York Early Music Festival embraces new technology to go online for three-day event

Iestyn Davies: York countertenor switches from Bach arias on July 8 to John Dowland and The Art Of Melancholy on June 9

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 boxoffice@ncem.co.uk, with a festival package at £30, individual concert tickets at £10 each and illustrated talks at £3.50 each.

The artwork for the 2020 York Early Music Festival , now replaced by a streamlined, streamed version of the festival next month

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.

Dr Delma Tomlin: Administrative director of the York Early Music Festival

“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.

Stile Antico back in the days when you could stand together on a staircase. Social distancing will prevail at their July 11 concert. Picture: Marco Borggreve

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. 

Steven Devine: Bach to the future as he works his way through Preludes and Fugues

“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.

Elizabeth Kenny: Joining Iestyn Davies for July 9 concert

“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.

Violinist Rachel Podger: Scheduled to play 2021 York Early Music Festival

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.

Consone Quartet: Performng Beethoven String Quartets on July 10

“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.”