A BUSY ELGAR FESTIVAL 2024

 

The kaleidoscope of offerings making up Elgar Festival 2024 is too generous to take in at one sitting, the near week-long event bringing celebration, education, encouragement, surprise elements and even a car rally.

There is a strong local feel to the whole affair, reflecting Elgar’s love of the Worcestershire countryside and in particular his affinity with the Malvern Hills. And it is Malvern which brings us the car rally,  the 2024 Morgan Sports Car Club rally, heading off from the Morgan Motor Factory at 10.30am on May 28 and finishing at The Firs (Elgar’s Birthplace), Lower Broadheath, from 3.30pm

The drivers can catch up there with the conclusion of a two-day Conducting Masterclass (beginning on May 27, first day of the Festival). Eight emerging conductors from all over the world will make a study of Elgar’s music with the help of musicians of the English String Orchestra under the guidance of Kenneth Woods and Jonathan Mann. Entry for the audience is free, but tickets must be pre-booked.

Always a popular favourite, the Elgar for Everyone Family Concert brings over 100 young musicians from across Elgar Country to perform in Worcester Cathedral on May 29 (7.30pm), following two days of rehearsals and workshops. Members of the English Symphony Orchestra are joined by the ESO’s Youth Orchestras, and Festival Patron Julian Lloyd Webber and Festival Artist in Residence Esther Abrami will co-host. The concert also includes the premiere of the winning work in the Festival’s 2024 Young Composers Competition.

Thursday May 30 brings the first opportunity to meet Steve Elcock, this year’s Festival’s featured composer. This self-taught British composer now living in France will be in conversation with festival director Kenneth Woods (The Firs, 1.30pm).

Immediately after this April Fredrick and Michele Lammas lead an interactive talk and workshop about the soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”, who at the end of her career retired to Wynds Point on the Malvern Hills. During this exploration of the woman behind the legend April Fredrick will perform “Qui la voce”, a Bellini aria which was a Lind favourite, with violinist Grace Shepherd (The Firs, 3om: admission free to both events, but tickets must be pre-booked).

 

Friday May 31 is a busy day for Esther Abrami, beginning in the atmospheric and cosy Huntingdon Hall at 1pm with a lunchtime recital including Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a selection of Elgar violin miniatures.

She will be performing later in the day, but before then Kenneth Woods conducts the English String Orchestra in an intriguing programme of British string music at the Worcester Guildhall (7pm). Imogen Holst (daughter of the great Gustav) has re-emerged into our consciousness recently thanks to Mark Ravenhill’s two-hand play about the difficult relationship between Benjamin Britten and his assistant Imogen, “Ben and Imo” at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and here the ESO picks up the baton with a performance of her Variations on ‘Loth to Depart’. From Elizabethan times we move directly to the present day for the world premiere of Steve Elcock’s Concerto Grosso, and the concert concludes with the arrangement of Elgar’s great String Quartet for string orchestra by David Matthews, himself an assistant to Britten.

But the evening is not yet over, for Esther Abrami returns, now to a hastily-cleared Guildhall, for Club Elgar 1, a  late-night evening chill here featuring arrangements for violin and orchestra of film and TV scores, and so much other music derived from the silver screen (9.30pm).

We go to sea next morning, when the Elgar Chorale under Piers Maxim perform Isle of Beauty/By the Lone Seashore by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a young mixed-race composer encouraged by Elgar, and whose Song of Hiawatha stole some of the thunder of The Dream of Gerontius when both their premieres were conducted by Hans Richter at the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival. Elgar himself follows, with Donald Fraser’s adroit arrangement of the Sea Pictures (St Martin in the Cornmarket, 11am).

Lunchtime brings a free event in the Guildhall (1.30pm) when the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra (which Elgar helped found in 1905) is conducted by Keith Slade in works by Vivaldi and Bach as well as Elgar’s great Introduction and Allegro (incidentally, keep an eye out for Slade, who am I told is due to conduct all three great Stravinsky Diaghilev ballets on one evening in Birmingham next year).

Remaining in the Guildhall, 3.30pm sees the Jenny Lind Singers in concert, performing works by female and local composers, including the world premiere of their commission from Liz Dilnot Johnson, “Nimrod Reimagined” for Elgar’s birthday.

Worcester Cathedral is the venue at 7.30 for the Elgar Festival Gala Concert, Kenneth Woods conducting the English Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s Violin Sonata, Zoe Beyers the popular soloist, his Cockaigne Overture, and Pomp and Circumstance Marches. They also perform Steve Elcock’s epic tone poem Wreck.

Woods swaps his baton for guitar for a late-night blues concert, when Elgar 2 takes over the Henry Sandon Hall at the Royal Porcelain Works in Severn Street, with a programme reimagining how Elgar’s themes might have sounded threaded through blues history (10.15pm).

The nearby Museum of Royal Worcester  is also the venue for the A.T. Shaw Lecture on June 2, Elgar’s Birthday, with Festival Patron Julian Lloyd Webber  sharing his close relationship with the Elgar Cello Concerto (11am, refreshments from 10.30am, admission free).

Back to the Royal Porcelain Works at 2pm for Elgar’s Piano Quintet performed by the ESO Chamber Players, and preceded by the world premiere of Steve Elcock’s Piano Quintet, following the scoring of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (violin, viola, cello and bass).

The rest of the day is completed with various acknowledgements of the Birthday, including Choral Evensong in Worcester Cathedral at 4pm, ending with the laying of a wreath at the Elgar Memorial Window.

All these events are set against a background of exhibitions, workshops and relaxed concerts throughout the week, but they are also set against a background of concern for the funding future of subsequent Festivals. Arts Council England’s swingeing cuts to the funding of so many of the country’s most respected institutions have spread to the Elgar Festival, regarded  as not inclusive enough, and centred on a composer of apparently insufficient interest.

We all know both criticisms are rubbish, given the overall theme of the Festival as “Elgar for Everyone” and its deliberate provision of concerts for people living with disabilities, dementia and other challenges, and given the huge international interest in Elgar, which draws visitors from all over the world to Worcester and the Malverns, with all their spending-power.

Should anyone wish to help swell the coffers, please follow the link https://www.gofundme.com/f/elgar-festival-2024.

All Festival details on www.elgarfestival.org.

Christopher Morley

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