Sherborne Abbey Festival celebrates 20th season

FIVE days of glorious music, from baroque to 21st century, jazz to pop-up opera, will delight audiences at Sherborne Abbey and other venues around the town, as Sherborne Abbey Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary, with 30 events over 3rd-7th May.

Chairman and founder John Baker says: “This year’s festival marks a celebratory milestone. A 20th season during which we look forward to showcasing the very best of local and world-class musical talent.” There are world-class stars including Nicola Benedetti, Tenebrae and Alexander Armstrong, and workshops, children’s events and school concerts, and to celebrate its 20th season, the festival has contemporary new look, inspired by the abbey’s famous vaulted ceiling, with a logo created by Kevin Swindell, a Dorset designer based at Wyke.

There are two new free bank holiday events for children – a relaxed screening of Fantasia, Disney’s 1940 animation set to classical music, at the Digby Memorial Hall on Monday 6th, in association with Moviola, and a guitar workshop for ”Kids that rock” at the West End Hall in Littlefield later in the day.

Sherborne Abbey Festival is unique, as a charity run entirely by experienced volunteers, and in its support of musical good causes. Since its inception, more than £300,000 has been redistributed through scholarships and grants. The festival has also supported the music and choir at the abbey and maintenance of its famous Tickell organ (installed by Gray and Davison in 1856 and rebuilt by Kenneth Tickell & Co in 2005). The town’s annual Young Musician of the Year competition is also a beneficiary, as well as countless talented young individuals who have been awarded grants towards music studies or help to purchase professional musical instruments.

This year’s Friday evening event is a much-anticipated and sold out concert starring violinist Nicola Benedetti, one of the most sought-after musicians of her generation, playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Her ability to captivate audiences with an innate musicianship and dynamic presence, coupled with her wide appeal as a high-profile advocate for classical music, has made her one of the most influential classical artists of today. Conducted by Leonard Elschenbroich, Sherborne Abbey Festival Orchestra, led by Ruth Rogers, who comes from Shaftesbury, will also play Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture and Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica.

On the Saturday, in a collaboration with Dorset Opera Festival, there will be a La Traviata workshop in the morning at Sherborne Girls’ new Performing Arts Centre. Three opera professionals, all experienced vocal animateurs, will guide participants through a variety of styles and genres, incorporating technique, rhythm, movement and staging exercises. The newly-formed chorus will learn the famous Drinking Song from La Traviata, and perform it alongside the professionals at a free, outdoor-staged pocket performance of Verdi’s masterpiece later that afternoon on the Waitrose concourse.

As well as the professional performances there are concerts by talented local school students, choirs and music groups, ranging from early music, madrigal and chamber music to jazz and barbershop. On Saturday 4th, Sherborne School Chamber Choir, which includes ex-choristers of Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals, will sing sacred and secular music from the 16th century to the present day, including a newly commissioned set of Canticles, works by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Hubert Parry and Matthew Martin, and a light-hearted barbershop number.

Tenebrae makes a welcome return to the Abbey on Saturday evening, celebrating some of the finest exponents of 20th century English choral music, in particular music by Ivor Gurney. Gurney’s association with the leading composers of the era began at the Royal College of Music where Parry was director and he was taught by Stanford, Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, who became a lifelong friend and a champion of his music.

Sunday services with the Abbey choir are always a focal point of thefestival and this year’s choral evensong promises to be extra special, with the first performance of an anthem commissioned from locally-born composer David Bednall, an Old Shirburnian, who was one of the Abbey’s first organ scholars. He has since held posts at Gloucester, Wells and Bristol Cathedrals; his music is performed worldwide, and he has recently been signed up by Oxford University Press as one of their house composers. The anthem takes as its text Psalm 93, with its celebratory theme.

For a complete change of tempo, on Sunday evening the festival swings into jazz mode at Sherborne School’s Big School Room, when musical partners Claire Martin and Ray Gelato present an irresistible romp through the Great American Songbook, including timeless favourites such as Gershwin’s Embraceable You, Nat King Cole hits Let There Be Love and When I Fall in Love, and Dean Martin’s That’s Amore.

The organ recital on Monday features James O’Donnell, director of music at Westminster Abbey, playing music from English and French traditions, including Marcel Dupré’s transcription of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata 29, Stanford’s Fantasia and Toccata; the featherlight whimsy of Whitlock’s Scherzetto; and the swaggering pomp and circumstance of Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, composed for Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation.

Also on Monday 6th, at the new Sherborne Girls’ Arts Centre, BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny narrates A Pity of War, music and words inspired by the First World War, with music by Debussy, Janácek and Elgar, narration from poems and letters written by Wilfred Owen, interspersed by three violin sonatas composed around the time of the war,

For lovers of choral music, the highlight of the weekend comes on Monday 6th, when the Festival Chorus and Sherborne Classical Players perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. Premièred in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846 to an enthusiastic audience of 2000, it was critically acclaimed from the start and has remained one of the stalwarts of the choral repertoire. The powerful score brings to life the story of the great prophet Elijah, an important figure for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The piece is full of drama: earthquake, wind, fire and drought, famine, flood and resurrection. Five soloists are led by bass David Soar as Elijah, who is much in demand on the concert platform and in the opera house, with major roles in the current season at the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

The festival closes on Tuesday 7th in Sherborne Abbey with presenter, actor, quiz show host, singer, adventurer and comedian Alexander Armstrong. A trained classical baritone, who was a chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh and Trinity College, Cambridge, Alexander presents a weekend radio show for Classic FM. His debut solo album, A Year of Songs, reached number six on the UK albums chart in its first week and topped the UK Classical Charts, the first time a comedian/actor has reached number one. In 2016 he released his second album, Upon a Different Shore. His programme at Sherborne will include A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, You Make Me Feel So Young, Lullaby of Birdland, Girls Just Want To Have Fun and many more.

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Pictured; Claire Martin and Ray Gelato; Tenebrae, photograph by Sim Canetty-Clarke; Nichola Benedetti, photograph by Simon Fowler; Alexander Armstrong, photograph by Dan Patrick Hipkin.