REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, NCEM, York 14/6/2021

Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer at the National Centre for Early Music, York, at Monday’s Songs Under Skies double bill

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York

EAST Yorkshire singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, like so many musicians divorced by lockdown restrictions from their livelihood of live shows, had taken to streaming gigs to the alienating sound of silence.

No wonder she smiled at the welcoming sound of applause, as reviving as hearing birdsong after being stuck indoors. “It’s lovely to be sharing live music for the first time in a long time,” she said at the 7pm outset of week two of Songs Under Skies, the acoustic outdoor festival run by the NCEM, Fulford Arms, The Crescent and Music Venues Alliance.

All those mid-pandemic night streams, and her guitar never misbehaved. First live show back, and a string snapped, whereupon Katie administered a string re-fit at a speed to impress Formula One wheel-changers. Joshua Burnell would later refer to her handiwork as “the fastest in the history of music”.

“It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase,” said Katie Spencer

That said, Katie’s primary handiwork is her acoustic guitar-playing, a gentle caress to lyrics that have the scent, sentience and scene-painting of poetry, sung in a voice that lingered in Monday’s NCEM churchyard air.

Raised by the seaside near Hull, she sang of how the water shapes both the land and the people who live there in her best number, Edge Of The Land. Weatherbeaten and Shannon Road were similarly affecting in a re-introductory set best summed up by her sentiment: “It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase.”

Katie will be doing so again in support of Martin Simpson at Primrose Woods, Pocklington, on July 1 and at The Magpies Festival at Sutton Park, Sutton-on-the-Forest on August 14. Hopefully, that guitar will be on best behaviour.

Half an hour would pass for an audience as socially distanced as the churchyard graves before prog-folk songwriter Joshua Burnell took to the blue awning stage with keyboard player Oliver Whitehouse.

Not even a sound alarm could put Joshua Burnell off his stride on his return to the concert stage.

Burnell is a multi-instrumentalist on his recordings, but here he focused on acoustic guitar, adapting to the night temperature that demanded constant re-tuning, a routine that afforded him the time to talk between songs, although not to the length that had prompted a BBC Radio York presenter to advise him he should hand out a pamphlet the next time he introduced new single Shelagh’s Song in concert.

No such pamphlet was forthcoming or necessary. Joshua is an engaging storyteller as much as an eloquent songwriter equally capable of evoking Tolkien, folk forefathers, Al Stewart, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and even Marc Bolan’s puckish dictionary.

He name-checked Ian McKellen for the opening Labels, recalling how the thespian knight had pondered “Why do we need to put labels on love?”. “Do you know what, Sir Ian, you’re right,” he said. “So throw your labels away, ‘Cause love has no use for them,” Joshua duly affirmed, almost enough to make any reviewer desist from further labelling on this occasion.

Joshua is as good at excavation as at conjuring new material, typified by an obscure but wonderful cover version, Eli Geva, Norwegian songwriter’s anguished Siege of Beirut ballad from an album of 12 banned songs from around the world.

The artwork for Joshua Burnell’s single Shelagh’s Song

Next came the aforementioned Shelagh’s Song, his account of how early-Seventies Edinburgh folk singer Shelagh McDonald vanished for 30 years after a particularly bad LSD trip. The re-surfaced Shelagh so loved the song she has sent Joshua a parcel with a letter, artwork and some lyrics she never published. Actions can speak so much louder than labels!

Joshua had just adjusted his guitar tuning again in the night cold when a new interruption tapped him on the shoulder: a sound alarm going off in the neighbouring bustle of Walmgate. One look from Joshua, and it was gone, as if ashamed at having held up “a bit of an anthem for positivity and things to come”: Golden Days, written in lockdown as the good weather rolled in and the vaccine programme was rolled out.

Not even the Prime Minister’s 6pm postponement of Freedom Day could deflate Joshua. “I still feel optimistic that we’re in a better place than we were a year ago,” he asserted.

If one lyric encapsulates retro-futurist Burnell in 2021, it would be: “Did I go through the wardrobe door because it’s been winter here for much too long”. Indeed it has, and as Songs Under Skies nudged and hushed it out the back door, he ended with Lucy, his variation on a “Ziggy Stardust character song”. Closer to Bolan than Bowie, if a label must be applied, but Lucy under darkening skies was a diamond finale.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Joshua Burnell and the mystery of the vanishing folk singer Shelagh McDonald

Joshua Burnell: Solving a mystery in song . Picture: Stewart Baxter

THE mystery of a Seventies folk singer who “vanished off the face of the earth”  for more than 30 years is the inspiration for the new single by York musician Joshua Burnell.

The genre-hopping singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – and teacher to boot – became intrigued by the story of Scottish singer-songwriter Shelagh McDonald, who numbered Sandy Denny and Nick Drake among her friends and peers.

