There are two types of arts festival, says Edward Pearce-unsmart ones in pretty places and those visited by Dr Bragg and the leaders of the Republic of Lettersby Edward Pearce / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Chaucer said it about the Spring. “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” Pilgrimages aren’t what they were, but for a country with a shrinking literacy base, arts festivals do very well. They mostly take place from July through to September, so it’s worth looking around now.
They run from Aldeburgh to York, by way of increasingly insufferable Edinburgh, to beautifully sited Fishguard, the mobile Three Choirs (Worcester this year, Hereford next, then Gloucester), improbable Presteigne, pretty Ludlow and grand Cheltenham-which attracts BBC recording vans and Alfred Brendel. A good British Tourist Authority brochure is available from the Lower Regent Street office.
Where you go depends on taste and venue. Open the guide to the King’s Lynn festival and the heart sinks. On 30th July a literary luncheon offers fan of melon, fillet of salmon, Frank Delaney, Ion Trewin and Melvyn Bragg. The curse of festivals is talk: theatre workshops, poetry workshops, a chance to meet Seamus Heaney and the other steady bacon-and-eggers of the chat circuit. The thinking man’s celebs on the self-importance roadshow will all be there: the poetry aversion therapist, Tom Paulin, will bring you to your knees; the compulsory Mark Lawson will treat you almost as an equal on a trudge round an artistic point.
There are two sorts of festival: something nice in the country with a chamber orchestra playing music we might like; a touch of shoestring Shakespeare; and the odd exhibition. You take a holiday, leaving half days for excursions into the local landscape, wool churches and villages.
Alternatively, there are festivals under visitation from the collective leadership of the arts community. If I went to Edinburgh it would be for an Eastern Roumelian Opera group or a decent orchestra. What I don’t want is the cultural praesidium. For three weeks the city is the capital of the Republic of Letters, pictures of the president, Dr Bragg, should hang at 50-yard intervals the length of Princes Street. Every semi- articulate bore, every poet unable to read verse, every escaped feminist, Freudian and Radio Three presenter will be there. Pronouncers will pronounce; there will be a fly-past of the publishers’ formation team; 1,000 creative people in denim jackets will make statements; Dennis Potter will be mourned at public shrines and Michael Grade will give a blessing.
I prefer unsmart, non-rabbiting festivals in nice places. Buxton (12th-28th July) is terrific. It emulates Wexford in playing opera you won’t otherwise hear. This year it’s Handel’s Amadigi and Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Buxton is a pretty place built of stone in a hollow, next to the Derbyshire dales, and no need to meet Seamus Heaney.
Arundel (23rd August-1st September) will be using the castle for Shakespeare-Hamlet this year. It will feature the outstanding Coull Quartet, Joanna MacGregor, who plays the piano quite well, and Ole Edvard Antonsen, the trumpeter. Arundel is an unwrecked town with a steep high street running down to a river, all Sussex stands behind it.
The Three Choirs at Worcester (17th-24th August) is a conservative festival sniffed at by critics in search of unlistenable-to music, and delightful. It is also the oldest, having started in 1727 before workshops were thought of. Don’t be misled by the title. There is plenty of orchestral and chamber music, though the cathedral choirs are in evidence. This being A Shropshire Lad’s centenary and the poet having been, ironically, a Worcestershire man, programmes will be devoted to his poetry, although there will be no chance to meet AE Housman. Music will include the rediscovered Messe Solonelle of Berlioz, something by the neglected Edmund Rubbra and Vaughan Williams. There is a core of Elgar at the Three Choirs: the little heard The Light of Life, as well as the 1st symphony and Gerontius. Dreadfully middlebrow-you’ll like it.
The Three Choirs is an English festival in the middle of England. The Northlands festival (second week of September) has a larger hinterland-Caithness. But the Northlands also exploits Scottish affinities with Scandinavia, bringing in artists from the Nordic countries. It commissions works every year and has transformed a coastal tower into a miniature opera house. Catherine Bott will sing and the non-bore Alan Bennett will give a lecture.
All the smaller festivals worry about money. The lottery could do itself great credit by unloading a few bob on inter alia Fishguard, Northlands, Swaledale, or the Beverley Early Music festival. Obviously, Edinburgh has masses of options and Cheltenham very high artistic standards. But a festival is basically a caravan resting somewhere with a decent church or a Theatre Royal. It is these temporary, underfunded performances of Mozart by kind permission of the vicar or Measure for Measure in the Deanery garden which give the real pleasure and most need a few bob.