History of the Brixworth Music Festival
I had the idea of a starting up a music festival back in 2014 when I inherited my parents' bungalow in Brixworth. Having taught music theory and composition nearly all my life in Germany I suddenly found myself in a village in Northamptonshire where I had very little contact with other musicians. My sister, Kay Soteriou, had a house in Boughton and sang with the ensemble Muse and Music, but otherwise I had very little knowledge of the music scene in the county - in fact most of my musical contacts in the UK were in Glasgow which is twinned with Nuremberg where I live most of the time.
As co-incidence would have it there were some other new-comers to the village of Brixworth: Rev. Chloe Willson Thomas was the new vicar of All Saints Church and had trained as a professional singer. Not only that: her husband, Gwion Thomas, was also a well known opera singer. Having organized music festivals, both in Nuremberg and Australia, it seemed logical to try and start up something up in Brixworth. The Church of All Saints, with its splendid acoustic, provided an ideal setting for musical performances so I made an appointment with Rev. Chloe to see if she would be interested in this venture. Both she and her husband, Gwion, were taken with the idea, and from then on there was no stopping us.
We rapidly formed a committee of similarly enthusiastic helpers and I was put in touch with local well-known musical personalities, such as Peter Dunkley (clarinettist and conductor) and Graham Tear (flautist and conductor) who made valuable contributions to the festival - not only by performing and conducting, but by also joining the committee. Gwion and I were joint Artistic Directors, Peter agreed to be Patron, and Graham - with his wealth of contacts and ideas - was one of the Artistic Advisers. The then Treasurer of the Brixworth U3A, Stanley Evans, agreed to become our Treasurer too, my next door neighbour Mary Parnell helped with the fundraising, Annie Curtis (Secretary of the U3A) became our Catering Manager and Marian Fitchet our Secretary. Rev. Chloe was on the committee not only as Artistic Adviser but also provided the festival with a "home" in the form of the Church of All Saints. Local pianist, Oksana King, also joined the team as did Brixworth resident, Roger Partington, who helped us with various legal issues. At a later stage we were joined by others, including Emily Curtis, who gave us invaluable assistance with publicity and ticket sales.
Our first festival in September 2014 was in no way a tentative affair. With the help of a grant from the Northampton Community Foundation, various generous private sponsors, coupled with the fact that most of the musicians involved performed either for nothing or for a very small fee, we were able to offer an ambitious programme with concerts by Youth Brass 2000, the Northampton Musical Theatre Company's Concert Group, the Northampton Chamber Orchestra, the County Youth Choir (both conducted by Graham Tear) and the Swarbrick Singers (conducted by Ian Clarke). Chamber music was provided by the newly founded John Clare Wind Quintet (which included Peter Dunkley and Graham Tear) and early music by the Nene Consort. During their concert we heard for the first time Brixworth early music specialist, Sarah Small, who gave a virtuosic performance on the viola da gamba. What was to become a well-loved regular feature was the Evening of Poetry and Song, which included many local performers. Amongst them were Rev. Chloe and her husband Gwion, as well as Muse and Music performers, Kay Soteriou and David Saint (well known for his broadcast, Saint on Sunday, for BBC Northampton). Another regular festival event was the concert by the U3A Songsters after the Sunday morning service. A festive atmosphere was provided by the bell ringers of All Saints who could be heard at the start and close of the festival. One of our prominent guests was the Bishop of Brixworth who was delighted that the church was the centre of a such a lively community event.
At the following festival in 2015 - which this year was sponsored by the Big Lottery Fund - we were delighted to welcome another distinguished guest: Judith Weir, Master of the Queen's Music, who had worked together in the past with Gwion Thomas, agreed to be our guest of honour. She talked about her work in a Meet the Composer interview and performances of her work were heard throughout the festival - notably by Gwion Thomas and the Northampton Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Graham Tear. Newcomers to the festival included Rarescale, an ensemble specialising in avant garde and electronic music, led by low flute specialist, Carla Rees, and the Ensemble Marquise, who performed a programme of Baroque vocal music in period costume. We were also able to book two top jazz musicians, Andra Sparks and Nick Weldon who gave a memorable late night concert in the church. With chairs and tables as well as BYO wine and snacks an intimate, informal atmosphere was created. This concert was an experiment for the Brixworth Music Festival – and it worked. Our Evening of Poetry and Song which included the festival's own John Clare Wind Quintet, were again part of the festival programme, as were Youth Brass 2000 and the Swarbrick Singers. Local Clarinet Ensemble, Reedology, performed after the Sunday morning service and, together with the U3A Songsters, who had now become "regulars", it was clear that the Brixworth Music Festival was beginning to grow.
In its third year the Brixworth Music Festival was gradually becoming an established annual event in the Brixworth calendar. From 16th to 25th September we continued to build on the experience of the previous two years, with concerts getting ever larger and more ambitious, and - although essentially a community event - now attracting listeners and performers from outside Northamptonshire. Graham Tear conducted the Northampton Concert Band in a "Last Night of the Proms" following up the next day with a concert by the Northampton Chamber Orchestra which included Vivaldi's "Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera", sung by Chloe Willson-Thomas. Regular features such as The John Clare Wind Quintet and the Evening of Poetry and Song were still part of the programme and this year local Russian-born pianist, Oksana King, gave a recital for the first time with her Postcards from Russia.
In addition to musicians from Northamptonshire we wanted to give our audiences the chance to hear distinguished performers from farther afield and this year the Brixworth Music Festival hosted not only the superb Midlands based Tedesca String Quartet but also the German accordion virtuoso, Irene Urbach. This was a rare opportunity to experience the accordion in all its versatility in a programme of works ranging from chanson, tango and folk music to the classical and avant-garde. The Tedesca String Quartet was joined by Gwion Thomas in a performance of Barber's "Dover Beach". The festival was brought to a close by the Northamptonshire ensemble, Fiori Musicali - one of UK’s principal providers of early music concerts outside London.
In 2017 we made an important decision. We had noticed that at the beginning of a new school year it was difficult to get schools, choirs and other ensembles involved. when they were just starting to work with a new intake of singers and musicians. We therefore decided to shift the date of the festival from September to Spring. This new date – after Easter each year – was hailed as a welcome change and meant that in 2017 there was no festival, the next one scheduled for April 2018.
Always open to new challenges and suggestions the festival committee came up with the idea of staging a competition for women composers. The promotion of women composers is an important aspect of of the Brixworth Music Festival and, with the help of funding from a private donor, we were able to invite women composers of all ages and nationalities to submit works to be performed at the 2018 Festival. We asked for a work for voice and 3-5 instruments that are used in the classical wind quintet formation. The work had to make some reference to Shakespeare since this year's festival was taking place during Shakespeare's birthday week.
Having developed a keen interest in our Festival since her visit in 2015 Judith Weir, Master of the Queen's Music, agreed to make the final decision on the winner, choosing out of a shortlist of works that had already been drawn up by jury members taken from the Festival Committee. First prize (£500), went to Karen Lemon from Australia, for her work „The Truth, The Post-Truth, And Nothing Of The Truth" for baritone, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. The second prize (£200) went to Fiona Brice from the UK for her work, „Cleopatra's Sorrow“ for soprano and wind quintet. The winning work was performed by Gwion Thomas together with members of the John Clare Wind Quintet during the Evening of Poetry and Song.
2018 also saw the establishment of the Brixworth Festival Orchestra, conducted by Peter Dunkley. In past years we had already invited larger ensembles and chamber orchestras, but a full scale symphony orchestra took the festival onto another level. The church was packed and the audience could listen to a programme that included works by Beethoven (7th Symphony) and Mozart (Concerto for Flute and Harp, with soloists Graham Tear and Rowena Bass.) The prize-winning Northamptonshire Youth Brass Band added to the feeling that the festival was getting ever larger, and the ever popular ensemble, Fiori Musicali and the Tedesca String Quintet were invited back again. Our resident pianist Oksana King gave a piano recital with works ranging from J.S. Bach to the 20th century, and early music specialist Sarah Small performed together with her newly formed ensemble a programme entitled "An Old English Fantasy".
Little did we know that after the festival in 2019 musical life in the whole world would be closed down due to the Covid 19 pandemic. This, our last festival before the long silence, was to be our most successful ever.
A rousing start to the festival was given by the Northampton Male Voice Choir (conducted by Stephen Bell). This packed event was followed by the Brixworth Festival Orchestra, conducted by Peter Dunkley. We had been planning to celebrate Beethoven's 250th birthday the following year, but as it turned out, this concert would be our tribute to Beethoven before the pandemic, with memorable performances of his Egmont Overture and Eroica Symphony. To have the opportunity of hearing these works performed live in a small church in the Northamptonshire countryside was probably a once in a lifetime experience for many in the audience.
In contrast to the two larger opening events of the festival the by now regular guests of the Ensemble, Fiori Musicali, gave a more meditative concert dedicated to “Our Lady of Fatima”. Guest singer was the Hungarian born born Judit Felszeghy who also accompanied herself on the Celtic harp.
Thoroughly enjoyable evenings with a real community feel to them were provided by the festival's own John Clare Wind Quintet and the Northampton Community Choir, founded by Graham Tear four years previously. Soloists were gifted young singers. Amanda Giuliani and Sam Pickles who performed a song by Brixworth composer Stuart Cooper. The Evening of Poetry and Song made its regular appearance, this year's programme concentrating more on the poetry aspect. Special mention should be made of Brixworth poet Roger Brandon-Jones who recited a number of his own poems. These are thoughtful works and deserve to be better known.