“I wonder where she goes; she never says, you see/Rarer than a fallen star, stronger than gravity/She says, ‘thank you all but I’ll be on my way’,” sings Joshua on Shelagh’s Song, surely sure to be aired this evening in his acoustic set, supported by East Yorkshire singer-songwriter Katie Spencer in the Songs Under Skies double bill in the National Centre for Early Music churchyard gardens at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York.

Recorded on guitar, keys and percussion by Burnell at home during lockdown, the song was mixed by Burnell and Edward Simpson at Moon Glue Studios for initial release on Spotify and other streaming platforms from May 21.

It will now form part of an EP, joined by Chase The Storm and The Den on Storm Cogs, available from July 9, the day when the Joshua Burnell Band is booked to play Ely Folk Festival’s main stage in Cambridgeshire.

The artwork for Joshua Burnell’s single, Shelagh’s Song

Edinburgh-born Shelagh had found folk-rock stardom in 1970 but disappeared abruptly and mysteriously in 1971 after a bad LSD trip…for three decades, presumed dead.

In reality, she was living a low-profile, nomadic existence, only breaking her silence in November 2005 when she contacted the Scottish Daily Mail to tell the story of her “missing years” under the headline “Back from the wilderness”.

Burnell, winner of the Rising Star accolade in the 2020 Folking Awards, stumbled across Shelagh’s music on a trip to the Bronte heartland of Haworth, West Yorkshire. In an old record shop, he made some folk album purchases and noted down the titles of a few others out of financial reach.

Among those was McDonald’s second album, 1971’s Stargazer, priced at £80. Once back home, Burnell scoured the internet for a copy and found only one, available at…300 dollars! 

“I listened to some of the tracks on YouTube and it was beautiful,” says Joshua. “I’d made a terrible mistake and knew I had to drop all plans and get the bus to the shop the next day to buy the record.

Folk singer Shelagh McDonald, before she “vanished” for three decades in 1971

“For a brief and surreal moment, I found myself standing outside the home of the Brontes, holding a rare relic of the legendary singer. It felt like I was on the trail of some kind of secret folky cult!”

Burnell listened to the recording while unwell. “Even without feverish dreams, it’s a very trippy album, so I felt like I’d been transported back to the hazy days of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a deeply enchanting album; one of my favourites of all time.”

McDonald’s rendition of the Scottish border ballad Dowie Dens Of Yarrow particularly caught Burnell’s attention, so much so that he ended up doing a cover on his Songs From The Seasonsalbum in 2018 as a tribute.

In a 2013 interview in the Guardian, McDonald explained her disappearance: “It wasn’t my intention to walk out of my own life and vanish, especially when things were going so well. 

“I was an ambitious 24-year-old folk singer and had just started work on my third album. The second had been a critical success and had really started to get me noticed. But a bad trip was the catalyst for unexpected change. From my perspective, I was never really lost: I was just living a very different kind of life.”

“After all the music and inspiration Shelagh has given us, I thought she deserved a song of her own,” says Joshua

Leaving London and recuperating back in Scotland, McDonald had encountered a bookshop owner and, as recession hit, they decided to “jack it all in and live in a tent”.

They ended up carrying everything they owned on their backs, setting up camp in woods, making money by selling drawings or academic essays. “Some days it got so cold I genuinely thought we were going to die,” McDonald recalled.

They moved between flats and homeless shelters and then, one day, they saw a newspaper story. “What I saw stunned me:  a photo of myself in my 20s. The article talked about how I had disappeared, and no-one knew if I was dead or alive. My records were being re-released; it felt like reading my own obit.” 

The box set No Man Steal Your Thyme emerged on Sanctuary Records in 2005, and then, more than 40 years after her second album, McDonald made her third,  Parnassus Revisited, in 2013.

She started to rekindle her career with tentative performing too. Out of the blue, in 2017, Burnell discovered McDonald would be playing in a little room at the Dumfries Theatre Royal. “I watched in awe as this small, humble lady proceeded to blow us away with remarkable finger-picking and a voice just as strong and hauntingly beautiful as the one which had cut the grooves of my dusty vinyl record from 1971,” he says.

Joshua Burnell meeting Shelagh McDonald and musician Nigel H Seymour in 2018, when he gave her a copy of his Songs From The Seasons album

At a second concert in 2018, he was able to meet her and hand her a copy of Songs From The Seasons, Dowie Dens Of Yarrow cover et al. “She may be a legend but she’s also a very down-to-earth person,” says Joshua.

Consequently, after his chance discovery of her music and of McDonald herself, he was inspired to write a song in her name. “After all the music and inspiration Shelagh has given us, I thought she deserved a song of her own.

“I’ve written Shelagh’s Song in the same style as some of her own songs on Stargazer, which were about the lives of musicians she knew who had taken off on their own travels, such as Rod’s Song and Liz’s Song.”

