Hitting the high notes in Bantry

Soprano Ruby Hughes is among the headline acts at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival this summer, writes Tina O’Sullivan

THE West Cork Chamber Music Festival is gearing up for its 17th summer outing. Bantry House and St Brendan’s Church will once again provide the magical backdrop for the international line-up.

What started in 1995 as a small voluntary organisation has prospered into a high profile annual event, turning Bantry into a classical music destination each July. West Cork Music has extended to include a literary festival, also taking place in July, and the Masters of Tradition festival, which runs in August. Each event features master classes with the visiting artists.

The Chamber Music Festival includes a composition competition, inviting composers under 30 to submit string quartet or piano trio pieces. The willing composer will receive prize money, as well as having the piece worked through the master class programme, and premiering in the festival.

The string quartet ensemble remains central to the festival. This year four are featured, including the young German Signum Quartet, recently taken on by BBC’s New Generation Scheme, and Polish quartet, Apollol Musagète. The nine-day festival delivers five concerts each day, as well as three master classes and a talk. The line-up includes the Irish Chamber Orchestra, who are set to play a beautiful concert of works by Britten, Larcher and Bartók.

Soprano Ruby Hughes is already preparing for her first visit to West Cork to partake in the ffestival.

“Francis Humphrys, who runs the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, gave me a call,” says Hughes. “He said he’d be really interested in me taking part and doing some concerts. But first he wanted to come and hear me sing, so he and his daughter came all the way to Hungary to this amazing festival in Kaposvár. They stayed for five or six days and heard a lot of very eclectic programming, as well as a few concerts that I was involved in. From there we took some programme ideas and came up with three different programmes for West Cork this year.”

Hughes will be performing one of the pieces with Julius Drake, who has been her mentor and collaborator since they first performed together in The Pollock House Society in Glasgow a couple of years ago.

“We’re doing an amazing cycle for prepared piano voice by George Crumb which is going to be a big highlight for both of us. Julius was nervous about it because the piece is quite prepared and involves the amplification of the piano and getting in with your fingers into the piano and doing hard stuff. It looks quite overwhelming on the page as well. So he took the score with him to the States and I got an email from him last week saying, ‘guess who I met in Philadelphia?’ And he sent me a photo — he’d met up with George Crumb himself and had a master class with him on this piece we’re doing in West Cork!”

Hughes pays tribute to her mother Elizabeth Fritsch, a respected ceramicist, who supported her development as a classical musician. “My mom is full blown Welsh,” says Hughes. “She moved to London when she was in her late 20s. Her great aunts on her father’s side were all harpists and she took lessons with them. She used to sing and play and have some little family concerts at home, and she also played the piano for school choir every week. Music was the closest thing she’d get to being creative when she was growing up, as she was quite brainy. She didn’t really have any trouble with academic work, so she didn’t get to do technical, practical subjects like furniture making, wood-work, that sort of thing, which was such a shame. So the visual arts and making pottery came about after her degree as a musician. She was a fiddle and a harp player but she didn’t have the nerve to get up on stage, she didn’t have that stage animal thing.”

Hughes’ mother noticed that she was possessed of the performance bug. “She said I was really focused and concentrated when I was dancing or when I was involved with music. It took me a while to get into the music; the cello was my instrument for ten years, but at the beginning, when you’re trying to make a sound and you can’t, and you can’t really read music, it’s the most difficult. I actually gave up after a year. Then my mom took me to see this film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, and I fell in love with the cello again and that’s when I decided I’d have a go again and really practice and go for it. I was 13.

“I didn’t have that many friends when I was at boarding school at the beginning. It was quite difficult for me to get on with a lot of the kids there as I liked locking myself away in the practice room and really playing and practicing. That way I ended up having more respect in the long run from my school friends. When I actually learnt to play the instrument and enjoy it, I used to play for assembly and things, which was really nice.”

This dedication to the practice room has remained strong with Hughes.

“When I’m not doing opera production and just preparing for concerts, I’ll spend a lot of time just studying the score at home. First of all doing a translation, if it’s an Italian opera or French or German. Then I will work on the vowels, getting the tongue in the right position without actually singing. Then I’ll study the notes before I start singing. There’s a lot of study you can actually do without using the voice and that’s useful as a singer.”

Hughes’ selection for BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme has opened up a world of opportunities for her. Her intention is to record all the Mahler orchestral songs.

Hughes applauds programmes such as New Generation Artists, which cultivate up and coming classical musicians. “I know several musicians in my generation who love classical music, and I suppose it’s our responsibility to try and bring it to the masses. I don’t believe that it’s an elitist thing at all. It really annoys me when some people say, ‘oh, you need to know something about classical music in order to understand it!’. Actually, you really don’t. If you’ve got a translation — if the piece is in a different language — and you know the plot, it’s just like going to see Shakespeare or a really modern play. You understand the essence and you’ve got to have an open mind. Hearing it live is quite different from a recording.”

* The West Cork Chamber Music Festival runs from Friday, Jun 29 – Saturday, Jul 7.See: www.westcorkmusic.ie

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