Monday 3 September 2012

Brighton Early Music Festival at 10 - interview with Clare Norburn

BREMF 2011 with Nick Boston and Deborah Roberts
Picture credit Robert Piwko
The Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) is ten years old this year and, not surprisingly, the theme of this year’s festival (26 October to 11 November) is Celebration and I caught up with co-founder Clare Norburn to talk about festival past and present. BREMF was founded in 2002 by Clare Norburn and Deborah Roberts over a cup of coffee. Both are singers, Clare grew up in Brighton and Deborah had just moved there and started directing the Brighton consort. Their paths kept crossing as they both organised and promoted concerts in the city and, almost as a joke; the suggestion came up that they might put on a festival. Over the fateful cup of coffee, they decided that it was possible.

That first festival, in 2002, was simply dipping a toe in the water. It was put on in 4 months with little or no funding. Performers were basically Clare and Deborah’s friends, doing it for expenses and not much else. What they found was that there was enormous grass roots support, both from audience and supporters; many people involved in the Brighton Consort helped with the festival, and continue to be involved. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of Early Music in Brighton and the main Brighton Festival did not mount such events. In fact BREMF was deliberately timed so that it was well away from the Brighton Festival. So Clare and Deborah found themselves with friends, supporters, volunteers and an audience. Clare feels that the festival worked because the audience in Brighton was (and still is) very receptive to trying new things.

By 2003 they were properly constituted, had become a charity and applied for Arts Council funding.

Initially, they started BREMF simply to see if it could be done and to fill in the gap in Early Music in Brighton. But as BREMF has grown it has changed a lot. One of Clare and Deborah’s aims is to use the festival to get new audiences for classical music. Though they are interested in putting on what you might term main stream Early Music events, they are also very keen on things which are a little bit different.

In Brighton, BREMF has exploited the rather forward thinking, quirky audiences that are available, many open for new experiences. They have been looking at links between Early Music and other musics, such as world music, and jazz, exploiting the way other traditions use modes and improvisation. It is this pushing the boundary of what Early Music events might be which has come to characterise BREMF and differentiate it from the UK’s other main Early Music festival in York.

Changing concert layouts, breaking down the concert audience and bringing them closer to the performers is just one way they are experimenting with what an event really is. At last year’s White Nights and at this year’s Autumn Lates, the chairs from the venue are stripped out allowing the audience to get really close to the performers. This approach has helped to generate new audiences, last year’s White Nights event brought 2318 people through their doors. Many were people who had not been to BREMF before, some came only to disappear but many came and stayed.

BREMF 2011, picture Robert Piwko
BREMF has recently been exploring the links between music and other art forms, with last year’s festival having an emphasis on dance. There was lots of new choreography, interaction with the audience, wonderful lighting (from Pitch Black) and a new staging of Purcell’s Fairy Queen. This latter was BREMF’s first ever stage production. This year their big production is a staging of the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Staging these is something that Clare and Deborah have been talking about for years and after last year’s festival with its emphasis on visuals and dance, they felt ready.

The Intermedi were written for a big wedding, so their theme chimed in with this year’s festival theme of Celebrations. The original staging was very visual and very innovative . Clare and Deborah plan a very 21st century response for their staging, with dance, lighting and aerial ballet, but sympathetic to the heart of the individual nature of the music and the original staging with its creaking stage machinery.

When asked to come up with a highlight of the last ten years, Clare immediately names BREMF’s young artist programme, Early Music Live. This is a programme which aims to give young performers not only exposure, but coaching. For Clare it is one of the most rewarding things they do, and she finds it very satisfying seeing how the groups from the scheme hold their own and make their way in the profession.

Since 2007, 150 young artists have passed through the scheme. Many are given their first broadcast performance and are introduced to promoters. More than that, they are helped to understand exactly what promoters are looking for. And there is an education training day where established artists and teachers talk to the young artists about what to expect when doing education work. This day is very hands on, with the groups working on their repertoire and doing short performances. Clare has found that many come out of the training enthused and excited about education.

Education is something that has been part of BREMF from the start. Since 2003 education has been at the heart of the festival and it happens because they believe in doing it. From 2008 to 2011 they ran a project called Sing Brighton. This involved schools (both primary and secondary) and also forming a community choir, and the BREMF Consort (in addition to the existing BREMF Singers formed in 2003). These three choirs give opportunities for a wide range of singers, from those who have no experience to the very experience, to take part in performances, to receive training and to work alongside top performers. At last year’s festival I remember enjoying Joglaresa’s programme on the dancing girls of Granada, they were joined by the BREMF Community Choir, a professional belly dancer and a group of local women who had been working with the belly dancer, to create the sort of festival event which was specific to BREMF.

Joglaresa and Galit Mersand at
BREMF 2011, picture credit Robert Piwko
The work the BREMF does in schools is not always visible during the festival as some projects do not culminate in a festival event, and Clare confesses that sometimes it makes logistics easier if they don’t. In March 2012 they ran a project where 400 children in Hastings sang and played with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. And they have another singing project finishing in March 2013 where they hope to develop a long term relationship with three schools. BREMF already has a long term relationship with two schools. Clare feels that these long term relationships are better than one of events, as the children can get to know BREMF and the festival performances.

This year’s festival has cloud hanging over it, that of money. BREMF is not one of the Arts Council’s regularly funded groups, but each year they have applied for one-off funding for new projects and received it. This year, their funding application was turned down leaving a £38,000 hole. As the festival is so dependent on ticket revenue, Clare and Deborah have addressed the issue by trimming individual events rather than cutting them, so that numbers of performers have been reduced but the number of events is the same. This has reduced the hole by £20,000 and for the rest, they are dipping into money from a legacy that they received from a long term supporter, Vivienne Carter, who died in 2009. They have also launched a special appeal and had an amazing response already. People have been very supportive, not only of the appeal but by writing letters and lobbying the Arts Council. Next year, however, will be more challenging and we can but hope that the Arts Council realises quite what strong grass roots support BREMF has.

Asked to do the impossible and pick highlights from this year’s festival, Clare names the Intermedi and the Orlando Consort’s food themed programme where the audience will be able to bring picnics, and there are even authentic medieval recipes on the BREMF website.

Further details of all the Brighton Early Music Festival events can be found on the festival’s website. All I can say is that we are really looking forward to being at the festival this autumn.

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