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.
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.
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.
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.
IF, like me, you enjoy the arts and sport, you will have rejoiced in a bumper week. First, we had the
Government giving an unprecedented £1.57 billion fillip to the arts, thereby drawing a graceless murmur of thanks from the generally Tory-hating lefties that populate the arts sector.
Then, the cricket season resumed, to the familiar sound of England wickets tumbling. Finally, one of the world’s top three early music festivals, has returned, albeit online and in much-shortened form.
But we must be grateful for small mercies these days. Here we had a bunch of stalwart pros who refused to roll over and succumb to a mere virus. All had travelled to York and recorded musical offerings on the theme of Method and Madness; eight events – three of them talks – over three days.
First out of the blocks, on July 9, was York’s own countertenor Iestyn Davies, partnered by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, a world-class pairing if ever there were. Their programme was devoted to that master of melancholy, John Dowland. If you want to be modern about it, you can class melancholia as an aspect of mental health. The Elizabethans called it a disease but made light of it too.
Melancholy was something to be enjoyed, even revelled in, and not excluding self-pity. We all know the feeling. Melancholy has been the counterpart in English song – though not the same – to the German Sehnsucht (yearning). Think of all those aching pastorals lamenting the passing of rural idylls, most of which were figments of the imagination anyway. We all enjoy a little angst.
We need not explore the many facets of Dowland’s melancholic psyche any further. Here we were reminded – by a letter he wrote from Nuremberg in 1595 – of his early exile, separated from the country, the queen and the family he loved by having to earn a living abroad, because his Catholic faith disqualified him from acceptance at court. Davies read this and other illuminating texts, mainly of the period, but including Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain too, to amplify Dowland’s many moods.
The music was not without technical shortcomings, not by the performers, but the technology: pictures that moved jerkily and occasional breaks in the sound. But a CD would not have been more satisfying.
It was a joy to get back to seeing live performers revelling in their art. Davies delivered reams of easy, liquid tone that underlined Dowland’s incomparable skill as a songwriter. His words were not especially clear, even with a text to hand, but that may have been due to insufficient ‘miking’.
Kenny’s pluckings not merely supplied a rhythmic foundation. She improvised magically in her intros and in the space between verses (ritornellos); she also contributed several mood-lightening dances.
It was hard not to feel that we were experiencing Dowland’s songs exactly as they would have sounded 400 years ago, not in a dusty, ancient way, but as a living art as relevant today as Shakespeare. We may remember that Dowland’s Third and Last Booke of Songs was published in 1603, the same year as Hamlet – that arch-melancholic – was first printed.
The last word goes to Dowland himself, from his dedication to Lachrimae, a book of dances: “Pleasant are the tears which music weeps”. Indeed.
Matthew Wadsworth continued the Dowland theme on lute and theorbo at lunchtime on Friday, alongside the music of other contemporaries. There was as a wide a range of moods here as there had been in the songs, with bolder declamation from the long-necked theorbo with its deeper resonance.
Wadsworth flowed fluently over the strings and the close camera work emphasised the music’s intimacy.
During the afternoon, Steven Devine played the second half of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the preludes and fugues Nos 13-24, on a two-manual Michael Johnson harpsichord built in Fontmell Magna in 1997. He proved a deft exponent, though on such a bright-toned instrument he might not have coupled the manuals quite so frequently. But at least we were able to marvel anew at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity.
The evening brought in Richard Boothby playing a lyra viol, the smallest of the three kinds of bass viol. He began both halves with music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, an Englishman of Italian descent who was especially prominent at the Jacobean court. Pairs of dances amply contrasted the gentler alman with the altogether friskier coranto, with its skipping rhythms.
Similar pairings from William Lawes and John Jenkins led into two brilliantly virtuosic variations by the little-known William Corkine and ‘divisions’ (variations) on Dowland’s famous Lachrime melody. Boothby introduced his music, which made the whole presentation much more personal.
We may be grateful to all these musicians for their labours in front of an unseen audience. The festival concluded with the ace choral group Stile Antico on Saturday evening. Watch this space for the review.
THE cancelled 2020 York Early Music Festival is back on…online, headlined by York international countertenor Iestyn Davies.
The virtual version of the summer festival will be streamed from the National Centre for Early Music from July 9 to 11, replacing the original live event from July 3 to 11.
Concerts will be recorded at the NCEM’s home, St Margaret’s Church, in Walmgate, with social-distancing measures in place and no live audience.
Booking will open on Friday, June 19 at tickets.ncem.co.uk and firstname.lastname@example.org, with a festival package at £30, individual concert tickets at £10 each and illustrated talks at £3.50 each.
Iestyn Davies would have been performing Bach: Countertenor Arias with Scottish instrumentalists the Dunedin Consort on July 8 at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. “We figured we couldn’t get the whole of the Dunedin Consort down from Scotland under the lockdown rules,” says festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin.
Instead, Davies will present The Art Of Melancholy, joined by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, a former artistic adviser to the York Early Music Festival and frequent performer at the NCEM, for a concert streamed on July 9 at 7.30pm.
The music of Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland will be complemented by Davies’s renditions and readings of poetry by Robert Burton, Michael Drayton, Rose Tremain, Leo Tolstoy and Dowland himself.
“Iestyn lives in York but he’s a countertenor of truly international prowess and we’re delighted he can join us for the revised festival,” says Delma.
“Dowland is known for his music of extraordinary misery but utter beauty. He knew that in love, the only thing sweeter than happiness was sorrow. Few living interpreters understand his music more profoundly than Iestyn, who has devised this evening of poetry, music and drama for voice and lute to explore a composer for whom a single teardrop can hold a universe of emotion.”