The evocative, retro-sounding Shelagh’s Song encapsulates her life in savvy lyrics and an upbeat, optimistic tune, topped off by cows mooing at the finale to underline its quirkiness.

“The cows are there on purpose,” says Joshua. “When Shelagh picked up a guitar after 30 years, she played to fields of cows as a tester audience. If they stayed, she figured it was a good song; if they wandered off, she did some more practice. She might have been on to something we are all missing!”

Joshua Burnell at work on his new EP, Storm Cogs. Picture: Stewart Baxter

For Burnell’s full, intriguing tale of how Shelagh’s Song came to be, go to his Instagram channel at: Instagram.com/joshuaburnellmusic/

After tracking down McDonald, now 73, to send her the single, he was delighted when she wrote to say it was “sheer perfection”. Her letter concluded: “No artist could ask for a better tribute from a fellow artist such as this gem of a song”.

Look out for a video of Shelagh’s Song, filmed by Hinterland Creative at Young Thugs Studios, York, at youtube.com/watch?v=hUOcKc-RYIM. Meanwhile, Burnell’s lyrics can be read at joshuaburnell.co.uk/music and the Storm Cogs EP can be pre-ordered at joshuaburnell.bandcamp.com/albums/storm-cogs-ep.

Tonight, gates open at 6.30pm at the socially distanced, Covid-secure NCEM gardens for Katie Spencer at 7pm, followed by Burnell’s 8pm set on guitar, accompanied by Oliver Whitehouse on keyboards. And, yes, he has just tweeted to confirm he will be performing Shelagh’s Song. The last few tickets in pods are available at ncem.co.uk.

To hear Rod’s Song from Shelagh McDonald’s Stargazer, go to: youtube.com/watch?v=cFrD2tVikTo.

More Things To Do in York and beyond that Euro football tournament. It’s all kicking off in List No. 36, courtesy of The Press, York

What’s the pecking order here? Twirlywoos Live! at York Theatre Royal

EUROS 2020? What Euro 2020? The sun is out and so is Charles Hutchinson’s diary as he points you in the direction of curious CBeebies favourites, acoustic concerts, a dockyard Romeo & Juliet, a large painting, Clough v Leeds United and more ideas aplenty. 

Children’s show of the week: Twirlywoos Live!, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow at 1.30pm and 4pm; Saturday, Sunday, 10am and 2pm

TOODLOO, Great BigHoo, Chick and Peekaboo set sail for York on board their Big Red Boat for their Theatre Royal theatrical adventure Twirlywoos Live!.

Curious, inquisitive and eager to learn about the world, these small, bird-like characters from the CBeebies television factory will be brought to life with inventive puppetry, mischief, music and plenty of surprises.

Written by Zoe Bourn, the 55-minute show is recommended for ages 1+; babes in arms are welcome too. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Joshua Burnell: York prog-folk musician will perform in a Songs Under Skies double bill on June 14. Picture: Elly Lucas

Outdoor gigs of the week ahead: Songs Under Skies 2, National Centre for Early Music churchyard, York June 14 to 16

SONGS Under Skies returns to the NCEM’s glorious gardens at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, for acoustic double bills by Katie Spencer and Joshua Burnell on June 14, Zak Ford and Alice Simmons, June 15, and Epilogues and Sunflower Thieves, June 16.

As with last September’s debut series, season two of the open-air, Covid-safe concerts is presented by the NCEM in tandem with The Crescent community venue, the Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance.

Gates open at 6.30pm for each 7pm to 8.30pm concert with a 30-minute interval between sets. Tickets must be bought in advance, either in “pods” for family groups or as individuals at tickets.ncem.co.uk.

Art at large: Subterranea Nostalgia, by Corrina Rothwell

Biggest painting of the week award: Corrina Rothwell’s Subterranea Nostalgia, in The Cacophany Of Ages at Pyramid Gallery, York, until July 1

CORRINA Rothwell’s exhibition of abstract works features the largest canvas painting in the near-30 years that Terry Brett has run Pyramid Gallery in York.

“Subterranea Nostalgia measures 1600mm by 1600mm. That was fun, getting it upstairs!” says Terry, whose gallery is housed in a National Trust-owned 15th century building in Stonegate. “The painting has a real impact. If you know anyone with really big walls, it would be perfect for them!”

Nottingham artist Corrina favours mixed media and acrylic on canvas for the paintings, on show at Pyramid and online at pyramidgallery.com.

Not having a ball: Luke Dickson’s Brian Clough goes to hell and back in his 44 days in charge of Leeds United in Red Ladder Theatre Company’s The Damned United

Football, football, football, not on the box but in a theatre: Red Ladder Theatre Company in The Damned United, York Theatre Royal, June 16

THE choice is yours: Italy versus Switzerland at the Euro 2020 on ITV at 8pm or the inner workings of Brian Clough’s troubled mind at Elland Road in 1974 at York Theatre Royal, kick-off 7.30pm.

