Wednesday 9 March 2022

The Norfolk & Norwich Festival proudly celebrates its 250th anniversary

Norfolk & Norwich Festival
Norfolk & Norwich Festival

The Norfolk & Norwich Festival proudly celebrates its 250th anniversary this year while marking the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Norwich-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, reports.

The largest arts festival in the East of England and the fourth largest in the UK, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival is also one of the oldest of its kind in the country. But its predecessor, the Norfolk & Norwich (Triennial) Festival, adopted on the motion of Mr Philip Martineau, a Norwich-based surgeon, came into being in 1824, initially to support financially the work of the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital.

And to acknowledge this historic link there’ll be a fundraising concert for the Jenny Lind Hospital at St Andrew’s Hall on Monday 23rd May featuring the Swedish soprano, Hanna Husáhr, working alongside Simon Crawford Philips (piano) and Lawrence Power (viola/violin). The concert will chart Jenny Lind’s early life in Sweden coupled with her fascinating circle of musical and artistic friends.

Interestingly, the Norwich Triennial shared its festival on a rotating basis with Birmingham and Leeds such as the Three Choirs Festival rotate to this day between the English cathedral cities of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. Great success befriended the first Triennial meeting of 1824. It proved a winner all the way and was a great financial success, too, with the sum (after all expenses) of £2411 4s. 2d. being donated to the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital.

The festival, however, can proudly trace its roots back to the late 18th century when in 1772 (listed as such in the Oxford Dictionary of Music) a series of concerts were held on an ad hoc basis. Therefore, this year celebrates not only the 250th anniversary of the festival but also the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was so closely involved with the festival as, too, was the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, lovingly known as ‘Old Timber’, who enjoyed a good innings from 1908 to 1930. Other prominent conductors also lured to Norwich included Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Norman Del Mar and Vernon Handley.
However, a couple of notable commissions from the 19th century came from the revered German-born composer, Louis Spohr, whose exhilarating oratorio, The Last Judgement, was heard in 1826 while Edward Elgar’s beautiful and serene song-cycle, Sea Pictures, delighted a packed St Andrew’s Hall in 1899 featuring the English-born contralto, Dame Clara Butt. She came on stage dressed as a mermaid with Elgar at the rostrum. I wonder what sailed through his mind!

Another revered German composer/conductor, Sir Julius Benedict (a ‘favourite’ of the current Prince of Wales) also came to Norwich serving the Triennial as chief conductor from 1842 to 1878. He wrote the festival three cantatas: Undine (1860); Richard Cœur de Lion (1863); The Legend of St Cecilia (1866) - the patron saint of music.

And in celebration of the Triennial’s centenary in 1924, E J Moeran - whose mother, Ada Esther Smeed came from Norfolk while his father, the Rev. Joseph William Wright Moeran, an Anglo-Irish clergyman, at one time served the parish of Salhouse - came up with a rewarding and ravishing piece entitled Rhapsody No. 2 based on the well-known Norfolk folksong, ‘Polly on the Shore’.

In 1927, Frank Bridge's Enter Spring (the concert attended by Benjamin Britten who later became a pupil of Bridge) was heard for the first time followed at the next festival by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Job: A Masque for Dancing in 1930, a work inspired by William Blake's illustrations for the Book of Job. The same festival also included Arthur Bliss' Morning Heroes while Benjamin Britten's Our Hunting Fathers received its première on 25th September 1936 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring the Swiss-born soprano, Sophie Wyss.

An oft-recounted story from this festival tells of Vaughan Williams’ intervention to stop members of the LPO mocking the 22-year-old Britten's work. According to Sophie Wyss, ‘members of the orchestra were not used to Britten’s kind of music and played about disgracefully. When the reference to ‘‘rats’’ came in the score they ran around pretending they were chasing them on the floor.’ In ‘headmaster’ mood, Vaughan Williams - whose widow and second wife, Ursula, attended the Triennial meetings of 1979 and 1982 under the direction of Norman Del Mar keeping good company with Shirley, Lady Beecham and gin and tonic - told the players in no uncertain terms that they were ‘in the presence of greatness’ (referring to the young Lowestoft-born composer) and that if they did not want to play Britten's work they would not play his new work either, The work that he was referring too was Five Tudor Portraits which will actually be performed this year to mark the festival’s 250th anniversary on the final day of the festival featuring the Festival Chorus and the Britten Sinfonia under the baton of William Vann, director of the London English Song Festival, director of music at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and music director of Dulwich Choral Society.

Vaughan Williams, in fact, was strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folksong and his wide output over practically a 60-year period marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century. This is primarily down to the fact that Vaughan Williams studied for one year in the early 20th century with the renowned French composer, Maurice Ravel, who helped him clarify the textures of his music and free it from Teutonic influences.

Peaceophobia (Photo: Karol Wyszynski)
Peaceophobia (Photo: Karol Wyszynski)

However, over the past few years the scope and direction of the festival has changed to meet modern-day thinking and modern-day needs therefore today the festival caters for a much wider and more diverse audience while introducing a broader variety of cultural activity. And, in this respect. this change of artistic direction is more than amplified by a site-specific work which will be performed in the city’s Rose Lane car-park created by a coterie of Bradford-born car lovers. The work in question, Peaceophobia, offers a powerful political message focusing on the rising tide of Islamophobia currently circulating the UK.

However, the traditional ‘home’ of the festival, St Andrew’s Hall, will be busy, too, hosting so many events including two riveting dance shows by acclaimed dance-theatre company, Lost Dog, who’ll present their latest show, A Tale of Two Cities. a radical reimagining of Dickens’ classic work followed by their unconventional takes on Paradise Lost and Romeo and Juliet while internationally renowned Sydney hip-hop dance artist, Nick Power, brings to the city his new show, Between Tiny Cities, in which Australian and Cambodian dancers, Erak Mith and Aaron Lim, use the rituals, movement styles and language of their shared hip-hop culture to reveal the different worlds that surround them. And returning to Norwich after their sell-out show at the 2018 festival is the universally acclaimed skills troupe, Gandini Juggling, performing ‘Smashed 2’, a work inspired by Pina Bausch featuring nine performers, 80 oranges and 7 watermelons.

The fascinating world of circus returns to the Adnams Spiegeltent in Chapel Field Gardens with Cirque Alfonse’s Edinburgh Festival showstopper, Barbu, coming all the way from Canada with full-on beards, barrel-chests, brazen burlesque and a frenetic electro-folk band while Claire Parson’s tactile Marmalade show for families mixes soft circus, fluffy skirts and Fellini music.

Late-night work comes from festival favourites, Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo, offering a programme of their favourite musical hits ranging from Gypsy to The Little Mermaid in what promises a flamboyant and fabulous show while a riotous night is in store with the hilarious cosmic game show, Astrology Bingo, conjured up by Figs in Wigs which should prove a winner all the way! Music takes centre stage in Festival Gardens in the Adnams Spiegeltent, too, and this year sees the return of the Bandstand showcasing al fresco performers from up-and-coming music-makers. The undisputed queen of folk and political song, Peggy Seeger, will appear with her son, Calum MacColl, in what promises a memorable evening of songs, stories and audience participation while jazz takes centre stage with the 11-piece jazz ensemble, Levitation Orchestra, featuring some of London’s most creative and individual young musicians.

The music programme also showcases some of the most captivating classical and contemporary classical works alongside lesser-heard gems. For instance, the celebrated Exaudi Vocal Ensemble will perform a selection of late madrigals written by the 16th-17th- century Italian composer, Carlo Gesualdo, while a couple of new pieces by young UK composers, Sylvia Lim and Joanna Ward, have been written in response to the works by Gesualdo, known for writing madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language which was not heard again until the late 19th century. He’s also known for killing his first wife and her aristocratic lover upon finding them in ‘flagrante delicto’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘blazing offence’.

The multi-award-winning Heath Quartet will play Britten’s third string quartet alongside Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s rhapsodic 1834 composition and Purcell’s exquisitely constructed Fantasias while at the Octagon Chapel in Colegate audiences can enter into Heinrich Biber’s experimental musical mind in the Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo performed by Daniel Pioro and James McVinnie over three consecutive evenings.

This year, too, the BBC New Generations Artists concerts include Helen Charlston and Toby Carr performing works by Monteverdi, Purcell and Strozzi, alongside Battle Cry, a new song-cycle by Owain Park and Georgia Way while the sublime set of cello suites by J S Bach will be played over two days by Anastasia Kobekina.

One of the undisputed masters of the music world, sarod virtuoso. Amjad Ali Khan. appears with his sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Clarinettist/composer, Arun Ghosh, will stage a spiritual jazz re-imagining of St Francis of Assisi’s The Canticle of the Sun performed by an eight-piece ensemble featuring Camilla George and Sarathy Korwar. And returning to the festival is classical guitarist, Sean Shibe. but this time performing an all-electric guitar programme including Steve Reich’s mesmeric work Electric Counterpoint with his own arrangement of Julia Wolfe’s LAD.

To herald the festivals 250th, a round of flourishing fanfares will be blasting and popping up at various sites in the city centre over the festival’s opening weekend, Friday 13th May (lucky for Norwich!) performed by nine members of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra who, by the way, open the festival later the same day in what promises a brilliant jazz affair at St Andrew’s Hall when they team up with Brazilian jazz superstar and multi-instrumentalist, Hermeto Pascoal. And not to be missed is an evening in the company of Anna Meredith and her band of virtuosic musicians. It promises a night of nights! However, there’s so much packed in this year’s festival to mark its 250th therefore for a full blow-by-blow account of the action on stage, on the street, in the Adnams Spiegeltent not forgetting the City of Literature weekend and the Visual Arts trails and talks plus the popular Garden Party in Chapel Field Gardens and The Forum, check out the festival’s website at It’s all there and more. Boom! Boom! 

 Online booking: 
 By phone: 01603 531800 
 In person: Norwich Guildhall by the market-place

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month