Saturday 22 August 2020

Going on-line: Guy Johnston on how the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival plans to bring the house alive with music and to explore the house and its collections

Guy Johnston in the Armoury at Hatfield House (Photo Ben Wright)
Guy Johnston in the Armoury at Hatfield House (Photo Ben Wright)
Every September the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival takes place in and around Hatfield House. The brainchild of cellist Guy Johnston, who was brought up in the area, the festival has always combined the elements of a local festival celebrating local talent with something bigger and grander, partly because of the venue which attracts major artists. Lord Salisbury and his family, who live at Hatfield House, are supporters of the festival, opening up the house for events and helping to re-create something of the atmosphere from the house's Jacobean period when the family supported musicians. 

This year, the 9th festival is a little different thanks to the ongoing crisis. But it will happen, on-line rather than with a live audience, but the festival is taking advantage of this to give their on-line audiences experiences which are very much based around Hatfield House and its history. I caught up with Guy Johnston, via Zoom, to find out more about this year's festival.

This year the festival will explore not only musical connections but Hatfield House and its collections. There will be a tour of the house with Lord Salisbury (whose ancestor, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, built the house in 1611), and art historian Emily Burns will be talking about the collection. For the musical performances, the festival is taking advantage of the new filmed format to use a variety of different historic spaces within the house. 

Lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, will be performing music by John Dowland which provides another link with the house as Dowland performed for Queen Elizabeth I who lived at Hatfield's Old Palace, and the concert will include the reading of documents from the Hatfield House archive.

Guy Johnston and friends performing in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House
Guy Johnston and friends performing in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House
(Photo courtesy of Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival)

Bringing the performers together safely for the concerts involved utilising existing connections, so that Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies had recently performed together at one of BBC Radio 3's lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall [see my article], whilst pianist Kathryn Stott and soprano Katherine Broderick live in the same village and so have been able to rehearse together safely. And Guy Johnston had already done a concert for the Wigmore Hall with pianist Melvyn Tan, and so they were comfortable playing and rehearsing together. 

The Navarra String Quartet (which includes Guy's brother Magnus Johnston) will be performing with the clarinettist Julian Bliss; Bliss is local and in fact, Guy's father started him on the clarinet. As well as performing with Melvyn Tan, Guy is also playing solo Bach in the house's private chapel, and the house's 1609 organ will feature in a recital by Richard Gowers.

Guy feels privileged to have been able to do a festival in such a setting, with the support of the Salisbury family. And for this year, the festival is thrilled to be able to offer something special and has dipped into its reserves to make it happen, and perhaps it might even help develop an on-line audience for the festival. After all, many of the spaces in Hatfield House are very intimate, and developing an on-line offering has started to make the festival think about how it might proceed in the future. 

The chapel at Hatfield House (Photo courtesy of Hatfield House)
The chapel at Hatfield House (Photo courtesy of Hatfield House)
Others involved in this year's festival include the BBC Radio 3 presenter Sean Rafferty, who is a friend of the Salisbury family, and Stephen Johnson who will be giving pre-concert talks. Guy feels that the festival is putting chamber music where it belongs, in the rooms of the old house, but that with the talks the festival will be informative too. The concerts, which have already been filmed and are currently being edited, will be streamed on four Fridays starting on 11 September 2020.

Next year is the 10th festival and various new works are in the pipeline as part of the celebrations. In October, Guy will be recording a new solo cello piece by Matthew Kaner for one of the festival's education projects and then next year Guy and Melvyn Tan will premiere a new commission from Joseph Phibbs. There are other exciting plans for next year, but Guy admits that much of it depends on how life develops in the wake of the current crisis.

During lockdown Guy has been giving weekly outdoor impromptu recitals in his home village in Dorset [see the article on the BBC website]. The events have been taking place whatever the weather, and he has found it rather special to be able to connect with the village in such a substantial way. Generally Guy has a double life, partly at home in Dorset (where his wife's family is based) and partly in the USA, as both he and his wife teach in the USA (Guy is associate professor of cello at the Eastman School of Music and his wife teaches Economics), but this term they were unable to travel back to the USA and have been working from home.

Though most of Guy's concerts this Summer into Autumn have been cancelled, he has at least one going ahead, and he will be performing a new work by Gerald Barry at the Cello Biennale in Amsterdam. There will be a reduced audience and the concert is being repeated, but Guy will be premiering Barry's Cello Concerto with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Hannu Lintu (full details from the Cello Biennale website)

The 1609 organ at Hatfield House (Photo, "limited cc" (Creative Commons License))
The 1609 organ at Hatfield House
"limited cc" (Creative Commons License))

The 2020 Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival will take place on-line during September on the festival's YouTube Channel.

Bach - Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor
Matthew Kaner - New Commission
Guy Johnston (cello)
Recorded in the chapel of Hatfield House

Schubert - Impromptu Op.90, No.2
Mendelssohn - Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major
Melvyn Tan (piano)
Guy Johnston (cello)

Beethoven - Trio in  B-flat major, Op. 11
Mozart - Clarinet Quintet
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Navarra Quartet

Schubert, Faure, Quilter songs
Katherine Broderick (soprano)
Kathryn Stott (piano)

Dowland songs
Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Recorded in the Long Gallery of Hatfield House

Handel, Bach, Tallis organ pieces
Richard Gowers playing the 1609 Hahn organ in the Armoury at Hatfield House

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Taking us on a remarkable journey: the choir of St John's College, Cambridge in Pious Anthems and Voluntaries, a programme of Michael Finnissy premieres - CD review
  • What makes the disc work is the sheer verve & engagement of the performances: Adrian Chandler & La Serenissima's Extra Time  - CD review
  • Opera returns: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Jonathan Dove's Ariel at Waterperry Opera Festival - opera review
  • Co-founder Jonathan Darbourne introduces The Vache Baroque Festival's debut staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Katie Bray as Dido  - interview
  • Words and line: Stuart Jackson and Jocelyn Freeman's fine recital disc, Flax and Fire, moves from Purcell to Britten, via Liszt, Wolf and Schumann - Cd review
  • Born in Cyprus, trained in London, the name Kemal Belevi is perhaps not well known but this disc from Duo Tandem is full of delightfully evocative pieces - CD review
  • On disc at last: Ethel Smyth's late masterwork, The Prison, receives its premiere recording in a fine performance from American forces - CD review
  • Outdoor engagement and energy: the Corran Quartet in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in an Islington courtyard - concert review
  • The close of an amazing season, and a farewell: the last Opera Holland Park of 2020 - concert review
  • 2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA - interview
  • Engaging dexterity: Bach's English Suites from the young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu  - CD review
  • 'Home

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