Adapted from Yorkshireman David Peace’s biographical novel by Anders Lustgarten, The Damned United is a psychodrama that deconstructs Old Big ‘Ead’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, whose Don Revie-tutored players he despised as much as they loathed him.

The double act of Luke Dickson’s flawed Clough and David Chafer’s avuncular Peter Taylor are joined by Jamie Smelt as everyone else in a story of sweat and booze, fury and power struggles, demons and defeats.

That’s a good idea…

Festival of the month: York Festival of Ideas 2021, running until June 20

THIS year marks the tenth anniversary of York’s bright idea of a festival dedicated to educating, entertaining and inspiring.

Under the banner of Infinite Horizons to reflect the need to adapt to pandemic, the Festival of Ideas is presenting a diverse programme of more than 150 free online and in-person events.

The best idea, when needing more info on the world-class speakers, performances, family activities and walking trails, is to head to yorkfestivalofideas.com/2021/.

You kiss by the dock: Husband and wife Jordan Metcalfe and Laura Elsworthy as Romeo and Juliet in Hull Truck Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet at Hull’s former dry dock

Outdoor play outside York announcement of the month: Hull Truck Theatre in Romeo & Juliet, Stage@The Dock, Hull, July 15 to August 7

AFTER John Godber Company’s Moby Dick completes its run at the converted Hull dry dockyard this Saturday, next comes Hull Truck Theatre’s al-fresco staging of Shakespeare’s tragic love story.

The title roles in Romeo & Juliet will be played by Hull-born husband and wife Jordan Metcalfe and Laura Elsworthy, who appeared in The Hypocrite and The Last Testament Of Lillian Bilocca in 2017 as part of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture celebrations.

Metcalfe and Elsworthy, who married in the summer of 2018 after bonding when working on The Hypocrite, will play a stage couple for the first time, performing on a traverse stage to emphasise Verona’s divided society. Box office: hulltruck.co.uk.

Hitting the Heights: Lucy McCormick’s wild-haired Cathy in the Wise Children poster for Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, bound for York Theatre Royal

Looking ahead to the autumn: Wise Children in Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights, York Theatre Royal, November 8 to 20

EMMA Rice’s Wise Children company is teaming up with the National Theatre, York Theatre Royal and the Bristol Old Vic for her elemental stage adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire moorland story of love, vengeance and redemption.

In an intoxicating revenge tragedy for our time shot through with music, dance, passion and hope, Rice’s company of performers and musicians will be led by Lucy McCormick’s Cathy.

“Emboldened and humbled by the enforced break, I feel truly lucky,” says Rice. “I cannot wait to get back to doing what I love most and to share this thrilling and important piece with the world. It’s time.”

An Evening With Julian Norton, vet, author and now show host, is booked in for Pocklington Arts Centre

Veterinary appointment in 2022: An Evening With Julian Norton, Pocklington Arts Centre, January 18

JULIAN Norton, author, veterinary surgeon and star of Channel 5’s The Yorkshire Vet, will share amusing anecdotes from his work with animals in North Yorkshire, bringing to life all the drama and humour in the daily routine of a rural vet.

Following in the footsteps of James Herriot author Alf Wight, Norton has spent most of his working life in Thirsk. His latest book, All Creatures: Heart-warming Tales From A Yorkshire Vet, was published in March. Box office: pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

More Things To Do in and around York and while stuck with “staying home”. Lockdown List No. 25, courtesy of The Press, York

Flood, mixed-media monotype, by Lesley Birch, from Muted Worlds, her joint exhibition with ceramicist Emily Stubbs, running initially online and then at Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York

LOCKDOWN 3 plods on with no end in sight deep amid the winter chill, drawing Charles Hutchinson’s gaze to online events, a writing opportunity and the promise of live entertainment somewhere down the line.

Online lockdown exhibition at the double: Emily Stubbs and Lesley Birch, Muted Worlds, for Pyramid Gallery, York

CERAMICIST Emily Stubbs and artist Lesley Birch have teamed up for Muted Worlds, a lockdown exhibition of pots and paintings that has begun as a digital show from their studios before moving to Terry Bretts’s gallery in Stonegate, once Lockdown 3 strictures are eased. 

Ceramicist Emily Stubbs: Muted Worlds exhibitor and York Open Studios participant

“This is a show with a more muted edge,” say Emily and Lesley. “Winter is here and with it, Covid, and another lockdown, so we feel the need for simplicity. We have collaborated to produce monochrome pieces inspired by the winter season.”

Looking ahead, Emily will be taking part in  York Open Studios this summer, showing her ceramics at 51 Balmoral Terrace.

