In 2009 cellist Jamie Walton established the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, bringing challenging repertoire to the local population.
‘The pandemic has tested what we believe in and live for, to put it mildly. The easy option would have been to cancel last year’s festival, but I was determined to make it happen. 75% of our audience are local people, many of whom had been stuck indoors all spring, unable to see their loved ones or to connect to culture, so I felt a real responsibility to them, as well as to my fellow musicians. It was hugely positive and inspiring to realise the significance of what we do.
The theme of the 2020 festival was Revolution! We had no idea how apt a title it would prove to be. For previous festivals, we had performed in churches and priories around the national park, but all their doors were now shut. Luckily, the law changed just over a week before the start of the festival, allowing people to gather in marquees with open sides. A local landowner offered us a beautiful area in his grounds, and in the space of 9 days we set up a 5000 square foot marquee, laid a wooden floor and installed lighting, seating and acoustical panels around the performance space, decorated with paintings by local artists. The environment of the marquee made everything about the festival more informal: the seating was all on the same level, and the musicians were surrounded by the audience in different positions, depending on the piece. The audiences loved this informality, and many said they much preferred the marquee to chilly churches.
As musicians, being in such beautiful grounds we felt able to communicate each programme in a more powerful way. When you experience something fresh with your senses, the music changes. In the first week we could hear sheep and tractors during performances, but nobody seemed to mind – perhaps as they were so focussed on hearing live music again after so long. One evening ended with the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, and just before the final violin solo by Charlotte Scott, an owl hooted, which was magical and changed the way everyone heard the piece. It reminded me how unfruitful it is to aim only for perfection, as if music were just a competition. It’s better to work towards something that expresses real meaning, and if it comes at the cost of a few wolf notes, so be it.
Happily for us, the festival has a loyal core audience who are used to being served an adventurous programme of music. It’s like any menu – you don’t want everything sweet; you want bitterness, sourness, aromatics. When people sometimes question our challenging repertoire (Maxwell Davies, Ades, Bartok, Schoenberg) I remind them that you don’t go to an art gallery to stare at a Constable for two hours; you go from room to room and see a Rothko, a Picasso, a Matisse.
We have established a structure and style to help audiences navigate the experience; each festival has a theme and a narrative form, and each concert has its own title, so it’s a journey within a journey. We will try to explain, for example, why we’ve chosen a piece such as the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1. Last year, Matt Hunt, a fabulous clarinettist, talked about the themes throughout this piece and its historical context. This approach brought the audience even closer to the performers, and allowed a stronger connection between them. Given the times we were all living through, this sense of context was even more relevant, and to our surprise, the Schoenberg got the biggest cheer of the entire 2020 festival. Afterwards, people said, ‘That spoke to me. I didn’t like it and it made me feel upset and traumatised, but it was exciting, and it made sense.’
As musicians, we have to think about how we move closer to what music is meant to be. How should we engage with our audiences in the future, and change programming to attract them? How do we design programmes to express the times we’ve been through? After the success of 2020, we decided on the theme of ‘Epoch’ for the 2021 festival. The times we’re living in have shifted our understanding of previous epochs and we wanted to shine a musical light on different periods of history to give a sense of meaningful context to the current epoch.
We also decided to launch a Young Artists Series for the 2021 festival: five extra concerts by five student ensembles who would receive mentoring and coaching during their stay with us. We wanted our young artists to have a completely new experience of performing and I told them to prepare for the festival, not as if they were about to do an exam or win a competition, but to perform in an environment where they would be hugely appreciated, not judged. I wanted to say to young people who are having a difficult time or can’t really see a future: make your future and be the change you want to see.
We knew the Young Artists scheme was an ambitious development for 2021, but back in November 2020 when we were putting plans in place, we assumed that we wouldn’t have to work under such tight restrictions again, and that running the festival wouldn’t be as intense and terrifying as it had been in 2020 when we had to track and trace every audience member. In fact, we had no idea what challenges lay ahead in 2021!
As we moved towards July this year, I started feeling real trepidation. We’d planned to use the marquee again, so all those logistics were under control, but the international travel situation was looking increasingly impossible. The European musicians I’d booked were saying they couldn’t come to perform for us if they had to quarantine, so a month before the festival I decided we couldn’t have our European and Swiss friends this year. I found wonderful UK artists to replace them, but five of them were due to be in Switzerland the week before they were due to perform with us, and at that stage, Switzerland was on the amber list. I’m good at holding my nerve, and I don’t experience fear, but I was certainly feeling the pressure and a lot of people were asking how it was going to work. Even our young artists in London were saying they couldn’t rehearse together as they kept being pinged. If anything, all this uncertainty made me even more determined to go ahead. I asked everyone to have confidence, and tried to reassure them that everything would be fine.
To our huge relief, Switzerland went onto the green list just in time to allow our UK colleagues back to play the Bartok quintet, of all things, which we had to rehearse on the day and perform that night! Although every single day of the festival had some major crisis, I enjoyed every moment. More importantly, the performances were hugely successful and the audiences had no idea what challenges were taking place behind the scenes – for example, arranging a cross-country car for a violinist to get him back from an emergency trip to New York for a funeral with one hour to go before his concert, after he missed a train.
All this has taught me that we have to learn to continue as normal: through a pandemic, through a festival, through life, no matter how challenging. We can do this. It’s all an attitude of mind. Despite all the crises – and in fact, because of them – the 2021 festival was the most successful of all the 13 we’ve done. The audience numbers were unprecedentedly high and we as musicians felt as if we were on top of this perilous wave, surfing at an altitude we’d never experienced before and so the playing was off the scale. Everybody, musicians and audience, felt there was something very powerful going on to combat what was going on out there in the pandemic world, in a way new to everyone.
Our average audience size was 250 people over a total of 15 concerts, but for one concert, ‘On Wenlock Edge’,
40 people turned up without advance tickets and we had to open the back of the marquee and run to the nearest houses to borrow dining chairs. We arranged the seating to allow for social distancing, but the audience drew the chairs closer together, and since we were in a ventilated space there were no problems. I had planned a slightly less challenging programme this year, but to my surprise the hit performance was the Bartok quintet – when I’d been sure it would have been the Mendelssohn Octet. People seem to find the unfamiliar exciting. You feel you’re going on a journey, and that stimulates different parts of the heart and mind.
The other pandemic project keeping me busy has been converting two barns into a state-of-the-art recording studio in the North York Moors national park. We hope that Ayriel Studios will free performers from normal constraints when making recordings. There’s accommodation available on site, and in between takes, musicians can walk out into the open, look across the moors and breathe the extraordinary air. We launch in November, but we had an exciting early visit from Victoria Mullova and Alasdair Beatson who came to record Schubert’s Fantasie last month, and I’ve just recorded the Bach Suites there with Adam Binks.
The success of the festival shows that there’s an appetite for a substantial performance venue for this region. So my long-term project, ambitious as it might sound, is to build a concert hall for the area. The festival marquee has proved such a versatile, informal and accessible performance space, this it has inspired me to think of re-creating this environment in a permanent setting, to promote meaningful culture, and open to local schools and community groups. If we can construct a beautiful 21st century venue which encourages the engagement and interaction of an audience, it’s future-proof. I’ve even found the ideal spot on a peninsula overlooking the sea.
For me, the lack of government support for the arts during the 2020/1 lockdowns felt like someone turning off the life support machine of a loved one. To anyone questioning the importance of our cultural life I’d say: if you think you can live without the arts, stop hanging paintings on your walls, take your curtains down, stop listening to music and don’t watch television!
Maybe I should thank the last two years for being a catalyst propelling me forward in this way. The pandemic has been devastating for the arts, and many other industries, but you have to move with the times and be inventive in order not just to survive, but to thrive.’