Wardour Festival was founded four years ago by one man, Robert Churchill, with a passion for music, a fair amount of cash (just as well) and very particular tastes. At that time he was living in Wardour, an idyllic paradigm of pre-war England, unsuited to anything more than tranquil reflection and the rearing of cows. And having decided to make a festival, it would have been easy to give it tourist appeal with a bit of Elgar here, Vivaldi there, and some reduced-scale La Bohemes with a piano and a picnic interval. But no. Last year he flew in the elite-corps con-temporary music cellist David Geringas and the composer Erkki Sven-Tuur for a weekend of new music from the Baltic states. And this year - in a longer run, though still based in the exquisite (if remote) chapel of Wardour Castle - he opened with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, in person, to introduce what amounted to the re-enactment of a significant event in British music history.
Thirty-five years ago when Wardour Castle was a girls' school and the music staff included one H Birtwistle (sometime asbestos salesman and would-be composer), it housed a now-legendary summer school run by Birtwistle himself alongside Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies. The idea was to create an English Darmstadt: a hothouse for The New. And the chief novelty was an abrasive Birtwistle score called Tragoedia, which made his name and effectively defined the method, language and formal preoccu- pations of his music ever after.
According to his biographer, Michael Hall, Birtwistle is a "hedgehog" composer rather than a "fox". The fox, in classical legend, has many ideas, but the hedgehog has one big idea. And Birtwistle's big idea - an all- governing notion of dramatic structure that pits order against chaos - had its first expression in Tragoedia: a tough score but a masterpiece. The word itself means "goat dance", and is the historic origin of theatre. In this work the theatre is formalised into opposing instrumental groups of wind and strings lined up against each other with a central harpist as an intermediary. That it still sounds rude and raw enough to shock, years on, is testament to its peculiar power, and last weekend at Wardour it was done with brutal (in the best sense) vigour by the Brunel Ensemble under Christopher Austin.
The Brunel was the resident band for this year's festival, and very good: incisive, on the ball, and with a lot to say. They have their weaknesses as well as strengths, and their odd forays at Wardour into 19th-century chamber reper-tory exposed a thinness in the string sound that made things like the Schubert Octet uncomfortable. But in more modern repertory they can be stunning. Austin really knows his stuff. And apart from the Birtwistle there was some wonderfully oddball material in these programmes, not least a symphonic transcription of themes from Tosca by Colin Matthews and (less oddball but still rare) the original, 13-instrument version in which Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring was heard when it premiered (pretty oddly) at the Washington Library of Congress.
But I haven't mentioned yet the main attraction at Wardour, which was a focus on the music of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett - also present in person. If Birtwistle is a hedgehog, Bennett has to be a fox: a man whose work is so mercurially wide-ranging in its form and substance it's impossible to pin down. On the one hand there's the Richard Rodney Bennett who was Boulez's first-ever pupil in the 1950s, and who absorbed the sober principles of Boulezian serialism into his own scores for a long while after. On the other hand, there is the Bennett of film and television, whose lilting waltz swept the train out of the station as the titles rolled for Murder on the Orient Express, and whose 40 or so other screen hits (from Far From the Madding Crowd to Four Weddings and a Funeral) place him among the leading composers for that genre in the world.
The problem with being un-classifiable is that it doesn't endear you to audiences - who like to know (or like to think they know) what they're dealing with. Bennett's incursions into "light" music have left a lot of listeners - and worse still, cultural bureauocrats - uncomfortable. They can't decide how to pro-gramme him. And the situation isn't helped by the fact that for the past 20 years Bennett has lived in America: part of the British musical establishment in exile, along with Nicholas Maw and Thea Musgrave. All three of these major figures spend much of their time out of sight, out of mind to UK audiences. And for Bennett at least, it's a stark contrast to how things were in the 1960s when his place in British music was not dissimilar to that of Thomas Ades now: a wunderkind, pouring out music (including five operas in less than a decade) to near- hysterical acclaim. Looking back on his enormous catalogue, it's almost as though he wrote himself into the ground during those years. And when he talks about his relocation to America, it's in terms that suggest retirement to a quieter life. "But you live on Manhattan," I say. "The walls are thick," he replies.
So, from the tranquil pastures of the Upper West Side to the Wiltshire hurly burly, here he was. And what I heard of his music at Wardour left me at a loss to know why we don't hear it more often. It's strong, attractive, beautifully crafted, with enough tonality to lure the cautious but enough adventure not to bore the bold.
On Wednesday the Brunel Ensemble, again with Christopher Austin, made superbly proselytising work of his five-movement orchestral fantasy A Book Of Hours. And on Tuesday there was the grand and touching spectacle of his English Civil War children's opera All the King's Men, done alfresco in the ruins of Old Wardour Castle with a massive cast of local youth. Written in 1969, it's easy but intelligent and well-constructed music, full of good tunes for the kids and clever, adult, orchestrations that the band (Brunel and Austin) handled with panache. I loved it - as I also loved the witty choral concert given by I Fagiolini in the grand, Italian-looking Wilton Church, as I loved everything else about this festival.
That it struggles for an audience is par for the course with a new venture, programming new music. But if there's any justice in the world, that will change. The people of Wiltshire must wake up to the fact that something special and with great potential has emerged here on their doorstep. I do hope that next year they'll support it, cherish it and fund it rather better than they have to date.
Meanwhile, the rus in urbe of north London has its own new venture running in the Hampstead and Highgate Festival - to which, as this is my own patch, I admit a certain loyalty. It's something that should have happened years ago and would have done, but for the fact that Ham & High residents tend either to be absorbed in the world stage, with no interest in what happens locally, or on the world stage, with no time for what happens locally. Either way, it's no basis for audience-building.
But this week, in Hampstead Parish Church, they were offered Anthony Rolfe Johnson singing (nicely) and conducting (ineffectually) a programme of baroque choral music. And in other venues the festival's big sell was the cult Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, in residence for performances of several major scores including his ambling Angels and Visitations. Played by students from the Royal Academy of Music and conducted by Osmo Vanska, it made a grand but none too clean noise at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, and I did wonder if future festivals couldn't find a better space for big orchestral concerts.
I also wondered whether anyone but estate agents would call Gospel Oak "Hampstead". Perhaps it is aspirational.Reuse content