Rowntree Park: Hosting the Friends of Rowntree Park’s Words From A Bench project

Creative project of the winter season: Friends of Rowntree Park’s Words From A Bench project

THE Friends of Rowntree Park invite you to join the Words From A Bench project by submitting a short story or poem based around themes of the York park, the outdoors, nature and escape.

No more than 1,000 words in length, the works will be displayed in the park. Adults and children alike should send entries by February 15 to hello@rowntreepark.org.uk.

Mary Coughlan: Irish singer has had to rearrange her Pocklington Arts Centre concert for a second time

Gigs on the move: Pocklington Arts Centre re-writing 2021 diary

POCKLINGTON Arts Centre is re-scheduling concerts aplenty in response to the relentless grip of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Irish chanteuse Mary Coughlan’s April 23 show is being moved to October 19; the Women In Rock tribute show, from May 21 to October 29; New York singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, from February 2 to December 7, and Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph, from February 12 to December 2. Tickets remain valid for the rearranged dates.

A new date is yet to be arranged for the postponed February 23 gig by The Delines, Willy Vlautin’s country soul band from Portland, Oregon. Watch this space.

At sixes and sevens: The Gesualdo Six with director Owain Park (third from left, back row)

Early notice of online Early Music Day at National Centre for Early Music, York, March 21

THE Gesualdo Six will lead the NCEM’s celebrations for Early Music Day 2021 on March 21 by embarking on an online whistle-stop musical tour of York.

The Cambridge vocal consort’s concert will be a streamed at 3pm as part of a day when musical organisations throughout Europe will come together for a joyful programme of events to mark JS Bach’s birthday. 

During their residency, The Gesualdo Six will spend almost a week in York performing in a variety of locations on a musical tour of the city that will be filmed and shared in March.

Monster and Minster beyond: A B-movie bridge drama on the Ouse by the alliteratively named Lincoln Lightfoot, one of the debutants in York Open Studios 2021, now moved to July

Better late than never: York Open Studios, switching from spring to summer

CELEBRATING the 20th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running open studios, York’s artists are determined to go ahead with York Open Studios 2021, especially after a barren year in 2020, when doors had to stay shut in Lockdown 1.

Consequently, the organisers are switching the two weekends from April 17/18 and 24/25 to July 10/11 and July 17/18, when more than 140 artists and makers will show and sell their work within their homes and workspaces in an opportunity for art lovers and the curious to “enjoy fresh air, meet artists and view and buy unique arts and crafts from York’s very best artisans”.

Midge Ure: Opening his Voice & Visions Tour at the Grand Opera House, York

Planning ahead for next year, part one: Midge Ure & Band Electronica, Grand Opera House, York

MIDGE Ure & Band Electronica will open next year’s Voice & Visions Tour at the Grand Opera House, York, on February 22, when the 67-year-old Scotsman will be marking 40 years since the release of Ultravox’s Rage In Eden and Quartet albums in September 1981 and October 1982 respectively.

Ure & Band Electronica last played the Opera House in October 2019 on The 1980 Tour, when Ultravox’s 1980 album, Vienna, was performed in its entirety for the first time in four decades, complemented by highlights from Visage’s debut album, as Ure recalled the year when he co-wrote, recorded and produced the two future-sounding records.

Tommy Emmanuel: York gig awaits for fingerstyle Australian guitarist

Planning ahead for next year, part two: Tommy Emmanuel at Grand Opera House, York

AUSTRALIAN guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, 65, will play the Grand Opera House, York, on March 6 2022 in the only Yorkshire show of next year’s12-date tour with special guest Jerry Douglas, the Ohio dobro master.

At 44, Emmanuel became one of only five musicians to be named a Certified Guitar Player by his idol, Chet Atkins. Playing fingerstyle, he frequently threads three different guitar parts simultaneously into his material, handling melody, supporting chords and bass all at once.

Steven Devine: Harpsichordist pictured when recording at the NCEM, York

Online concert series of the season: Steven Devine, Bach Bites, National Centre for Early Music, York, Fridays

EVERY Friday at 1pm, until March 19, harpsichordist Steven Devine is working his way through J S Bach’s Fugues and Preludes in his online concert series. Find it on the NCEM’s Facebook stream.

And what about?

STAYING in, staying home, means TV viewing aplenty. Tuck into the French film talent agency frolics and frictions of Call My Agent! on Netflix and Scottish procedural drama Traces on the Beeb; be disappointed by Finding Alice on ITV.

REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Spiritato! Online; Stile Antico, live, NCEM, York, December 13

Step into Christmas: Stile Antico, pictured by Marco Borggreve before socially distanced Covid times

THE 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival went out with a splurge of concerts over its last weekend.

Your reviewer caught two of the four on the final day. Spiritato! was the largest ensemble to appear at the festival, 18 period-style players, who concentrated on Bach and his contemporary Johann Friedrich Fasch in The Leipzig Legacy.

