Hope springs eternal in jam-packed concert season at National Centre for Early Music

Cantoria: Celebrating Early Music Day with El Jubilate concert on March 18

THE Spring Season is up and running at the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York.

In a busy first week, last Monday, folkloric duo Heal & Harrow’s Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl paid a humanising tribute to those persecuted in the 16th and 17th century Scottish witch trials.

Last Friday, the Grace Smith Trio – Smith on fiddle, Sam Patridge, concertina, and Bevan Morris, double bass – performed with the participants in the National Youth Folk Ensemble (NYFE) programme, under the artistic direction of Partridge. The NCEM hosted the NYFE’s first residency in two years for workshops leading up to the concluding concert.

Saturday’s University of York Song Day took the theme of Shakespeare In Love in a programme devised by pianist and Ryedale Festival director Christopher Glynn, who was joined in a lunchtime concert by soprano Rowan Pierce and tenor Ed Lyon and later by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge in a masterclass for student singers.

Moishe’s Bagel: Door-to-door delivery of klezmer and folk music on March 9

The University of York Baroque+ Day will follow on June 4 with the theme of 100 Years In Berlin: a day to explore the musical life of the Prussian capital – from the Baroque to the early Romantic period – in three concerts in the company of the University Baroque Ensemble, under the direction of Rachel Gray and guest leader Catherine Martin; pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris and classical wind specialists Boxwood & Brass.

On Sunday evening, the Songlines Encounters Festival presented Kayhan Kalhor and fellow Iranian, musician and composer Kiya Tabassian, Kalhor’s student of many years, in an evening of exquisite improvisations. Kalhor is a virtuoso of the Persian spiked fiddle, the kamancheh, but here he performed on the setar, a four-stringed lute with 25 movable frets, often associated with Sufism.

“Our spring season is jam-packed with musical delights, welcoming in a new year with more than a little hope that 2022 will be happier and healthier for us all,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin.

“Guest artists will include some of the finest folk, jazz, global and early music specialists on the circuit today, with highlights including the welcome return of sax virtuoso Snake Davis, the ever-entertaining Moishe’s Bagel and folk legends Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham, whose concert is finally on after repeated postponements in lockdown.

NCEM director Delma Tomlin: “Welcoming in a new year with more than a little hope that 2022 will be happier and healthier for us all”

“As ever, we offer a warm welcome to artists from across the world and are particularly delighted to welcome the vibrant strings of VOŁOSI; qanun specialist Maya Youssef, from Syria, and the sparklingly young vocal ensemble Cantoria from Spain. All are guaranteed to bring warmth, entertainment and joy to our audiences.”

Coming next, on March 9, will be the return of Edinburgh’s Moishe’s Bagel with their cutting-edge klezmer and folk music, combining life-affirming Eastern European dance music, Middle Eastern rhythms and virtuoso improvised performances. Expect new pieces alongside favourites.

On March 11, Scottish folk duo Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham combine humorous banter with heartstring-tugging tunes, joyous reels and melodies aplenty in a partnership that has runs to 30 years now.

Booked for March 17, powerhouse English folk trio Faustus have spent much of the past two years researching and writing new material from the poetry of the 1860s’ Lancashire Cotton Famine, resulting in moving new songs, as heard on the Cotton Lords EP. 

Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham: Playing together for three decades

In the line-up will be Benji Kirkpatrick, from the Seth Lakeman Band, Steeleye Span and Bellowhead; Saul Rose, from Waterson:Carthy, Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band and Whapweazel, and Paul Sartin, from Bellowhead and Belshazzar’s Feast.

Cantoría celebrate the 2022 Early Music Day with El Jubilate, a March 18 programme drawn from the Spanish songbooks of the Renaissance, brimful of desire, passion and sin, but fiery devotion, love, joy and solitude too.

At 7pm, Cantoria – featuring soprano Inés Alonso, countertenor Oriol Guimera, tenor Jorge Losana and bass Valentin Miralles – explore a world of demons, saints and people that lived with the same complicated emotions that we face today.

This Spanish ensemble gave a performance at the Beverley and East Riding Early Music Festival four years and have participated in the EEEMerging+ programme for two years. They will be in residence at the NCEM in March, leading up to the concert.

Trish Clowes with her My Iris band members: Seeing eye to eye in York on May 3. Picture: Brian Homer

Innovative folk accordionist, vocalist and clog dancer Hannah James, a key figure in the revival of English percussive dance, unites with globetrotting, post-classical, improvisational French cellist Toby Kuhn for Sleeping Spirals, an April 8 concert full of playful chemistry, warmth and soul, as they resume their new project started last autumn.

On April 20, led by British composer and violinist Christian Garrick, Budapest Café Orchestra perform a blistering barrage of traditional folk and gypsy- flavoured music that takes in the Balkans and Russia, Klezmer laments, Romanian doinas, Hungarian czadas and their own re-imaginings of big tunes by classical greats.

Flook, in the NCEM diary for April 27, take inspiration from Irish and English sources, weaving and spinning traditionally rooted tunes over precise acoustic grooves with a bold, adventurous musical imagination, as whistle player Brian Finnegan, flautist Sarah Allen, guitarist Ed Boyd and bodhran player Joihn Joe Kelly have been doing for more than 25 years.

Saxophonist-to-the-stars Snake Davis is welcomed back to the NCEM on April 28, this time in a new venture with arranger, composer and pianist Robin A Smith, musical director for the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012.

Snake Davis and Robin A Smith: New venture at the NCEM on April 28

Sparring partners for decades, spearheading the Classic Chillout movement 20 years ago, they now team up to celebrate the joy and power of classical, folk, pop and jazz music.

Another saxophonist, Trish Clowes, leads her jazz band My Iris in their York debut on May 3, providing pianist Ross Stanley, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer James Maddren with a high-intensity platform for individual expression and improvisation, delivering driving grooves and lingering melodic lines, as they “seamlessly morph between earthy restlessness and futuristic dreamscapes”.

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival returns to the NCEM on May 10 to present the 1929 Indian box-office smash A Throw Of The Dice (PG), accompanied by an improvised live score by Utsav Lal, a young Indian pianist noted for his innovative piano renditions of Hindustani ragas.

Based on an episode from The Mahabarata, this lavishly romantic silent film tells the story of rival Indian kings – one good, one bad – who fall in love with the same woman. Filmed in India with 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses, 50 elephants and an all-star Indian cast, it rivals Cecil B De Mille for screen spectacle.

VOŁOSI : Seeking to “exceed the limits of string instruments” on May 23

After 700 concerts in 34 countries, the string-driven VOŁOSI make their NCEM debut on May 23, led by violinist Krzysztof Lasoń and cellist Stanisław Lasoń, who first joined forces with traditional performers deep in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains in 2010. From those roots, the Polish band seek to “exceed the limits of string instruments” with their modern, powerful and emotional playing.

On June 9, Maya Youssef, queen of the qanun, the 78-stringed Middle Eastern plucked zither, showcases Finding Home, an album that takes a journey through memories and the essence of home, both within and without, as she explores the emotional and healing qualities of music.

“It’s about finding that place of peace, that place of softness, comfort and healing, which manifests in everyone in a unique way, from finding home in nature to the people who make us feel that sense of relief and peace,” says Maya, who will be joined by the musicians from the recording sessions that were rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but forged pathways into jazz, Western classical and flamenco styles too.

For Maya, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and has lived in the UK since 2012, the act of playing music is a both a life and hope-affirming act and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but across the world.

This will be the first of three concerts to be staged at the NCEM under the umbrella of the York Festival of Ideas. In the second, on June 12, guitarist, composer and ukulele virtuoso Richard Durrant at last cycles into York on his Covid-delayed Music For Midsummer musical pilgrimage from Orkney to Brighton Open Air Theatre for the summer solstice.

Maya Youssef: Finding Home at the NCEM on June 9

Expect plenty of tales from the road, as well as original guitar music, British-flavoured folk and Bach on the uke as he celebrates the release of his Rewilding album.

For the third concert, double bassist and composer Alison Rayner leads her vibrant, award-winning quintet through “songs without words” on June 17 in the company of Buster Birch, drums, Deirdre Cartwright, guitar, Diane McLoughlin, saxophones, and Steve Lodder, piano.  

Their music-making combines richly nuanced compositions, rhythmic interplay and folk-infused melodies with a cinematic quality, a love of improvisation and a strong sense of narrative.

Already booked for the autumn are She’koyokh, an international seven-piece klezmer and Balkan band from London, on October 30 (6.30pm) and Scottish fiddler, composer John McCusker, celebrating his 30th anniversary as a professional musician, on November 2.

Performances start at 7.30pm unless stated otherwise. Box office: 01904 658338 or at ncem.co.uk.