Swaledale Festival 2015 - Artistic Director's Report

  • 6 July 2015
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SWALEDALE FESTIVAL 2015 - ARTISTIC DIRECTOR'S REPORT

INTRODUCTION

For this year's musical content, I tried, as always, to strike a good balance between 'safe' programming (i.e. familiar material) and more challenging works, and many of our concerts contained both these elements. On the 'classical' side there was plenty of familiar Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert interspersed with Janáček, Bartók, Ireland, Messiaen, Jonathan Dove and James MacMillan. There was no Mozart in the programme this year, and no tribute bands or over-hyped 'celebrities'. I believe that the Festival should make a difference, not just provide what is here already, and I am pleased to report that people generally responded very positively to new and unfamiliar music this year.

With valuable support from Arts Council England and some generous trusts, foundations, sponsors and donors, I put together an ambitious programme - one which I believe was of extremely high quality in every genre covered. As well as a large contingent of talented artistes from Yorkshire and elsewhere in Britain, performers were invited from as far away as Canada, the USA, South Africa, Korea, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Greece and Spain.

CONCERTS - VOCAL FOCUS

I felt that the human voice had been a little under-represented in the last couple of years, so  I decided to make it a theme this time. In a major celebration of singing and the spoken word, the human voice was featured in as many as 24 events.

James Gilchrist showed why he is one of the world's most revered tenors by giving a profound yet sensitive performance of Warlock's The Curlew and Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge with Royal Northern Sinfonia. Violinist Magdalena Filipczak surprised us with her delightful singing before treating us to some fine violin playing. Patricia Hammond charmed her audience as only she can - this time with her Ragtime Parlour Band. LYRA, the touring vocal quartet from St. Petersburg Cathedral, presented an evening of Russian sacred music and traditional folk themes. Young soprano Rowan Pierce and pianist Simon Passmore, who first met at the 2010 Festival during a masterclass with Dame Emma Kirkby, came back to perform a beautifully prepared recital of songs by Purcell, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Finzi, Messiaen and Jonathan Dove.

The King's Singers produced a breathtaking performance of music from six centuries, and the world renowned Tenebrae Consort, directed by former King's Singer Nigel Short, gave a precise and delicate concert of sixteenth century English music. Bob Chilcott, another former King's Singer, led an all-day singing workshop in Richmond School. Nine Daies Wonder - a staged production at the Georgian Theatre Royal by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments - told the story of Will Kemp, who danced from London to Norwich in 1600 and caused a sensation. This stunning show, directed by Clare Salaman and featuring dancer Steven Player, did likewise.

Stellar jazz and blues singer Liane Carroll drew a large and appreciative crowd. Her band featured the Artistic Director on double bass, and the always exciting Gwilym Simcock on piano and organ.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain delighted six hundred people with its deadpan humour in Tennants new Garden Rooms in Leyburn, guitarist and occasional singer Stuart Masters amazed his audience in Reeth's Buck Hotel, and local folk heroes Fourum brought the house down in St. Mary's, Arkengarthdale. The oddly named Project Jam Sandwich - a young quintet of Royal Northern College of Music graduates who play and sing folk and world music - won over the audience in Reeth Memorial Hall, and their inspirational performances in Wensleydale and Richmond Schools, as part of the Festival's Community and Education programme, were well-received.

The Railsplitters came from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to perform their uplifting bluegrass music in Grinton church, and again in the Bridge Inn afterwards until the early hours. The Urban Folk Quartet produced one of the highlights of this year's Festival. Their harmonies, their infectious rhythms and their joyful energy will stay long in the memory and the audience were on their feet dancing and cheering by the end.

Three North-East-based choirs - the Swale Singers, Northern Voices from Darlington and Werca's Folk from Morpeth - gave excellent performances in Richmond and Aysgarth. Poet David Scott gave a moving reading of his poems and there was an enjoyable 'open mic' poetry reading session at the Burgoyne Hotel in Reeth. The Yorkshire Film Archive screened some fascinating amateur film clips featuring North Yorkshire dialects. The Reeth Lecture this year was given by Adam Hart-Davis. His subject was 'Are we alone in the universe?' It was informative, entertaining and brilliantly delivered.

INSTRUMENTAL CONCERTS

The outstanding Skampa String Quartet flew from Prague to perform works by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák and Janáček, as well as former Skampa violinist Pavel Fischer's Mad Piper quartet which was particularly well-received. Another highlight was a concert of Bach, Mendelssohn, Sarasate, Bartók and Piazzolla played by top violinist Harriet Mackenzie and the extraordinary accordionist Miloš Milivojević.

Our Young Artists Platform was extremely strong this year and most of the events sold out. In addition to Stuart Masters, Project Jam Sandwich, Rowan Pierce and Simon Passmore, the assured guitarist Sean Shibe, a BBC New Generation artist, presented an immaculate Dowland, Bach and Villa Lobos programme and the much-admired young Spanish cellist Pau Codina provided a brilliant solo recital of Bach and Gaspar Cassadó.

Kathryn Tickell, with her superb colleagues - cellist Louisa Tuck, accordionist and clog dancer Amy Thatcher and harpist Ruth Wall - filled Grinton church with plaintive airs and joyful jigs and reels. The Hut People delighted audiences at two sell-out concerts in the charming Gayle Mill near Hawes. Dressed in charming medieval costumes, Trouvère Medieval Minstrels also appeared in the rustic setting of the mill. The two Richmond based players took us on a tour of music from the twelfth century to Tudor times. The number of instruments on display was impressive and audience members were invited to try them out afterwards.