Had he not been born directly in Bach’s shadow, Fasch would surely be better known. We heard at once, in the opening Concerto in D, how Fasch was already anticipating the classical shapes and sounds that were to feature in Haydn’s earlier symphonies.

There were exciting trumpets in the opening Allegro and delightful solos from violin and oboe in the finale: enough meat on these bones, indeed, to make further exploration of Fasch an exciting prospect.

His Quartetto in D minor, dating from about 1750, was marginally less exciting, but well above run-of-the-mill Baroque, gracefully delivered in its slow movements, with contrastingly crisp counterpoint in the Allegros.

Spiritato! was led from her violin by Kinga Ujszászi, who came into her own in Bach’s Sinfonia in D, where her effortless panache was breath-taking. But elsewhere too, she led by example, sustaining a real sense of dance through both Bach’s Second and Third Suites.

The Second, in B minor, believed to be the last of the four to be written, was given here in its earliest version for strings alone. Here the sound was a touch top-heavy, needing an extra cello or two for good balance.

The Third Suite, in D major, was probably much earlier, written at Cöthen (where Bach was succeeded as Kapellmeister by Fasch) in 1718. Apart from its famous Air, caressed here by strings alone, the Gavottes had a gentle lilt and the Gigue made a triumphant finale. Spiritato’s palpable enjoyment had proved infectious throughout.

The festival closed with the 12-voice ensemble Stile Antico, in an appearance at the unusual but most welcome hour of 5pm. Here we were back to purely Christmas repertory, mimicking Nine Lessons and Carols with nine Renaissance works, each preceded by a contemporary reading, in A Renaissance Christmas.

My heart usually sinks when I see that musicians are doing their own readings: few manage it with much prowess, let alone clarity. Stile Antico largely proved me wrong; these well exceeded expectation. There were two poems each from John Donne and George Herbert.

Robert Southwell’s The Burning Babe was another excellent choice, as was Emilia Lanier’s Eve’s Apologie. But the laurels went to a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, its wit and wisdom about the Magi (including “a cold coming they had of it”) delivered here with supreme clarity. None of the readers was identified.

The conductor-less choir was arranged in two semi-circles, eight on the outside, four inside, socially distanced. This meant that, for the first time that I recall, it was possible to spot one singer keeping time with a gentle nod.

Needless to say, ensemble remained impeccable, matched by tuning that surely heaven will not better. The sopranos were particularly stunning. I recall just one occasion when a very high entry was slightly misjudged, though instantly rectified.

The tone of the evening was nicely set by an extract from the Piae Cantiones of 1582, that Finnish collection rediscovered by our man in Helsinki in the early 19th century.

Victoria was the only composer to feature twice, once with an eight-voice Agnus Dei, once with a gorgeous O Magnum Mysterium, partnering Donne’s Nativity. In between these two came the starker harmonies of a graceful Ave Maria by Des Prez, alongside Donne’s Annunciation, another clever pairing. Byrd’s Rorate Coeli had reminded us of his matchless counterpoint.

A very peppy Angelus Ad Pastores by a Ferrara nun, Raffaella Aleotti, in madrigal style, reminded us of how many such ladies are only now being brought to light, not before time. Guerrero’s villancico – nowadays synonymous with Christmas carol – A Un Niño Llorandowas cleverly shaped by five soloists.

It remained for a beautifully sustained account of John Sheppard’s Verbum Caro Factum Est, which was written for Christmas matins, to remind us of the reason for the festival. If you’ve never heard Stile Antico, make a beeline for them: you won’t be disappointed.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Both concerts are still available to buy online from the York Christmas At Home programme at ncem.co.uk until December 21 to watch on demand until January 6 2021.

Monday is the chance to join Cuppa And A Chorus for virtual Christmas singing session

Cuppa And A Chorus participants at an earlier Zoom singing session

IF you are missing the joy of festive singing this Christmas, here is your chance at the obligatory remote distance.

On Monday (21/12/2020), the National Centre for Early Music, in York, will be hosting the Cuppa And A Chorus Christmas Special via Zoom, bringing Christmas cheer with this 6pm online singing session.

Expect Christmas songs, virtual mince pies and fun aplenty. Family members can celebrate together and there will be a break in the middle to enjoy that all important “cuppa” or maybe even a mulled wine and mince pie.

“The session will be conducted via Zoom and is a brilliant opportunity to socialise with friends, as well as a chance to make new ones,” says Lottie Brook, the NCEM’s learning and participation manager.

“No singing experience is necessary. Places are free but must be booked in advance. A Zoom link will be sent out on the day.”

Anyone nervous about using Zoom or accessing the concert can contact Lottie Brook at lottie.brook@ncem.co.uk.

