Last week I took part in the Cerne Abbas Music Festival, held by the Gaudier Ensemble in rural Dorset. For the past thirty-two years, the same group of musicians has been gathering in Cerne for a week in the summer, to present a series of chamber music concerts in the village church.
The original string and wind players started out as friends and colleagues in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Clarinettist Richard Hosford proposed starting a little festival in Dorset, where he grew up. Cerne Abbas was chosen because its church offered a flexible space and its clergy were enthusiastic about the idea.
After two festivals the musicians decided to add a piano, to give them access to a larger repertoire. This was where I came in, and I have joined the others every year since then, I think, except during the pandemic.
The original members gradually fanned out across Europe to become leaders and principals of symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras and string quartets in cities from Rotterdam to Rome and Salzburg to Stockholm. But they still kept a week free for chamber music in Dorset with their old friends. People coming to the concerts would blink with surprise when they read the musicians’ biographies in the back of the festival programme. How come all these orchestral principals from across Europe were here in this little village?
This year we played six concerts, all with completely different programes. This meant an intense few days of rehearsal, for which one had to be thoroughly prepared as there was no time to work out the best fingering for difficult passages, or to iron out technical issues while the others waited. Getting so much repertoire to concert standard in a short time can only be done if everyone starts from a high level. Somehow the players managed, as they always do, to rise to the occasion and produce some quite special performances.
By chance, several of the pieces were played by all-female groups. I had noticed this casually, but not thought any more about it until one after one such group, with me on piano, had played the Brahms Piano Quintet, one of chamber music’s mighty masterpieces. A member of the audience told me afterwards how cheering he found it that famous works can now be performed by women without anyone making patronising remarks such as, ‘Ah! Here come the ladies to try their hands at the great Brahms!’
In his youth, he said, he never saw an all-female group tackling ‘big works’ – indeed he could hardly remember a string quartet with a female player. He could vividly imagine what ‘witty’ things chaps would have said if a bunch of women had dared to tackle a big Romantic showpiece.
But slowly things have changed. Audiences now accept all-female groups without unease. Indeed, I have often heard people comment that they like the particular light that women throw on old favourites. In my experience, all-women groups are not trying to be different from men, but there are subtle differences nonetheless.
As my friend from the audience said, ‘When I think back to how attitudes used to be – it is an infinitely better world that we have today!’