This Friday should have been the start of the 14th English Music Festival, a four-day celebration of the English music repertoire set against the quintessentially English backdrop of Dorchester-on-Thames.
Sadly, like so many other music events, the festival has had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The good news, though, is that a virtual festival is taking place instead, and the original programme is being replicated as closely as possible with an enticing mix of talks and recitals filmed by EMF artists in their homes as well as radio-style presentations of music drawn from the festival’s own recordings.
Em Marshall-Luck, who founded the festival in 2006, is remarkably upbeat about this enforced change of plan.
“It hasn’t been too difficult from a programmatic point of view,” she says. “I approached all the artists who I hoped would be able to do something live, and for other events I turned to EMF recordings and as far as possible used the same composers or the same style of music.
“Obviously we’ve never done anything like this before, so from a technological point of view it’s been quite a steep learning curve. We’ve mastered that, and it’s all going very well.”
A highlight for many, undoubtedly, will be renowned baritone Roderick Williams discussing English music favourites with conductor Hilary Davan Wetton.
“We’re quite lucky in that we’ve literally just taken receipt of our latest disc, which has him on, so I was able to sneak that into one of the radio presentations,” laughs Em. “That’s quite nice to be able to plug that.”
Other filmed talks include the Oxfordshire-based composer Richard Blackford on My Path from Musical Modernism, conductor and musicologist Joseph Fort on early British performances of Brahms’ sublime Requiem and violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck on Parry’s chamber music.
The opening concert continues the EMF tradition by featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra. The programme includes Curtis A Festival Overture, Stanford Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Blackford Spirited and Cowen Symphony No.5, all drawn from EMF recordings and presented by Em Marshall-Luck.
Filmed concerts include recitals by violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, pianists Paul Guinery and Duncan Honeybourne and cellist Joseph Spooner with pianist Nicholas Bosworth, while the young baroque group Ensemble Hesperi has put together a film that includes recent concert footage as well as introductions from their homes.
“The Ensemble Hesperi one is very well done,” Em says. “They’ve used clips from concerts that they’ve done with the same or very similar programme, and it’s nice to be able to go into a concert venue, albeit they were filmed in a church rather than a concert hall.
“The Paul Guinery talk is absolutely fantastic. He goes down into the basement of his house, where he’s got all these wonderful archives, and he brings out the scores and talks to you about them and then goes and plays the music. That for me is one of the highlights.”
Unusually for virtual performances, all EMF events are ticketed, with prices ranging from £5 for the radio-style presentations to £10 for filmed concerts.
“We did find it expensive to put on, and having suffered the cancellation of the festival we couldn’t incur any more losses,” Em explains.
“More importantly, we’re very aware that there are many musicians who have lost a huge amount of work and a huge amount of income, and they are really, really struggling. We can’t pay them a massive fee, but we’re sharing with them a percentage of the income from their events and we hope it will give them back something. That’s always been a main reason for doing this, to support our artists.
“We have had audience members who were very upset at the thought of cancelling, so it’s for them as well.”
The full programme originally planned for this year will now happen in 2021. Bringing the English Music Festival back to Dorchester next year is, Em admits, going to be tough, but she is cautiously optimistic.
“Our finances are going to be an issue,” she says. “We’re particularly aware that grant making trusts and funds will be cutting back, and we do rely very heavily on them for income.
“The festival will take place next year regardless, and we’ll just have to save as much money as we possibly can, but we are aware the financial position is not going to be a very good one. I think everyone’s going to be in difficult positions from that point of view.”
The online English Music Festival runs from 22nd-25th May. For full details of the programme, visit www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk/2020-online-festival/programme.php.
To book tickets, visit www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk/2020-online-festival/box-office/box-office-front-page.php.
The latest release from EM Records, Those Blue Remembered Hills, features music by Gurney and Howells, performed by Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano) and the Bridge Quartet. Visit www.em-records.com for details and to order a copy.