To book, go to: https://www.ncem.co.uk/events/cuppa-and-a-chorus-christmas-special/

NCEM receives £28,000 Kickstart grant to boost ambitious digital outreach plans

“Over the past year, our digital outreach has become increasingly significant as part of our offer and we’re thrilled to be able to continue to expand it,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin

THE National Centre for Early Music, in York, has been awarded a £28,000 Capital Kickstart grant from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund.

This will enable the NCEM, in St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, to push forward with its ambitious digital plans, despite the financial challenge caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

NCEM director Dr Delma Tomlin said:“We would like to thank the Culture Recovery Fund for their continued support and for this extremely generous grant in recognition of our vital and important work. Over the past year, our digital outreach has become increasingly significant as part of our offer and we’re thrilled to be able to continue to expand it.”

The NCEM is one of 74 organisations receiving grants totalling £58.9 million today. The Capital Kickstart grants programme helps organisations cover costs added to capital projects such as building works, refurbishments, and large-scale equipment purchases by pandemic-related delays or fundraising shortfalls. 

To continue the “outstanding success of its significantly increased digital output”, the NCEM needed additional funds for livestream cameras and filming equipment, plus in the new website in order to reach wider audiences and support the Early Music sector. 

Steven Devine performing the first live-streamed concert at the NCEM on March 21

The first live-streamed concert on Early Music Day on March 21 by harpsichordist Steven Devine attracted a worldwide audience of more than 70,000 and this summer’s online York Early Music Festival continued to engage new audiences from as far afield as the USA and Australia. 

This month, the NCEM is staging the York Early Music Christmas Festival, a festive programme of live concerts running until this weekend. Newly added for 2020 is York Christmas At Home, a digital festival of nine concerts to be streamed from today until Sunday that will then be available on demand.

In November, the NCEM’s Young Composers Award 2020, presented in association with BBC Radio 3 and The Tallis Scholars, took place digitally; again, the behind-closed-doors concert was live-streamed to a wide audience. Plans for next year’s award with BBC Radio 3 and 2021 partners, recorder quartet Palisander, are in progress already.

The NCEM continues to play an important part in the promotion and support of the professional development of Early Music ensembles worldwide with residencies and workshops in the planning stage. As a bonus, the NCEM’s new spring music festival will coincide with celebrations for 2021 Early Music Day on the anniversary of JS Bach’s birthday on March 21.

Alongside a varied programme of music, in 2021 the NCEM will be staging the Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival and the York Early Music Festival.

Ben Pugh, seated, leading the tech team for the online 2020 York Early Music Festival in July

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the NCEM has continued to keep music alive and was one of the first UK arts organisations to broadcast online concerts worldwide.

Education and engagement with communities has continued too, drawing in socially isolated individuals to a weekly Cuppa And A Chorus, as well as sharing music-making through a series of teaching videos aimed at deaf youngsters, I Can Play. 

Today, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport also announced that £165 million from the Culture Recovery Fund has been offered in repayable loans to help 11 major cultural organisations survive the loss of income caused by the crisis.

This follows previous rounds of the Culture Recovery Fund, including the grants programme that distributed £428 million to more than 2,000 cultural organisations across the country and the £3.36 million Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “This Government promised it would be here for culture and today’s announcement is proof we’ve kept our word. 

Matthew Wadsworth and Kate Bennett Wadsworth captured on camera in their live-streamed concert at the NCEM. The concert can be enjoyed again as part of York Christmas At Home on Sunday at 10.30am via ncem.co.uk

“The £1 billion invested so far through the Culture Recovery Fund has protected tens of thousands of jobs at cultural organisations across the UK, with more support still to come through a second round of applications.

“Today, we’re extending a huge helping hand to the crown jewels of UK culture, so that they can continue to inspire future generations all around the world.” 

Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, said: “Today’s announcement is another vital step in securing the future of England’s cultural sector. Supporting capital projects will help to ensure that we maintain an innovative, sustainable cultural infrastructure that supports world-class creative work, while the loans announced today will enable some of our largest and most prestigious cultural organisations to weather the effects of Covid-19 and reopen when it is safe to do so.

“The Arts Council is grateful to the Government for their support through the Culture Recovery Fund and we are proud to support all the organisations receiving funding today.”

For more details on the 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival and York Christmas At Home festival, go to: ncem.co.uk.

REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Illyria Consort, NCEM, York

Illyria Consort: Concert programme began and ended in Italy, travelling north to Germany in between

REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Illyria Consort, How Brightly Shines The Morning Star, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 7

ONE of the most pleasing of the Christmas Lutheran chorales is How Brightly Shines The Morning Star. It is still in most of our hymn books.

It was actually composed by Philipp Nicolai in 1674 during an outbreak of the plague, which gives it a certain contemporary resonance. So, its inclusion in two sets of variations as the centrepiece of this Baroque recital could hardly have been more appropriate.

Illyria Consort is a trio led by violinist Bojan Čičić, who is underpinned by David Miller’s theorbo and Stephen Devine at the organ (whose advertised use of the harpsichord sadly did not materialise). They began and ended in Italy, travelling north to Germany in between.