On July 10, festival artistic advisor John Bryan will provide an illustrated introduction to the day’s online festivities at 10.30am, with each concert linked by a theme of fantasy. Lute and theorbo player Matthew Wadsworth will perform Echoes In Air, a 1pm programme of works by Kapsperger and Piccinini, Dowland and Francesco da Milano, alongside a new piece written specially for him by Laura Snowden, Echoes In Air.
At 3.30pm, harpsichordist Steve Devine will continue his NCEM series of Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of J S Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier, here performing Nos 13 to 24. The day will end with Richard Boothby’s 7.30pm concert on lyra viol, with his programme yet to be announced.
Pianist and professor David Owen Norris will give an illustrated introduction to the July 11 online concerts at 10.30am.
BBC New Generation artists Consone Quartet, comprising Agata Daraskaite and Magdalena Loth-Hill, on violins, Elitsa Bogdanova, on viola, and George Ross, on cello, will play Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major Op 18, No 2 and String Quartet in D Major Op 18, No 3 at 1pm.
York Early Music Festival luminary Peter Seymour, a leviathan of the York classical music world, will introduce the story behind his recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at 3.30pm.
Stile Antico will present Breaking The Habit: Bringing to life the music of the Renaissance through song at 7.30pm.
“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 century also saw the first publication of music by female composers, often Italian nuns, whose convents supported musical groups of astonishing ability.”
To bring the online festival together, the NCEM is working with digital producer Ben Pugh.” We’ve purchased more video and sound equipment, so it’s more like a TV studio environment now,” says Delma.
“It’s fortunate that the NCEM is a big space, being a church building, which will help with social distancing. The opening and closing concert will be streamed as live, and the other concerts will be pre-recorded over a ten-day period.
“After their concert, Stile Antico will stay on at the NCEM for three days of recordings for their Mayflower project, now put back to 2021.
“We’ll also be putting the remainder of Steven Devine’s Bach’s Preludes and Fugues series online in the autumn as his Bach concerts streamed from the NCEM during lockdown have been received really well.”
The 2020 festival was to have run from July 3 to 11 with a theme of “the Method & Madness of musical styles, from the wild excesses of the Italian Renaissance, through the soothing virtuosity of Bach, to the towering genius of Beethoven”.
Among the artists would have been Davies; Devine and Consone Quartet; The Sixteen, singing The Call Of Rome at York Minster, and Barokksolistene, from Norway, with their vivacious festival opener, Alehouse.
Lined up to take part too were Rose Consort of Viols; Voces Suaves; Prisma; Profeti della Quinta; L’Apothéose; Hubert Hazebroucq & Julien Martin; The Society of Strange & Ancient Instruments; the University Baroque Ensemble and Peter Seymour directing Handel’s opera Orlando.
Already Delma has confirmed the 2021 festival will run from Friday, July 9 to Saturday, July 17. “Guest artists scheduled to join us next summer include The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, Brecon Baroque, led by violinist Rachel Podger, and gamba specialist Paolo Pandolfo,” she says.
The 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival will go ahead, “but it may all be online,” reveals Delma. “That should be a little bit easier to arrange than for this summer’s festival.
“I should be able to work it all out in good time, whereas re-organising the summer event on a big scale became utterly impossible because the majority of performers were from overseas.
“So, instead, we’re doing a digital festival of musicians based in England willing to come to the NCEM next month for this very exciting venture that’s turned out to be brilliant, but for different reasons than the festival we first envisaged.”
The NCEM’s spring series of streamed concerts in lockdown has gone well. “They’ve been free with the option to donate to the NCEM afterwards, and we’ve even had people tuning in from Ecuador, Australia and Southern India, which has been fascinating for us,” says Delma.
“It gives us a chance to connect with a much broader audience and we may well re-share these concerts in the future, but we’re now going to have to find a way of earning money from streamed concerts, setting up a paywall to pay for watching them, in order to help us still be here in a year’s time. The free model can’t continue; we will have to get people into the habit of paying for streaming.”
EARLY Music Day will go ahead at the National Centre for Early Music, York, tomorrow but behind closed doors.
“Our doors may be temporarily closed, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, but we’ll still be celebrating Early Music Day and streaming our concerts all around Europe, so join us for two wonderful concerts this Saturday (March 21),” says director Delma Tomlin. “There will also be a selection of concerts available to enjoy online over the coming weeks.”
Tomorrow’s programme at the NCEM, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, begins with a 1pm concert by harpsichordist Steven Devine, performing the first in a series of Bach Preludes and Fugues, and ends with The Brabant Ensemble’s 6pm programme ofA Monk’s Life: Music From The Cloisters, 1550-1620.
“Sublime choral music from the Renaissance performed by this Oxford ensemble
offers the perfect end to a fabulous day of music,” says Delma.
“I am so grateful to our talented array of musicians who are determined
that Early Music Day will still happen somehow and have agreed to perform
behind closed doors.
“Even if you can’t be with us in person, we hope that you will join us
for this day of music, a joyful celebration which normally takes place with our
European partners and friends in beautiful venues.”
Looking ahead, Delma says: “We are pausing our
operations until the end of April and will be in contact with everyone who
has booked to attend concerts that are due to take place within this period.
“We ask that you are patient with us during this difficult time and wait for us to contact you. Regular updates about future concerts and more concert footage will be posted on our website, ncem.co.uk, and via social media, so please keep checking.”
“Music has the power
to uplift and inspire us all and although our building may be closed, we will
be sharing a selection of concerts from our archives online for us all to enjoy,”
says Delma, on an upbeat final note.