25 years of the Cerne Abbas Festival

14th July 2015 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 0 comments

DSC02579Just back from the 25th anniversary festival run by the Gaudier Ensemble in the lovely old Dorset village of Cerne Abbas (in the photo I’m rehearsing a Mozart piano concerto with (from L to R) Marieke Blankestijn, Lesley Hatfield, Iris Juda, Steve Williams and Christoph Marks. I think I’m right in saying they are veterans of all 25 years of the festival, whereas I have been taking part for a mere 23 years.

During the 25 years of the festival, the core members of the ensemble have fanned out across Europe and now have jobs and families in Austria, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy as well as the UK. To give just one example of the quality of players: there are currently four leaders of European symphony orchestras playing violin in the group. There are half a dozen orchestral principals, too, such as artistic director Richard Hosford, principal clarinet in both the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There are guest artists, music students and local schoolchildren involved in different concerts. All this makes it far too complicated and expensive to gather everyone together more than once a year. Rehearsal has to be done ‘in situ’ in the days running up to the festival. Musicians are matched with village residents willing to have them as house guests. This works amazingly well and often leads to lasting friendships.

The festival has been popular from the beginning, and already when I joined in there was talk of people joining the Friends’ Organisation so that they could get their hands on tickets before everything sold out. Even as a Friend it wasn’t easy for people to get exactly the tickets they wanted; over the years I heard of people driving to Cerne Abbas with their form to hand it in personally to the ‘box office’ (a long-suffering saintly resident of the village) on the first day of booking. One of the things I most like about the festival is seeing the same faces in the audience year after year. They are not all local faces, either: people come from other counties, even from other countries. This year I met a Dutch couple who happened upon the festival by chance while on holiday a decade ago, and have returned every year since.

Every summer when national newspapers publish their guide to ‘music festivals’, they ignore events like this, of which the UK is full. I’ve never been able to understand it, except as a non-supportive attitude towards classical music. In the past I’ve written to editors to complain and (more constructively) send in details of the festival programme. Silence follows, and as far as I know, the Cerne Abbas Music Festival has never been acknowledged in the mainstream press. Critics don’t come and the concerts are never broadcast, despite being a superb example of cross-Europe collaboration.

Sometimes it feels quite jolly to be involved in something that’s an ‘insider tip’. But given the press coverage accorded any pop festival which can assemble some mud and a field to camp in, it’s baffling that a musical success like the Cerne Abbas festival is still an insider tip after twenty-five years!

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