Wednesday 9 August 2017

Filling a need: I chat to artistic director, Marcus Farnsworth, about the Southwell Music Festival

Southwell Music Festival (Photo Nick Rutter)
Southwell Music Festival (Photo Nick Rutter)
This year is the fourth Southwell Music Festival, the festival founded by baritone Marcus Farnsworth which takes place in and around Southwell Cathedral (also known as Southwell Minster) in Nottinghamshire. This year's festival takes place from 24 to 28 August 2017, and showcases a wide variety of repertoire with the centrepiece concert being in the minster nave on Saturday 26 August which is a celebration of Mozart, with pianist James Baillieu the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467 and Mozart's Mass in C minor K427 with soloists Sophie Bevan and Rachel Kelly. Marcus Farnsworth conducts the Festival Voices and Festival Sinfonia, the latter being led by the festival's associate artistic director Jamie Campbell.

The Festival Voices and Festival Sinfonia are both professional ensembles with performers fixed from all over Europe. Marcus Farnsworth explained that many players have been coming to the festival since it was founded in 2014, with a healthy mix of those returning and new faces. The Festival Sinfonia is far more than a scratch band, and Marcus feels that because the players get to perform a lot of chamber music during the festival, the orchestra generates a fine sense of ensemble.

Last year the strings of the orchestra's performance of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen was such a success that this year the festival is presenting a Strings in the Quire concert. This reflects the way the festival tries to tailor programmes to the different venue available. Marcus sees the different parts of the minster as having different acoustics, so the Norman nave is good for big choral pieces as the acoustic is not too resonantly booming, whilst the more resonant Early English Quire is good for strings.
Marcus Farnsworth
Marcus Farnsworth
This year's Strings in the Quire concert features Britten's Les Illuminationss with soprano Alison Rose, Arvo Pärt's Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and RVW's Tallis Fantasia. The RVW will be unconducted, with Marcus conducting the remainder of the programme. Marcus comments that he does rather more conducting than singing at the festival (this year he sings in just one concert, Poulenc's Le bal masqué).

When planning this year's programme Marcus and Jamie Campbell looked at the past three previous festivals and chose repertoire which had not yet been performed, so this year there is a loose French theme culminating in a French chamber music concert on the Sunday with Katherine Bryan (principal flute of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Debussy's Syrinx, Ravel's Introduction and Allegro and Faure's Piano Quartet No. 1, The concert will also re-unite the festival's regular pianists, James Baillieu and Lucy Burges, to perform Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (last year they performed Stravinsky's two-piano version of The Rite of Spring). It is at this concert that Marcus is performing Poulenc's Le bal masqué.

In complete contrast, The Art of the Trio features a variety of different trio line-ups in the relatively intimate confines of the sate chamber in the Archbishop's Palace, so there are Brahms' songs for alto, viola and piano, and his horn trio, Shakespearean piano trios by Charlotte Bray, Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 and Poulenc's Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. Marcus feels that the great thing about the festival's smaller venues like the State Chamber is that they bring the audience closer to the performers. But the drawback is that the audience size is limited, so the festival is repeating Thursday's three concerts on Friday evening, and one of them again on Sunday.

Another intimate venue is the Old Theatre Deli which has a tiny 18th century theatre upstairs seating just 80 people. Here the festival's Classical with a Twist presents lighter classics in an informal way, good for people new to classical music. The programme includes Mozart's Bassoon sonata arranged for bassoon and string trio (the venue's layout prevents a piano being used), with bassoonist Amy Harman (of the Aurora Orchestra), plus Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon. And Marcus and the festival's percussionist, Keith Price, will be performing Steve Reich's Clapping Music, and the concert concludes with the Festival Voices performing close harmony relationships.

For a late night concert, members of the Festival Voices (singing one to a part) will join with the Little Baroque Company and Chelys Consort of Viols for Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri in the Quire, with the movements of the Buxtehude interspersed with readings from the Dean of Southwell. Another late night concert is of chroal music (an annual highlight of the festival). This year Voices of Freedom sees the Festival Voices, conducted by Marcus Farnsworth, in music written under some sort of oppression including Poulenc's Figure Humaine (Marcus describes this as 'fiendishly difficult') and Latin motets by Byrd and Tallis written in Protestant Elizabethan England, plus music by two Estonian composers. Arvo Pärt's Solfeggio which was written whilst he still lived in Soviet controlled Estonia, and music by Veljo Tormis. The music is interspersed with readings by Victoria Newlyn.

Marcus Farnsworth conducts Festival Voices and Festival Sinfonia at Southwell Music Festival  (photo Nick Rutter)
Marcus Farnsworth conducts Festival Voices and Festival Sinfonia
at Southwell Music Festival  (photo Nick Rutter)
Newlyn re-appears as the narrator in Poulenc's Babar in David Matthews' arrangement for chamber ensemble at Sunday's family concert. This takes place in the school hall, Marcus calls it a beautiful new space, and craft work will be on show produced by children at a workshop before the concert (so expect lots of elephant masks).

The festival tries to include plenty of opportunities for young people. Budding musicians can be coached by visiting professional musicians at the festival's popular masterclass. Friday's lunchtime concert will focus on the festival's new apprentice scheme. Four young string undergraduates will be coached in a Haydn string quartet, and then perform it on Friday lunchtime. the four will also join the Festival Sinfonia in the all-Mozart concert on Saturday evening. Similarly a quartet of young singers from the current cohort of Genesis Sixteen (Harry Christophers, artistic director of The Sixteen is a festival patron), will be similarly coached in a programme and the young singers will also join with the Festival Voices for Saturday's concert.

The festival has a regular Saturday lunch time spot for the winner of the Nottingham Young Musician Competition. But as this is biennial, this year the recital is being given by Sheku Kanneh Mason and James Baillieu (Marcus comments that James will have his work cut out as he is performing the Mozart piano concerto the same evening). Sheku Kanneh Mason's family is local, and he took part in the festival's masterclass in 2014 (when he was coached in a movement from the Shostakovich Cello Concerto which he played at the BBC Young Musician competition).

Bank Holiday Monday is a come and sing event when they will be doing Mozart's Solemn Vespers (with organ accompaniment). This is a popular event and they had 250 singers in the nave last year. The festival ends with an organ recital by Matthew Martin in the minster's regular organ recital slot. And the Festival Voices will be performing music by Martin at the Festal Evensong on Sunday.

The festival attracts a lot of local people from Southwell, Nottingham and the East Midlands, but also a growing number of visitors from further afield. Whilst there is plenty of music at the festival, Marcus feels that there is also plenty for visitors to see in the town which is still relatively unknown.

Many of the concerts tend to sell out and Saturday night's concert is nearly so already. Marcus is a local boy and was head chorister at the cathedral. Many years ago he attended a concert by The Sixteen in the minster and it was sold out. Marcus became convinced that this part of the world was crying out for a classical event like the festival and he was proved right. All the events at that first festival sold out.

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