A full house of 600 in Tennants Garden Rooms heard Black Dyke Band give an outstanding performance of traditional and new music, including the world premiere of a stunning piece celebrating five Dales rivers by the Yorkshire composer Philip Wilby. A sequence of specially commissioned photographs of the rivers by David Tarn were projected onto a screen above the band during the performance.

Perhaps the most unusual musical offering was 'Wedding Music' by church organist Kit Downes and saxophonist Tomas Challenger. The sounds they extracted from their instruments were not at all familiar, but their performance was calming and thought provoking. The superb quintet ZRI played Brahms's iconic Clarinet Quintet interspersed with Gypsy and Klezmer music which had influenced Brahms in Vienna. With accordion and santori replacing one of the violins and the viola, Brahms's music was given a fascinating twist.

COMMISSIONS

Our most substantial music commission was a set of 25 solo piano preludes by pianist, organist and composer Michael Brough. Michael himself performed the premiere on an excellent Steinway piano. The varied and accessible music, and Michael's virtuosic playing, were rewarded with a rapturous ovation from the audience.

The highly respected British composer Roxanna Panufnik came to Askrigg church to introduce the world premiere of her piece 'Shosholoza', played by the South African bassist Leon Bosch and the Korean pianist Sung-Suk Kang. The piece was co-commissioned by the Swaledale Festival and Leon Bosch.

Many saw the extraordinary Re:Cycling sculpture in Reeth Community Orchard for the first time. The sculpture, commissioned by the Swaledale Festival to commemorate the passing of the Tour de France through Reeth last year, was made from unwanted bicycle parts by the celebrated local artist Michael Kusz, helped at the design stage by 100 local schoolchildren.

OTHER EVENTS

Astronomy appeared in the Festival for the first time - in a collaboration with the Reeth Informal Astronomy Group which, on three separate nights, set up a series of telescopes on Reeth Green. A couple of hundred people turned up to look at the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and numerous stars.

Festival favourites Puppetcraft produced a stunning puppet show entitled 'Monkey!' with live music and a script by the poet Michael Rosen. The famed Musical Walk was reinstated after a couple of years off, and the walkers were treated to some superb surprise performances along the way.

VISUAL ART / EXHIBITIONS

The Festival's Mondrian and the Pixel exhibition at The Station in Richmond was the culmination of a challenging project for 30 students at Wensleydale and Richmond Schools, guided by artist Rachel Antill. They studied the early abstract artists and their search for modernity. They then created their own paintings which reflect on contemporary life and the mechanisms by which we express our modernity now. The students' works were well appreciated.

The 'Dales Rivers' project was prompted by Philip Wilby and David Tarn's new commission for Black Dyke Band. Seven local primary schools were given art workshops and each child produced a picture inspired by the Dales rivers. Their colourful exhibition at Tennants in Leyburn proved highly popular.

There were good exhibitions by professional artists Julia Corfe, Jill Eagle, Denise Burden and Piers Browne and a clutch of talented local artists exhibited at East Windy Hall in Arkengarthdale.

COMMUNITY AND EDUCATION

Following our successful Re:Cycling project and our award-winning Percussion Project last year, we continued our education work in 2015, sending top professional musicians into two schools and eight care homes to perform, and also producing children's art projects and exhibitions involving nine local primary and secondary schools.

In January, board member Janet Hall and I were invited to 10 Downing Street by David Cameron to celebrate the Prime Minister's Big Society Award which the Festival received for its community and education work in 2014.

VENUES

This year there were 31 concerts in Swaledale (including 7 in Richmond), 16 in Wensleydale and 2 in Arkengarthdale. We made good use of the village churches, thereby maintaining the traditional charm of the Festival, and we were welcomed by Tennants Auctioneers into their brand new Garden Rooms which offers unparalleled catering, backstage, car parking, toilets and exhibition facilities. Our two sell-out concerts there were highly successful, and we intend to stage two performances there each year.

PRESS AND MEDIA

The Darlington and Stockton Times printed concert previews and reviews. There was a feature in the Yorkshire Post and a number of mentions in the Northern Echo. The editor of BBC Music Magazine spent a couple of days at the Festival which we hope will result in some good exposure next year. BBC television covered the Festival for the first time with a piece on 'Look North' about the artist Michael Kusz. We also featured on BBC Radio Tees, Radio Teesdale, and BBC Radio 3's 'Jazz Lineup'.

MARKETING

This year has seen the development of a new web site, two new brochures and a new suite of logos and design schemes. In addition, our marketing chief Janet Hall's hard work has resulted in a big step forward in our social media profile. We have also improved our events programmes and our posters and leaflets. The Festival's marketing now has a more dynamic approach and a fresh new look which have undoubtedly contributed to a significant increase in ticket sales this year.

THE FESTIVAL TEAM

It has been a privilege to work alongside my colleague Jill Armstrong again this year. We have received substantial support from our board of trustees, our events and technical team - Tim Slater, Chris Curry and Kate Mothersill - and around 130 dedicated volunteers who (amongst other things) staff the box office, provide transport and accommodation for artistes, deliver brochures, print programmes and steward events. We are indebted to our funders, corporate sponsors, local business supporters, partner organisations, individual donors, 'Angels', 'Festival Friends' and those who run the venues in which our events take place. Every one is crucial to the success of the Festival, and every one has worked tirelessly and harmoniously this year.

CONCLUSION

Artistically, the 2015 Swaledale Festival has been exceptional. Media reviews and audience feedback have been overwhelmingly positive, and our collection of awards continues to grow. We have eclipsed our all-time record for ticket sales yet again this year. I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all our artistes and all our audience members as well as every person in our team. Even as the dust settles, planning is well underway for the 2016 Swaledale Festival.

Malcolm Creese, Artistic Director, June 2015

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