, voice and flute, Chris Green, voice, guitar, mandocello and piano, and Jude Rees, voice, oboe and melodeon. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk