A visit to the local
Jeremy Pound looks back at some of the musical pleasures of this year's Cheltenham Festival
In the name of classical music I have fetched up in some wonderful, and occasionally weird, places. It is one of the privileges of the job, and one I am hugely grateful for.
Take this year alone: January saw me head far north and into the Arctic Circle for the Northern Lights Festival in Tromsø, Norway. Very chilly, very snowy, very dark but charmingly intimate. Contrast that with June’s visit to the Masada, Dead Sea and Jerusalem Festival in Israel, where I and 7,000 others travelled into the baking hot desert for a vast, open-air performance of Verdi’s Aida. Spectacular stuff.
But for all the fun of travelling and the variety it brings, the one event that still has me marking the diary with more excitement than any other is my local: the Cheltenham Music Festival. How local? Well, the nearest festival venue is precisely 423 steps from my front door (I know because I’ve just paced it out on my way back from the Co-op).
I am very lucky, too, of course, that my local festival is such a good one. And although I acknowldedge that complimentary press tickets enable me to explore more extensively than I might if I were on a budget, I still maintain that there is no better way to expand one’s musical horizons than a festival. Grab a festival brochure and just go for it: commit yourself to as wide a range of concerts as you feel comfortable with.
This year’s Cheltenham Festival has just ended, and I made it to 11 concerts all told – an agenda helped, in part, by having a week off work. These ranged from Richard Strauss and Brahms with the LPO, to a ‘Counting Songs’ session in the company of Pound Jnr and fellow pre-schoolers. Both hugely enjoyable (though the latter’s benchmark rendition of ‘Five Little Men in a Flying Saucer’ remained unaccountably, and disgracefully, ignored by the national press).
In between came the pleasures of artists such as majestic pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, his Norwegian compatriot the trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and concerto-debutant pianist, James Rhodes. All were hugely engaging in their own different ways but it was the discovery of new or unfamiliar repertoire that left as much of an impression as anything.
For me, three works in particular made their mark this year. The first, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune, does with Josquin what Vaughan Williams does with Tallis in his famous Fantastia and develops it in similarly exquisite style. The second was Joe Duddell’s Snowblind which, unusually for a percussion concerto, passes up the opportunity to crash through the whole range of kit and offers instead a more subtle and beguiling exploration of just the vibraphone and marimba. And finally there was Rolf Wallin’s Elegy for trumpet and organ, written for the funeral of the composer’s own sister – a tragic, but achingly beautiful, work.
Of the three, I have since got hold a copy of the Bennett on disc, and would be astonished if Tine Ting Helseth didn’t include Wallin’s Elegy on one of her upcoming discs on EMI. Sadly, though, I imagine that I’ve probably heard Snowblind for the first and last time. Frustrating, but there you go.
Would I have got to hear any of the above were they not in a festival context? Probably not. Nor of course, is it just at Cheltenham that I’ve come away with the thrill of the new. Thanks to the tiny Bledington Festival, held over three nights in a Gloucestershire village church, which I attended two years ago, I now have a love of Bax quartets. And this year’s similarly pocket-sized Liberation Festival in Jersey introduced me to the wonderfully agile voice of jazz’s Clare Teal. There are plenty more examples where they came from. In short, the message is simple.
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Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine