Director Delma Tomlin picks digital York Early Music Festival highlights for Music Of Our Time download

Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies performing in the stillness of the empty National Centre for Early Music, York, at the 2020 York Early Music Festival Online on July 9

MUSIC For Our Time, the Director’s Cut download of highlights from this month’s inaugural York Early Music Festival Online, is available from today.

Festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin has chosen her festival favourites, ranging from York countertenor Iestyn Davies and theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny’s opening concert on July 9, A Delightful Thing, Music and Readings from a Melancholy Man, to vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s closing performance on July 11.

Taking part in the 2020 festival too were lute and theorbo player Matthew Wadsworth, harpsichordist Steven Devine, lyra viol player Richard Boothby and Consone Quartet.

All the concerts were recorded by digital producer Ben Pugh at the empty National Centre for Early Music (NCEM), at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York.

Iestyn Davies provides an exclusive introduction to the £4.99 download celebration of “the extraordinary success of the very first York Early Music Festival Online, which attracted a huge audience from across the UK and as far afield as Australia, Japan and the United States”.

“The wonderful music can be enjoyed time after time,” says festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin after picking her highlights for the Music For Our Time download

Delma, director of the NCEM, says: “I’d like to say a huge thank-you to all those who joined us online. We have been overwhelmed by the warm wishes we received from our worldwide audience, which inspired me to choose a selection of my favourite highlights from the weekend to share with you, so that the wonderful music can be enjoyed time after time.

“The enthusiastic response shows the voracious appetite for early music and the power it has to engage and excite audiences far and wide.”

Festival favourites Stile Antico, who presented Breaking The Habit: Music by and for women in Renaissance Europe, say: “Such a delight to be able to perform from York: there is nothing quite like live music-making! Many thanks to the wonderful York Early Music Festival for the invitation and for all the technical wizardry. We hope that you all enjoyed watching as much as we enjoyed singing.”

Among comments shared on social media by online audiences, one enthused: “Great music and really liked the commentary which builds a bridge to the (remote) audience.”

Another said: “Thoroughly enjoyed everything this year. The internet presentation, while necessary under the circumstances, has made the festival much more accessible.”

Consone Quartet performing at the National Centre for Early Music, York, for the 2020 York Early Music Festival

A third exclaimed: “An absolute delight! So glad the festival was able to come into our homes this year.” A fourth concluded: “What a collection of talented performers! A wonderful couple of days.”

Looking to combine the early with the cutting edge, the NCEM was among the first British arts organisations to use digital technology to live-stream concerts during the Covid crisis.

The series began with recitals by Steven Devine and the Brabant Ensemble, filmed at St Margaret’s Church shortly before lockdown and broadcast live to an audience of over 60,000 people. Since then, the fortnightly series of streamed concerts has reached a worldwide audience of more than 70,000.

To download the Music Of Our Time – The Director’s Cut log, go to ncem.co.uk/earlymusiconline and follow the step-by-step guide. 

“Watch this space!” says Delma. “The NCEM will be announcing full details of its forthcoming programme on the website and via social media very soon.”

Greatest hits of digital York Early Music Festival picked for video by director Delma

The home service: York Early Music Festival’s opening online concert, featuring Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies, mid-stream last Thursday

YORK Early Music Festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin is compiling a video of “personal favourites” from last week’s online event.

“We had a blast,” she says, reflecting on the success of the three-day virtual festival of four pre-recorded and two live concerts, streamed from the National Centre for Early Music from July 9 to 11.

“It was fabulous to be able to host musicians at the NCEM from across England – and to welcome online audiences from as far afield as Australia, Japan and the United States.”

Concert recordings were in the hands of digital producer Ben Pugh, filming the socially distant musicians at an otherwise empty St Margaret’s Church, the NCEM’s home in Walmgate.

Artists and audiences alike have given positive feedback to a digital event arranged once the Covid-19 lockdown enforced the cancellation of the Method & Madness-themed live festival from July 3 to 11.

“It was such a success that we’re now pulling together a compilation video of my personal favourites from 2020 Online. Details very soon!” promises Delma.

“We had a blast,” said administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin after the inaugural digital York Early Music Festival, held last week

The revised remote festival of concerts and talks was headlined on July 9 by York countertenor Iestyn Davies – lockdown hair in need of a cut, by his own later admission – and theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny.

Streamed live last Thursday, they presented A Delightful Thing, Music and Readings from a Melancholy Man, combining song and music by Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland with Davies’s extra string to his bow: his rendition of readings and poems by Dowland, Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain, among others.

In a surprise encore, they mined the modern-day melancholia of a Mancunian man, Morrissey, digging deep into the pit of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

Performances recorded over ten days ensued, by lutenist Matthew Wadsworth, harpsichordist Steven Devine and lyra viol player Richard Boothby last Friday and BBC New Generation artists Consone Quartet last Saturday afternoon.

Vocal ensemble Stile Antico closed the festival with a live streamed concert, Breaking The Habit: Music by and for women in Renaissance Europe, that evening.

“We’d purchased more video and sound equipment, so it was more like a TV studio environment for the recordings,” says Delma. “It’s fortunate that the NCEM is a big space, being a church building, which helped with social distancing.”

The NCEM was one of the first arts organisations to stream live concerts online during the Covid-19 crisis, beginning with performances by Steven Devine and The Brabant Ensemble. Since March, the fortnightly series of streamed concerts has reached a worldwide audience of more than 70,000.

Review: York Early Music Festival Online, Stile Antico; Consone Quartet, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 11

Stile Antico: First concert since lockdown. Picture: Marco Borggreve

CAN it be as long as 15 years ago that Stile Antico burst onto the scene by copping the audience prize at this festival’s international competition? Indeed it can.

This crack group of 12 singers, without a conductor, seems to have been part of the festival’s fabric ever since. Certainly it was the perfect choice to bring this year’s online festival to a stunning close.

Breaking The Habit was the punning title of a programme exploring Renaissance music by and for women, many of the former being nuns. Since most belonged to closed orders, there was some affinity between them and our own recent isolation.

The choir stood in a wide circle, facing inwards and exactly distanced, apparently performing for the first time together since lockdown, after a series of Zoom-style rehearsals. Remarkably, the singers went straight into full stride; it was as if they were simply in the middle of the season. Impeccable tuning and a blend that never faltered marked music that showed remarkable breadth of character, both sacred and secular.

Raffaella Aleotti, daughter of the court architect in Ferrara, revealed notable rhythmic flair in two motets she published in 1593, while in her mid-twenties. Two eight-voice motets showing equally nimble counterpoint were the work of Sulpitia Cesis, a nun in Modena, who published them in 1619.

Maddalena Casulana, though not a nun, was the first woman to have madrigals printed; working out of Vicenza, she produced three books – 66 madrigals in all – between 1568 and 1583. Her word-painting and daring harmony combine infectiously: Stile Antico had their measure, in fact a mere two madrigals left us wanting more.

Consone Quartet recording their concert at the empty National Centre for Early Music for the online York Early Music Festival

Finally, another nun from Ferrara, Leonora d’Este, tested the group’s high sopranos in three motets for five female voices. Needless to say, discipline was maintained, to thrilling effect.

The remainder of the programme explored music written for female rulers. Margaret of Austria, who governed the duchy of Burgundy in the early 16th century, commissioned an exceptionally dark, mysterious motet from Pierre de la Rue to commemorate her brother’s death, while herself writing a three-voice piece in both French and Latin.

Music for Queen Mary included John Sheppard’s mighty Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria, with several wordless plainsong interludes, delivered with exceptional smoothness. Byrd’s motet for Elizabeth I, O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth, boasted an exquisitely controlled Amen, kept prayerful. Two madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana illuminated the spicier side of the Elizabethan court.

Finally, Dialogo and Quodlibet, written last year by Joanna Marsh, contrasted scholarly theorising by the six men with the flightier disruption intended by the six ladies, until finally they agreed to unite and entertain. The style harked back to the Renaissance and fitted wittily into this context.

A lunchtime concert by the Consone Quartet included two of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets, Nos 1 and 3. I cannot comment on the first since it was disfigured by transmission problems, except to say that it was tackled cautiously and with introspection. The group appeared to abandon this approach in No 3, which was altogether more relaxed, reaching a peak in a finale full of energy and joie de vivre.

The online festival has not been without technical difficulties, but we may be extremely grateful for the huge effort put into it both by the performers and by the Early Music Centre staff. It has lightened everyone’s mood to be able to see music “live” again at long last.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Early Music Festival goes digital from today for three days of online concerts

A socially distant Consone Quartet recording their Breaking The Habit concert at the otherwise empty NCEM for the online 2020 York Early Music Festival

THE 2020 York Early Music Festival will be streamed online from this evening until Saturday.

Replacing the Covid-cancelled Method & Madness-themed live event from July 3 to 11, the revised remote festival now combines performances and talks by a line-up of performers based in England.

The virtual festival will be headlined by York countertenor Iestyn Davies and theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny in a concert streamed live tonight at ncem.co.uk, complemented by performances recorded over the past ten days by Steven Devine, Richard Boothby, Consone Quartet and Matthew Wadsworth.

Stile Antico will close the three-day event with a live concert on Saturday, performed, like all the rest, with no live audience at the National Centre for Early Music, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate.

Since the decision was taken to cancel this year’s live festival, under the Coronavirus lockdown, organisers have been working hard behind the scenes to deliver the weekend-long programme of music.

Digital producer Ben Pugh’s technical equipment for recording the Consone Quartet concert for streaming on Saturday afternoon

To bring the online festival together, the NCEM has linked up with digital producer Ben Pugh, who has brought his ubiquitous expertise to the concert recordings and will be on hand, at a distance, to stream the live Davies & Kenny and Stile Antico concerts.

“We’ve purchased more video and sound equipment, so it’s more like a TV studio environment now,” says festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin. “It’s fortunate that the NCEM is a big space, being a church building, which will help with social distancing.”

Tonight, at 7.30pm, Davies and Kenny present A Delightful Thing, Music and Readings from a Melancholy Man, combining song and music by Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland with Davies’s extra string to his bow: his rendition of readings and poems by Dowland, Robert Burton, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Barnabe Googe, Ben Jonson, William Leighton, Henry Peacham, Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain.  

“To place John Dowland’s artistic output squarely in the frame of ‘Elizabeth melancholia’ is to strip away a richer layer of biography that lies within his crafted lines of music and words,” says Davies.

“Rather, by embracing the songs and solo lute airs as the expressions of a man seeking to find words to say how we fail, we engage in a dialogue that enriches both us and the artistic subject of John Dowland himself.”

Iestyn Davies: York countertenor opens the virtual 2020 York Early Music Festival tonight in tandem with theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny

Tomorrow, John Bryan begins the day with an illustrated introduction to the festivities at 10.30am, highlighting how each concert is linked by a theme of fantasy. This will be followed at 1pm by lute and theorbo player Matthew Wadsworth playing works by Kapsperger, Piccinini, Dowland and Francesco da Milano, plus Echoes In Air, a piece written specially for him by Laura Snowden.

“In a world where live music is in a very fragile place, I am grateful to have the opportunity to share this programme, while being sensitive to the fact that so many artists and arts organisation are in very difficult circumstances,” says Wadsworth.

“I have put together a programme of some of my favourite 17th century music, ending with a wonderful new piece written for me in 2019 by guitarist and composer Laura Snowden.

“When I was asked in 2019 to give a concert in the 2020 festival, I, along with everybody else, had no idea that we would be facing a pandemic together. As we adjust to a new normal, and start to find our way again, I am ever more convinced that music and the arts are an absolute necessity, not a luxury.”

Matthew Wadsworth and Kate Bennett Wadsworth recording tomorrow’s Echoes In Air concert

Wadsworth continues: “I am reminded how, when I moved abroad for the first time in 1997 to study in The Hague, I felt very lost and out of place.

“Music and the lute were a constant, and I realised I could take this source of security anywhere with me. I feel that same comfort and sense of reassurance today, knowing that live music – that most precious shared listening experience between artist and audience – has a past, present and a future.” 

At 3.30pm, harpsichord player Steven Devine performs JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Preludes & Fugues, from Book 1: Nos. 13 to 24. At 7.30pm, lyra viol player Richard Boothby plays music by Ferrabosco, Jenkins and Lawes,  alongside William Corkine’s virtuoso settings of popular tunes such as Come Live With Me and Be My Love. 

The BBC’s New Generation artists Consone Quartet open Saturday’s online programme at 1pm with Beethoven’s String Quartets Opus 18, Nos 2 & No 3.

“Performing Beethoven’s music is both an exciting and an exhausting experience,” says violinist Magdalena Loth-Hill, who plays alongside Agata Daraskaite, violin, Elitsa Bogdanova, viola, and George Ross, cello.

Devine inspiration: Steven Devine at the harpsichord in the stillness of the deserted National Centre for Early Music, recording Bach’s Preludes and Fugues

“The abrupt changes of dynamic, key and direction require the musicians to be alert and adaptable, both musically responsive and elastic in technique. This opus is particularly fascinating because it marks an important turning point in the history of the string quartet.

“It is clearly influenced by the classical form and structure of ‘Papa’ Haydn’s work, yet the listener can sense the winds of change blowing, and a new musical language on the horizon.”

At 3.30pm, York Early Music Festival luminary Peter Seymour, a titan of the York classical music world, will introduce the story behind his recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The festival closes with vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s 7.30pm programme, Breaking The Habit: Music by and for women in Renaissance Europe, featuring works by Raffaella Aleotti; Sulpitia Cesis; Maddalena Casulana; Pierre de la Rue; Margaret of Austria; Leonora d’Este; Thomas Tallis; John Sheppard; William Byrd; John Taverner; John Bennett and Richard Carlton.

The 16th century saw an unprecedented number of female rulers,” says Delma, setting up the concert’s premise. “From the powerful Medici women of Italy to the great Tudor queens of England, women across Europe held more power than ever before. 

“Many of these monarchs used their patronage to facilitate the production of music of exquisite beauty by the finest composers of the day, extravagant showcases of their power contrasting with intimate and personal compositions. 

The recording set-up for Consone Quartet’s York Early Music Festival concert

“The century also saw the first publication of music by female composers, often Italian nuns, whose convents supported musical groups of astonishing ability.” 

Drawing attention to BBC Radio 3’s festival broadcasts, Delma says: “As an added treat, Radio 3 is presenting its Early Music Show from the festival on Sunday at 2pm, as we celebrate 35 years of supporting emerging ensembles through the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition.

“Radio 3 then completes our celebrations with two magnificent performances from our archive: The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, on July 14, recorded in York Minster in 2015, and Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX1, recorded in 2014 and now broadcast again on July 15.”

The NCEM was one of the first arts organisations to stream live concerts online during the Covid-19 crisis, beginning with performances by Steven Devine and The Brabant Ensemble. Since March, the fortnightly series of streamed concerts has  reached a worldwide audience of more than 70,000.

It is not too late to book tickets for the latest batch at tickets.ncem.co.uk and boxoffice@ncem.co.uk, with a festival package costing £30, individual concert tickets at £10 each and illustrated talks at £3.50 each.

“At this complicated time, it’s a great joy to be able to share music with our audiences once again,” says Delma. “The digital festival is a first for the NCEM and we look forward to people’s reactions.  Whatever else, everyone gets a front row seat!”  

“I would also like to thank Arts Council England, City of York Council, JWP Creers, Shepherd Group and Creative Europe for their invaluable support.”


Stile Antico, back in the days when you could share a stairway. Social distancing will prevail at their July 11 concert at the NCEM. Picture: Marco Borggreve

Did you know?

AFTER Saturday’s concert, Stile Antico will stay on at the NCEM for three days of recordings for their Mayflower project, now put back to 2021.

NEWSFLASH!

MARTIN Dreyer’s reviews of tonight’s opening concert by Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny and Saturday’s closing concert by Stile Antico will run on the CharlesHutchPress website.