The sixth event in the festival programme was an unusual one: "Caroline Chisholm", a chamber opera composed by myself together with librettist, David Saint who is well known in Northamptonshire as an author and radio presenter. This chamber opera is scored for five accordions, two singers and narrator. Mezzo-soprano, Kay Soteriou, the "original" Caroline Chisholm - having performed it in England and Australia - repeated her performance of the role and Gwion Thomas played her husband, Archibald. David Saint delivered the narrative thread and the accordion ensemble, Timeless D'Accord came all the way from Nuremberg in Germany to accompany the production. Their impeccable performance added an unusual dimension to this small theatre group. The story of Caroline Chisholm – such an important Northampton heroine - is not as familiar to people as it ought to be, and it was fascinating to discover more about this brave woman known as the "Emigrant's Friend".
The Tedesca Tedesca String Quartet, were joined this year by pianist, Charles Matthews. This ensemble of distinguished players performed to perfection works by Mozart and Schumann, as well as the winning work of this year's Brixworth International Competition for Women Composers. This year's winner was the English composer, Rosalie Coopman, now in her 87th year. A composer with experience in the field of film music, she is now devoting more time to chamber music. Coopman's prize-winning work, A Winter Collage, for String Quartet and Piano, was chosen for its subtle mastery of tone colours. Together with Kay Soteriou I was able to visit Rosalie in London and present her with her prize during a memorable afternoon tea at her home.
Oksana King's piano recital, on the 18th May, entitled “A Tale of Four Exiles”, gave an insight into the lives of Chopin, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Bartok and the audience now had the opportunity of hearing the brand new grand piano as a solo instrument that had been gifted to the church by an anonymous donor who wanted to support the Brixworth Music Festival. The older church piano had served well, but was worn out and no longer able to cope with the challenges of a music festival.
Our sincerest thanks go to not only the donor of this wonderful new instrument.
In the evening the Northampton Musical Theatre Company Singers entertained a once more packed church to an concert of "Songs from the Shows" and on the final day of the festival, on the 19th May, there was one first last surprise: after a very enjoyable lunchtime concert with the “Brixworth U3A Songsters”the Northampton School for Boys Wind Octet rushed into the church, together with their tutor, Graham Tear, so that they could also take part. They had just been performing in the Northampton Eisteddfod where they had won a gold medal! This was indeed an unexpected treat and provided an ideal conclusion to this largely spontaneous concert.
This fifth annual Brixworth Music Festival, which proved to be extremely busy and well attended, was brought to a quieter, more intimate close on the 19th May with a concert of early music, performed by Brixworth early music specialist, Sarah Small, together with her own ensmeble. This took place after the Festal Evensong in the presence of the Bishop of Brixworth. In his sermon the Bishop made some very thoughtful comments about music, as did Rev. Chloe in her speech thanking all those who had participated in the festival. The choir, conducted by Robert Wakefield and accompanied by organist James Bonsor, rose to the occasion, providing a sense of festivity on this closing day of the festival.
And then: two years of silence
Like so many other festivals and events the Brixworth Music Festival also had to close down. Forced into silence many musicians were forced to take on other jobs in order to keep their head above water. The committee of the Brixworth Music Festival gradually lost some of its most important members, some stepping down, and most sadly of all, our Treasurer and much loved member of the committee, Stan Evans, passed away during this time. He will be sorely missed.
There was an attempt to keep things "alive" in 2020, and Francis Lynch, Artistic Director of London's Electric Voice Theatre, made a valuable live stream contribution. This prestigious ensemble had already made preparations to perform in 2020, and were going to involve the Brixworth Country Park in an environmental event. Sadly this never came to fruition.
But now, after two years of enforced hibernation, we are attempting a revival of the festival. We had planned a large festival for 2020, including a big V.E. Day celebration. Everything had to be cancelled and there was no chance of putting all these concerts "on hold". Nobody knew how long the pandemic would last and the small scale of the festival this year reflects our fear and uncertainty that everything might have to be cancelled again. But it is a start and we are trying to gradually build up our committee again.
The revival will be on a modest scale and will take place once more in our beautiful Church of All Saints from 6th to 8th May 2022 . The new vicar, David Reith, is giving us his full support. As ever there will be a programme of music to cater for all tastes, starting on the Friday evening with a concert of early music led by Sarah Small and Simone Reid. On the Saturday morning we will - at last and belatedly - celebrate Beethoven's 250th birthday with a lecture / recital (Oksana King and Vivienne Olive), followed by a piano duet recital in the afternoon (Oksana King and Andrew King). In the evening our ever popular Evening of Poetry and Song will feature poetry readings by local poets (including Roger Brandon-Jones), as well as performances by younger members of the community, including Sam Pickles who will be singing excerpts from Stuart Cooper's latest musical. And it will be wonderful to welcome back Gwion Thomas and Chloe Willson Thomas as guest artists.
On Sunday the 8th May you will at last be able to hear the winning piece of the Competition for Women Composers 2020 in an organ recital given by Ian Clarke. Composer, Florence Anna Maunders, has had to wait a long time and she will be there for the performance.