MICHAEL BERKELEY AND ELGAR FESTIVAL 2023
By Christopher Morley
Running in the Worcester area for almost a week surrounding the beginning of June, the Elgar Festival 2023 brings “Elgar for Everyone”, with family concerts, conducting masterclasses, a late-night fusion of classical and world music, talks, chamber music, open-air brass music, and so much more.
Evening highlights include the concert at Malvern Priory June 1, when the Requiem by Worcester’s own Ian Venables is performed alongside Elgar’s touching little Mina, in memory of the dog he was allowed to have only after the death of his canine-hating wife, and Michael Berkeley’s Vision of Piers Plowman, which begins on the Malvern Hills.
Elgar’s birthday on June 2 is celebrated with a programme of from the English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods, the Festival’s artistic director (Julian Lloyd Webber the Patron), and featuring music by Elgar, Tippett, Britten, Lennox Berkeley and Ruth Gipps.
Centrepiece of the Festival is the Elgar Festival Gala Concert in Worcester Cathedral on June 3, Kenneth Woods conducting the ESO in Elgar’s wonderful, heart-opening The Music Makers, with the Elgar Festival Chorus, Jess Dandy the mezzo-soprano soloist, and the visionary Symphony no. 1.
The programme also includes The Secret Garden, by Lennox Berkeley’s son Michael, himself a well-loved composer, radio presenter, himself a festival organiser and this year’s Featured Composer.
Does this imply that he is a Grand Old Man of British Music, I ask Michael, with his many connections with the fabric of our country’s recent musical history?
“I certainly have enjoyed being a part of music making from childhood on, initially as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral and then working with my Godfather, Benjamin Britten, as a boy soprano,” he tells me.
“Composer friends of both Britten and Lennox included most of the leading figures of 20th Century composition; Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams Tippett, Walton and Poulenc. I knew I wanted to compose around the age of 6 when I would both sing myself to sleep and improvise at the piano. I have been writing a book about these experiences and find myself astonished at the cast list and that’s not to mention a spell in a pop group!”
Does it ever feel like baggage, being the son of a much-loved and respected composer? I am thinking of parallels with Kingsley and Martin Amis, for example, as I ask.
“Curiously not because I always felt I had a very different voice to Lennox and had different things to say even though I learnt a lot from him and love his music.
“He was fastidiously elegant and restrained where I, perhaps because of a Russian (Lithuanian)/Jewish maternal grandfather whom I never met, tend towards the more outspokenly emotional. Lennox would never have written my very emotionally direct oratorio, Or Shall We Die? (to a text by Ian McEwan) which even includes a drum kit at one point,,though he was impressed by parts of the piece, especially Heather Harper singing the role of the mother finding her burnt child by the river at Hiroshima. Incidentally it was also done wonderfully well by Roy Massey at a Three Choirs Festival concert in Hereford Cathedral.
“Talking of which I shall always remember one of my strongest pieces, the Organ Concerto being performed in the glorious Gloucester Cathedral so it’s nice to be now hearing Secret Garden (a London Symphony Orchestra premiere under Colin Davis) in Worcester’s lovely basilica.”
Will Michael have to bone up on his Elgar before becoming such a presence at the Festival?
“Not really, because I love and admire Elgar who would certainly be in my top ten of English composers. Lennox used to point out to me the craftsmanship and excitement of pieces like the Introduction and Allegro and when I made a film for BBC 2’s Masterworks Oliver Knussen and Tony Payne spoke of the symphonic mastery.
“Nimrod speaks for itself and always exerts a tug on my heartstrings. It frequently appears on my Radio 3 programme, Private Passions. I remember a concert I was involved in (my version of the National Anthem which suddenly plunges down a third into E flat at the halfway point before returning to the more familiar G Major) where Simon Rattle conducted the Enigma Variations and began Nimrod so quietly and slowly that you almost had to strain to hear it. The result, when it built, was utterly overwhelming.
“The only piece of Elgar that I have a little difficulty with is The Dream of Gerontius though I do not deny its many beauties. Rightly or wrongly, I am slightly disturbed by Newman's message which I sometimes find a trifle cloying.”
Michael then goes on to affirm how gratifying it is to hear so many of his own works crammed into such a short period.
“Yes, it is and on one or two I will be nervously discovering if they pass the test of time! For instance, The Vision of Piers Plowman was written and even conducted by me as incidental music for a Radio 3 series on the Langland poem, produced by a brilliant man, Piers Plowright, no less, who sadly died recently. I can however promise a theme which I think Elgar might have enjoyed.”
Michael has been deeply involved with the musical activity of the Midlands, including his work with the Cheltenham and Presteigne Festivals. Does he continue to feel a commitment to the region?
“Very much so. I live on the Welsh Marches, some 12 miles west of Ludlow, and have immersed myself in farming and musical life. I was lucky to be at the helm of the Cheltenham Festival for a decade at a time when it was very well supported. Life has become much more difficult now which is why the achievements of Ken Woods and the ESO are so important and impressive.!
As a serving member of the House of Lords, does Michael’s path ever cross that of Andrew Lloyd Webber? When that happens, what is the nature of their musical discussions?
“Andrew has now retired from the Lords but he was brilliant on Music Education and matters to do with the theatre. We got on well and he contributed a Private Passions full of the music he loved and the composers that had influenced him like Puccini and Ravel. I am also good friends with his 'cellist brother, Julian, who of course went on to play a big role in Birmingham’s musical life.
“Following on from the Lords question I feel passionately that we must get music back onto the school curriculum and we must sort out the ability for musicians to tour in Europe without endless expensive red tape over visas and cabotage (the movement of the trucks that carry the instruments).
“I am currently writing a trio, The Magnolia Tree, for Presteigne and there will be a performance of my motet Super Flumina Babylonis which was first performed at Westminster Cathedral by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral and, of course, Westminster Cathedral so that takes us back neatly to where it all began!”
*All details of Elgar Festival 2023 (May 30 – June 4) on www.elgarfestival.org