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Seen and Heard Festival Preview


Cheltenham Music Festival 2006: A Preview (JQ)

The sixty-second Cheltenham Music Festival runs from 30 June to 15 July.

Festival Director, Martyn Brabbins, has chosen Scotland as the theme running through the Festival although I believe there’s an unannounced, subsidiary theme, of which more in a moment.

Picking up the Scottish theme the composer-in-residence this year will be Sally Beamish. She’s lived in Scotland for many years and her fiftieth birthday falls this year. Several of her works will be performed, including a Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra, which receives its world première in the opening concert (June 30), when Brabbins conducts the Hallé orchestra in a programme that also includes Mahler’s Fourth symphony and – another piece with Scottish associations – Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture.

Another Beamish première will form part of the King’s Singers recital in the wonderful surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey (4 July) when her Lost and Found in the Forest of Dean will sit beside Renaissance music from Scotland and Spain and close harmony arrangements of popular songs.

The following night Martyn Brabbins directs the Nash Ensemble in an intriguing programme at Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Room – another marvellous setting for music. On the bill will be the chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the surviving movement of his uncompleted Piano Quartet in A minor. There will also be short pieces by James MacMillan and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, both written in celebration of Sally Beamish’s birthday and both receiving their first performances.

The Festival usually comes up with some enticing song recitals. This year’s hot tickets, I predict, will be morning recitals by two very fine British singers, Roderick Williams (9 July) and Sarah Connolly the following day. Williams, who will be partnered by Iain Burnside, will give an enticing programme including Schumann’s Liederkreis and Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring. Sarah Connolly, also working with her regular recital partner, Eugene Asti, offers a mixed programme including songs by Mahler, Grieg and both Robert and Clara Schumann.

Another composer celebrating a milestone birthday this year is Richard Rodney Bennett. Rather disappointingly I can’t spot any of his concert works in the programme. However, Bennett has a busy evening on 10 July. At 6 pm he’s in the Town Hall for a review of his life and work both in performance and in discussion with Edward Seckerson. At 7.30, after a quick dash across town, he and vocalist Claire Martin perform a cabaret supper, entitled ‘Nice and Easy’, at The Daffodil restaurant. This superbly restored former art-deco cinema should be a fine venue both in terms of ambience and gastronomy.

One more stand-out event to mention. Pianist Paul Lewis has been garnering enthusiastic reviews for his ongoing complete Beethoven sonata cycle. He brings three sonatas to the Pittville Pump Room on 12 July, including the ‘Pastoral’ and the mighty ‘Hammerklavier’.

I mentioned an unspoken, subsidiary theme. To me it seems that participation by local musicians is a thread running through the programme. For one thing, there’s Choral Evensong at Tewkesbury Abbey on most days at 5.00 pm sung by the Abbey School Then the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestra gives an enterprising programme in the Town Hall (8 July), including music by Malcolm Arnold and Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto. The Orlando Consort are in Tewkesbury Abbey on 11 July to perform Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame and works by Tarik O’Regan, James MacMillan (another première) and Robert Carver. However, there’s added interest in this concert because the Orlando Consort will be joined by the fine local choir, the Oriel Singers, who are the 2005 BBC Choir of the Year. A fascinating prospect, in all sorts of ways, is the event on July 15, when throughout the day young musicians (from Grade 1 standard and higher) will be coached by principals from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, culminating in a performance in the Town Hall at 4.00 pm. It should be what Handel himself might have called a “splendid noyse”.

The local participation reaches its apogee later that same day when Martyn Brabbins closes the Festival with a performance of Berlioz’s monumental Grande messe des morts. The performance will be given by a massed choir of 200 voices, drawn from local choral societies, joined by the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra. Lest anyone should think that the CSO is “just an amateur orchestra” let me hasten to assure them that the orchestra is comprised of the cream of local players and has established something of a reputation for itself in recent years by giving splendid performances of “blockbuster” works such as Strauss’s Ein Alpensinfonie. Opportunities to hear this Berlioz masterpiece are limited by the sheer scale of the piece and the forces required so this is an event not to be missed and it should provide a suitably spectacular finale to the 2006 Festival.

John Quinn

Full details of the complete festival programme can be obtained at www.cheltenhamfestivals.com or from the Festival Box Office at Town Hall, Imperial Square, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, United Kingdom. The Box Office telephone number is 01242 227979




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