Monday, 31 August 2015

Southwell Music Festival 2015

What do we mean by a festival? My first reaction is celebration: practitioners and enthusiasts gathering together to focus on their mutual interest. I've thought a little about the nature of a festival as it can connote a market mentality, people bringing their finished products to the stall. Well, selling or parading achievements isn't the atmosphere of the Southwell Music Festival. Now coming to the end of only its second year, this celebration of classical music is active and purposeful, focused on musical immersion and enthusiasm, commitment and finesse.

Scratch the surface and you immediately discover a reservoir of support for the Festival's instigator and Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth. This isn't (just) because he grew up here. It isn't even really because his hard-won success as a singer and conductor means that he can call on established musicians of high calibre to come up to the East Midlands to join him.

No, in this Festival Marcus and his colleagues work hard to achieve excellence in music and to engage their audience at that highest of levels. This Festival is where the celebration of music is active and purposeful in performer and audience alike.

With the Minster (where Marcus was a chorister) at the centre of the town it's inevitable that it is also at the centre of the Festival. A performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah was the gala event on Saturday night. A case in point, this wasn't just another parochial run-out of a familiar repertory oratorio. Andrew Foster-Williams assumed the character of the titular prophet, performing without a score. This brought the drama to life and he took the performers with him: Old Testament shock and awe brought frosted silences and rocked the nave floor in turn. Even bats in the crossing behind the performers could be seen circling in panic whenever Mendelssohn intimated God's wrath.

Of course this music is nothing without its exposed, plaintive moments in which to reflect. Indeed they're the heart of a work like Elijah, the heart of much music, especially within a church building. The following morning's Eucharist Mass used a setting by Stravinsky - complete with accompanying wind octet - whose cool, opaque neoclassicism allowed only reflection. It was a crisp tonic to the grand sentiment of the previous night. An ecstatic but crystalline account of Messiaen's great communion motet O Sacrum Convivium offered an alternative and less psychedelic vision of heavenly assumption than that which had been conjured in Elijah the night before.

The Minster is a handsome space. More importantly it has an unrivalled acoustic (it really does). This Festival is not bound by the Christian purpose of the Minster. The Sunday evensong saw the programming of Giles Swayne's Magnificat, a virtuoso choral work that one performer cheerfully admitted he'd never performed in the liturgy before. Similarly the late night choral concert at the start of the Festival titled Voices on Water used the space to illuminate the performances (literally too, as it's evocatively lit with candles).

In a warm working relationship between church and Festival there's no tension though and the following night's concert of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross was all the richer for not only the building but also the proximity of Jonathan Clark's fine sculpture Stations of the Cross nearby.

The Festival has exhibitions from various local art bodies running in parallel. One of the most striking of these tie-ins was in fact not an exhibit at all. Rather, Musical Draw invited artists to come in to an open rehearsal and sketch the performers at work. An excellent initiative, this promotes a high level of interdisciplinary work as well as dismissing the artificial barriers that separate the musicians and their audience. Crucially, with tasks in hand there are no unnecessary distractions. Again, this is a festival focused on active, purposeful celebration.

The Festival is an open book. There are at least as many free and fringe events as there are ticketed performances. Equally, leading people towards the music is a task not only for the media operations that see performances recorded or discussed in programme and social media alike but also for the performers themselves. Marcus clearly enjoyed introducing performances - not as common as you'd think - and the outing of a particularly tricky work, Thomas Ades' Arcadiana, came with its own carefully prepared pre-performance talk in situ from the Associate Director Jamie Campbell.

There is also élan. This great modern programme on the Sunday evening concluded with Festival favourites Libby Burgess and James Baillieu tackling Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for four hands. It is an expression of a festival such as this that such an arrangement should be tackled not to impress but interrogatively, to seek out its music. At the end of a brilliant performance we applauded keyboard skill of the highest order - and the genius of a composer who wrote down music we couldn't presume to hear on our own.

We come to the end of the Festival celebrating music in the best way a Festival can, incorporating everyone. The Come & Sing Mozart Requiem about to take place in the Minster offers both the musically well-read and curious a hands-on opportunity to try it. The 'well-read and the curious' characterises everyone who lives near to and supports the Festival in all the manner of ways it is necessary to do so for such an operation to thrive. It is active and has purpose. It is the best sort of celebration of music.