Classical: The summertime blues

More a musical powerhouse than just a summer school, Dartington has never been artistically stronger. But despite its worldwide reputation and illustrious alumni, it is now teetering on a financial knife-edge.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Something new out of Africa? Well, always something new out of Dartington summer school. Wandering through the practice rooms at dead of night, I find a young black student pounding the piano like Cecil Taylor and Erroll Garner rolled into one. Alex Douglas hails from Tanzania and didn't touch the piano till he was 14. It emerges that he also has a classical training and plays in a chamber group, and performs with his own jazz quartet on the clarinet and sax. And he has ideas, which tumble out with the same tumultuous force as his playing: studying ethnomusicology at SOAS, he's become a champion of Nubian music, lecturing on it in Khartoum. He's just celebrated his 21st birthday, and is now taking stock. "I think I have what it takes to make a contribution in life. But if I haven't, I'll soon get found out."

Alex is doubling here as a house-parent and as what is picturesquely termed a "trog" - a humper of pianos and general factotum. But since former trogs include Nicholas Kenyon and Thomas Ades, that's no stigma. Ever since its foundation in the Twenties by a pair of rich American visionaries, this cultural powerhouse, in its idyllic Devon manor, has exerted a most extraordinary spell. It draws people in - like the former company secretary whose whole life now revolves round singing here. And it can transform lives utterly, as it has with the soprano Catherine Foster, who was a full-time midwife when she first came here five years ago, and is now a rising star in the operatic firmament.

In the composition class run by Judith Weir, I find Joanna MacGregor rattling through Birtwistle's near-unplayable Clocks and extolling the virtues of hand-written scores. From Bach's curving lines to Cage's capitalised commands, composer-calligraphy can tell you a lot. Weir is worried about the coming generation of composers who will create on computers: "They'll no longer hear their work as they write it."

But for one pupil in her class, handwritten scores are a daunting challenge. "Normally I just work out the tunes and sing them to my band, who play them back to me," says this statuesque young woman. "Our ornamentation is done naturally. But here it's taking me forever to write it down." This is Kathryn Tickell, queen of the Northumbrian pipes. But this is like Gershwin taking lessons from Schoenberg: how does she come to be here? "I've got a commission from the contemporary music ensemble of the Northern Sinfonia, and I saw an ad for Dartington in the paper. I'm quite happy with what I do, but I want to extend my scope." She fears the resulting work, to be heard in the Purcell Room next spring, may alienate both her fans and the followers of the Sinfonia. "People want to keep us in our pigeonholes."

One of MacGregor's themes was the boringness of "pianistic" works, and the importance of making the piano sound like something else - a tam- tam, for example, in Clocks. The same obsession is dominating William Howard's master-class, where he goads young pianists in chamber groups to emulate the singing tone of strings. "Your articulation's too clear. Let the weight of the keys push your fingers up," he tells a Lithuanian pianist, before demonstrating the silky rumble required for a Brahms opening movement.

From the time when the Amadeus Quartet coalesced here as refugees from Hitler, Dartington has always been a musical outpost of Central Europe; special scholarships ensure that every year brings its quota of young musicians from the old Soviet bloc, who then go back to spread the gospel. Musical life in present-day Hungary is virtually run by Dartington alumni.

I discover that the choral-conducting class is being directed by a Hungarian who decades ago provided the biggest thrill of my musical life: as founder- conductor of the Oxford Collegium Musicum, Laszlo Heltay warmed us up for a festival performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and then handed the baton to the composer himself. If Heltay - who fought in the 1956 Budapest Uprising - was inspirational then, he's no less inspirational now.

But this is officially Czech Week, with the Panocha Quartet giving master- classes and Czech maestro Jiri Belohlavek conducting the closing concert. One of Dartington's weekly rituals involves a scratch choir comprising everyone on site being whipped into shape for a concert worthy of the Proms. Just as everyone who's anyone in British music has either studied here, or taught here, or both, so every conductor has undergone this Dartington blooding. The 20-year-old Simon Rattle was blooded with Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, which launched his recording career.

But Dartington is facing a crisis. The unique blend of professionals and amateurs which director Gavin Henderson has fostered may not be under threat, but the social mix - which he regards as crucial - certainly is. This year there were no funds to bring in the teenage musicians he wanted from Brixton, Hackney, and St Pauls in Bristol.

"People think that because Dartington was created through fabulous wealth, it must still be rich," he says. "But we're on a knife-edge. We're a community run largely on self-help, managing a five-week school, a 400-bed hotel, and putting on more concerts than the Proms." He's just had to close a whole wing, with the loss of 48 beds and seven studios: any sponsor looking for a cheap way of getting his name on a building should ring 01803 867068 forthwith.

But Dartington is also a laboratory, as witness both its artistic collaborations and its ground-breaking seminars, one of which I gatecrash. Borrowing Anthony Storr's title "Music and the Mind", Paul Robertson soars out over the deep to trail a series of questions about musical perception. If the right-brain looks after ecstatic emotional arousal and the left-brain clever pattern-making, where does that put late Schoenberg? "Some composers absolutely must accept that their music will leave the rest of us behind," says Robertson firmly. As a leading chamber musician, he deserves to be taken seriously.

Ten years ago, a lecture he gave at Dartington developed into an acclaimed series for Channel 4: he now has a new thesis which may well go the same way, and he demonstrates it with the aid of three exhibits.

First a computer film showing the mandala-shapes which musical sounds create on a vibrating membrane. Then a recording of a series of music- therapy sessions in which an uncontrollable five-year-old is gradually induced to make peaceful call-and-response sounds with his therapist. And finally a shaky hand-held film of two girls running their daily gauntlet of sniper-fire, to reach their orchestra in besieged Sarajevo.

"The mandalas reflect the coherence that comes from patterned sound. The boy's inner world is chaotically disturbed, and so is the girls' external world, but their human response is the same. Music is their life-affirming statement." Yes, I'll buy that, and Channel 4 should do so too.