Chipping Campden Music Festival


By Christopher Morley

Two of the greatest joys in life are wine and song (you can guess the missing third joy), and Charlie Bennett embodies them both.
Charlie, a retired wine merchant of exceptional renown, has established an amazing festival in Chipping Campden, attracting the world's greatest international musicians to this impossibly charming Cotswolds town. Over the years it has been my privilege to review several of his presentations, including last year an amazing Schubert recital from probably the world's greatest pianist still performing, Elisabeth Leonskaja.
Settle back as Charlie tells me how it all came about.
"I was born in Chipping Campden and was a pupil at Chipping School from 1962-69. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all bakers and until 2016 we still lived in the house I was born in. After school I studied piano with Professor Angus Morrison at the Royal College of Music, from 1970 to 1974, but clearly I wasn't going to be the next Alfred Brendel, so I drifted off into other things.
"I spent 18 months in Australia before returning to Chipping Campden with my new wife Vicky. We took over my father's business in 1976 and turned it into a delicatessen specialising in real cheeses (another of the joys in life, I observe). In 1979 we got a wine licence, and started to build up that side of the business. Eventually we sold the deli side to concentrate solely on wine, and over the years we won many awards including, on two occasions, Central England Wine Merchant of the Year in the International Wine Challenge, and the Which? Wine Guide Italian Specialist of the year for the UK. We continued running the business until 1985 when we sold a majority share in it to a customer, and then had two shops locally.
"But in 1999 Roy Whittingham (ex head of music at Chipping Campden School, and one of my musical mentors), asked me to host a visit from the choir of the Kodaly School in Kecskemét, Hungary, where he was then working. Their visit was quite extraordinary and the quality of their singing astonishing. In early 2000 my wife Vicky and I visited the school in Kecskemet and took our daughter Francesca with us. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've ever had and the choir returned in July 2000. These concerts re-kindled my desire to get back to being involved in music again. So in 2002 I dipped a toe in the water and organised the first Chipping Campden Music Festival. If I had a £1 for everyone who told me it would never work and I'd lose my shirt on the venture, I'd be a very rich man indeed."
How on earth did Charlie manage to interest and engage such illustrious soloists?
"From the very beginning I was determined to engage the very best artists I could afford. Everything went on that priority. We hired a wonderful Steinway and most of the budget went on artists. I even hand made the tickets etc and did all the admin myself.

"Originally we just ran for 5 days but steadily grew to a week, 10 days, and then a full fortnight. Gradually I started to engage more and more well-known players and in 2005 the pianist Paul Lewis agreed to become our President. I knew Julian Lloyd Webber from college days so he played for us a few times and also agreed to become Patron of our education work.

"The wonderful venue of St James' Church, described by Alfred Brendel as 'one of the finest acoustics I encountered in my 60 year career' certainly helped and gradually more and more musicians were starting to talk about the festival and telling their colleagues they should play there."

Charlie goes on to tell me about the Festival's remarkable orchestra.
"In 2008 Tom Hull (Alfred's and also Paul Lewis' agent, and a superb musician) and I decided to set up a side by side training orchestra and called it the Chipping Campden Festival Academy. This orchestra gives 21 talented conservatoire students the chance to perform alongside highly experienced professional players from the UK's leading orchestras. This year over 150 candidates were auditioned for the 21 places and the standard was higher than it has ever been. It is a true 'side by side' orchestra with every desk comprising a highly experienced orchestral pro and a conservatoire student. The orchestra performs three concerts each festival with top soloists who have included, Julian Lloyd Webber, Nicola Benedetti, Paul Lewis, Steven Isserlis, Alison Balsom, Imogen Cooper, & Roderick Williams, Sarah Connolly, and this year Richard Goode.
There are also strong links with the Chipping Campden Literature Festival.
The Literature Festival was started in 2010 by my long suffering wife Vicky (she did this on the basis that if you can't beat them join them). So the link is about as strong as it can be! Every year we do a joint event to bridge the two festivals. She is passionate about literature, politics, and all great writing. During lockdown she spent hours every day reading and I escaped to the completely locked up church and practicsd on the Steinway for about 4 hours a day. We then met for a walk in the peaceful countryside and then the evening for supper and a decent bottle of wine. It was an extraordinary period in our lives, but of course one which was tainted by witnessing the suffering of so many less fortunate people who were struggling in small places with no gardens, worried about jobs, not seeing families etc. and all made worse by the utterly appalling government led by the worst PM in living memory!

Charlie has had some amazing people in the audience, not least the much-loved, much-missed conductor Bernard Haitink, as he explains.

We certainly have and I think this is because my philosophy has always been that it is, and always will be, all about the music. The musicians get to know that it's a festival where no one goes to be seen, or for the interval drinks, or the social occasion. And many of them feel it's a wonderful atmosphere in which to hear their colleagues perform. After one concert a very eminent musician said to me "I think that is the quietest and most attentive audience I have played for in my whole career" That's not to say that audiences don't have a lovely time with us and enjoy supper in the pubs or restaurants afterwards. But the music is paramount and dressing up is positively discouraged, with me setting a 'suitably scruffy' example!

*The Chipping Campden Music Festival runs from May 9 – 21. All details on

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