He replied: ‘I write all day and when I have finished one piece I begin another’.
Substitute ‘festival’ for ‘piece’ and one gets an idea of how a sheep farmer, living on a remote peninsula in the south west of Ireland, has managed to establish one of the most important chamber music festivals in the western hemisphere.
Francis Humphrys, the sheep farmer in question, is now the festival director, planner, programme compiler, author and must surely have begun planning this year’s event even while the 2013 festival was still in progress. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine how he could attract such a group of internationally-renowned artists from 16 countries to play 105 works by 60 composers (the earliest born in 1563, the latest in 1973) from 15 countries at 35 concerts in four different venues in Bantry in the nine days beginning on June 27.
While the concerts are the principal events, they are only part of the reason that this festival is so important to the artistic and economic life of Ireland.
In addition to the concerts, there are masterclasses, given by the visiting artists, to young aspiring professional string quartets from Ireland and the UK, talks about instrument — and bow-making by luthiers and bow-makers living in Ireland, public interviews with the artists, and a young composers’ forum on writing for chamber ensembles directed by a living Irish composer. Admission to all of these events is free.
There are 69 different events taking place between June 27 and July 5 next. The brochure is available this week, priority booking for friends and patrons of the festival opens shortly after, and booking for the public opens at the beginning of April.
At any music festival one expects to hear music that is familiar as well as hearing music that challenge. How Francis Humphrys continues, year after year, to discover such a variety of worthwhile music written during the last 400 years never fails to astonish me.
When he is not tending his farm and his animals I imagine he must listen to, and read about, an astonishing amount of music, as well as attending concerts and recitals all over Europe. Humphrys is also a splendid author and editor of the programme notes.
When Francis first sent me the proposed programme he suggested that perhaps he had been a little less adventurous than usual. I’m not so sure. Yes, there is very little music written in the last 10 years or so but, when I asked myself, how many patrons have ever even heard of Hans Abrahamsen or David Bruce — just to name four of the unfamiliar names to me — I began to change my mind. I listened on Youtube and fell under the spell of American-born Bruce.
There is plenty of music that I do not know in this year’s programme, much of it in the nine main evening concerts, most of which take place in Bantry House, but some also in both the town concerts (St Brendan’s Hall) — Tippett’s 2nd Quartet, for instance — and the stars in the afternoon (St Brendan’s Church) concerts. I look forward to hearing Ruby Hughes’s recital with Julius Drake on Tuesday’s stars in the afternoon, when she sings Mahler’s gorgeous Songs of a Wayfarer along with songs by Schumann, James MacMillan, and Arnold Schoenberg.
Among the many programmed works that I do know, and love are Schumann’s exquisite Dichterliebe song cycle, all of Brahms’s sonatas for violin and viola, Beethoven’s Septet in E flat and Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’ String Sextet.
The 11am coffee concerts (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) feature early music from Italy (Sunday), England and Austria (Tuesday) — this includes Pachelbel’s famous canon — Vivaldi (Thursday), Handel and Bach (Saturday), while Friday’s concert features the brilliant Alban Gerhardt playing Bach’s cello suites in E flat (No 4) and D major (No 6).
On Monday the programme comprises quartets by Mendelssohn and Dvorak, while Friday brings Mozart’s D minor quartet and ‘Gumboots’.
The town concerts at 2pm give audiences an opportunity of hearing the young players from the Arioso, Benz, Cepheus, and Delmege quartets, who are being mentored by the professional quartets participating in the festival, as well as the very impressive Young European Strings Chamber Orchestra.
Of the stars in the afternoon concerts, I will be interested in hearing Gergana Gergova (violin) and Alban Gerhardt (cello) playing Kodaly’s Duo on Sunday, Carolin Widmann (violin) and Jose Gallardo (piano) playing Schumann Sonatas on Monday and Lawrence Power (viola) with Simon Crawford -Phillips (piano) playing all of the Brahms sonatas on Thursday. Of course, we are going to hear all of the late Beethoven quartets, beginning with the indispensable Vanbrugh Quartet playing Op 131 in C sharp minor in the main evening concert on June 28.
Sunday night brings Op 132 in A minor played by the Danish String Quartet. Wednesday brings the Doric Quartet to play Op 127 in E flat at 22.30 and Thursday sees the Zemlinsky Quartet play Op 130/133 in B flat. The final one of these magical late-night concerts features the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss and the Danish String Quartet playing Brahms’s majestic Clarinet Quintet.
It promises to be another marvellous feast of music. !
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