Frescobaldi had a knack for crystallising Italian traditions and latched onto the playing of bagpipes by shepherds in the Christmas season, with a capriccio on La Pastorale (known more widely later on as Pastorella), a tradition that endures to this day in the south.

It opened peacefully here, with organ and theorbo alone, before the violin introduced some frolicking. In Germany it was picked up by Biber, a violin virtuoso himself, in his Pastorella, where frolics soon turn to fireworks. It was a delight to hear them side by side and played with such relish.

Quite a different side to Biber emerged in his Third Mystery Sonata, The Nativity, which clings doggedly to the key of B minor in its three movements, doubtless presaging the trials the Christ child was eventually to face. There was plenty of theatre here, but not much comfort.

That came with the Morning Star variations. Buxtehude’s set for solo organ gained in rhythmic coherence as it progressed, culminating in a lively jig. But the real drama came in Nicolaus Strungk’s variations for the whole trio, which was a revelation, beginning as a slow passacaglia and developing into an imaginative fantasia at a variety of tempos. The Illyrians clearly loved it.

Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli’s Sonata VIII allowed a touch of Britain into the programme. Although born in Rome, he spent over half a century in London and died there in 1773, having become a Brit as John Stephen Carbonell in 1735.

Certainly, the sonata was on a par with Handel’s best in the genre, with two central Allegros, one free flowing, the other in a zesty staccato, before an evocative closing pastorale. It came as no surprise to discover that the Illyria chose six of his sonatas for their debut recording.

Tartini is right up there as a composer for the violin, his own instrument. His Pastorale sonata also has Christmas connotations, while exploiting a number of different bowing techniques that must have sounded avant-garde in his day. Čičić by now was in full flow and obviously enjoyed its challenges.

After a majestic Adagio and a frankly showy Allegro, it wound down into another gentle pastorale. This was definitely the child in the manger rather than the angels on high. A dream ending.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Palisander, Mischief & Merriment, York Early Music Christmas Festival

Palisander: First concerts for nine months in this Covid-blighted year

REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival: Palisander, Mischief & Merriment, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 4, evening

THE latest lockdown ended just in time to allow York Early Music to open its Christmas festival before a real audience.

There were only about 30 of us, to be sure, seated at small tables in ones or twos, but what a difference over livestreaming. Best of all, it inspires the players. Palisander confessed that these two performances – there had been one in the afternoon – were their first for nine months. You would not have guessed.

The period of Advent, or preparation for Christmas, has lost much of its original intent. It was once a time of strict fasting – not a bad idea in these days of sedentary constraint – to be followed by a 12-day yuletide blowout of Mischief and Merriment, the title of this concert.

Palisander’s quartet of recorders ranged all over the Tudor and Stuart periods, with occasional sorties into traditional and modern repertory, an invigorating mix.

Recorders cover a vast rainbow of colours, from the pipsqueak garklein, barely six inches long with only three finger-holes, to the avuncular contrabass, which stands over six feet tall. The whole panoply was on display here.

Players changed instruments on the move, so that as many as ten different ones were heard in a single piece. Toes began to tap at once in dances by Susato and Arbeau, which prepared the ground for a lively quintet of English numbers, three by Antony Holborne, marked by subtle use of staccato.

Several carols were woven into the tapestry, most with tasty but idiomatic harmonies arranged by one of the group, Miriam Monaghan. They included the spring song from Piae Cantiones (1582), nowadays better known through Good King Wenceslas.

Most of the mischief and merriment in the Elizabethan court was organised by the Lord of Misrule. He would surely have selected Toby Young’s Recorder Revolution!, which was pleasingly anarchic and lots of fun. Similarly, a theatre suite, played in masks, reflected Stuart customs. All were given with enthusiasm and joie de vivre that were infectious.

I had not previously thought that an hour of nothing but recorders could be so entertaining. You live and learn.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Early Music Christmas Festival opens today…and it’s live at the NCEM

Welcome to the 2020 York Early Music Christmas Festival: Palisander reach for their recorders for today’s opening brace of concerts. Picture: Marc McGarraghy

CHRISTMAS arrives today at the National Centre for Early Music with the reopening of its doors for the annual York Early Music Christmas Festival.

Recorder quartet Palisander will launch the festivities at the Covid-secure St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, with two socially distanced concerts at 4.30pm and 7pm.

The festival of live concerts will run until December 12, complemented by the inaugural York Christmas At Home festival of streamed concerts from December 11 to 13. Full details, including tickets and concert times, can be found at ncem.co.uk.

Look out for Martin Dreyer’s reviews of Palisander’s Mischief & Merriment programme today and Illyria Consort’s How Brightly Shines The Morning Star on December 7 in CharlesHutchPress.