The Real Life Event

A review of the Southwell Music Festival 2018 by Nottingham Post critic William Ruff:

There’s no such thing as disappointment at the Southwell Festival – except when the tickets sell out.

Forget about births, marriages and deaths: it’s the annual Southwell Music Festival that’s the real life event.  It’s not at all unusual to hear audience members declaring that some of the richest musical experiences of their concert-going lives have occurred in the five years of the Festival’s existence.  Many events quickly become sell-outs – and you can see why.  Take just two events from the 2018 Festival: standing ovations for the exceptional performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass on the opening Wednesday and for another superlative interpretation from Sheku Kanneh-Mason, this time of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on Saturday night.

As the Festival grows, so the task of assembling the artists, creating the ever more adventurous programme and ensuring that such a wealth of talent is used to maximum effect must become more complex.  That it all works so smoothly is a testimony to the dedication not only to the many musicians but also to the team of administrators and volunteers who are also on hand to direct operations and welcome visitors with such warmth and enthusiasm.  And at the helm, with seemingly endless energy, is the Festival’s Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth.

Colours were well and truly nailed to the mast on the opening day.  It takes both courage and confidence to start a Festival with Bach’s B Minor Mass: magnificent music which makes almost impossible demands on the performers.  Marcus Farnsworth’s direction was masterly, moulding the outstanding vocal and instrumental forces gathered together into an intuitive chamber ensemble, not only producing beautiful sound individually but also listening, responding, communing with each other, subsuming their own artistry into a greater whole.

Pianist Clare Hammond was one of several Nottingham artists to feature this year.  Her stylish, elegant way with a Haydn sonata delighted those attending her Saturday lunchtime recital. Her sense of humour emerged with three short depictions of bees by Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov and (hilariously) Ewan Campbell, whose Flight of the Killer Bee certainly had a sting in its tail.  Vividly colourful, excitingly dramatic performances of five Debussy Préludes and Stravinsky’s Petrushka completed her programme.

Amongst the wealth of chamber music on offer was an evening of works by Czech composers.  The Festival Chamber Soloists spoke the musical language of Dvorak’s String Sextet with an entirely authentic accent.  Pianist James Cheung and soprano Alison Rose followed with Dvorak’s richly tuneful Seven Gypsy Melodies, the score really blossoming in their hands.  And then in the second half came one of the most intense moments of the 2018 Festival, the searchingly intelligent performance of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared by tenor Andrew Tortise and mezzo Madeleine Shaw.

There will be many more commemorations of the Great War this year, but surely none will be more exploratory than Sunday night’s For the Fallen, a programme which juxtaposed such diverse composers as Suk, Stuart Macrae, Butterworth and Stravinsky.  The wealth of vocal and instrumental expertise and the intelligence behind the programme’s planning made this a poignant tribute to victims of human conflict.

If you could distill the huge diversity of events into just two hours, Saturday night’s concert would do nicely.  The Minster, as full as it’s ever been with audience, musicians and volunteers, witnessed not only Sheku’s extraordinary talent in his heart-stoppingly lovely performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto but also a thrilling interpretation of Tippett’s challenging A Child of Our Time.

If all this has whetted appetites for next year, it’s best to run to the box office as soon as the starting pistol fires. There’s no such thing as disappointment at the Southwell Festival – except when the tickets sell out.

2018 Festival Bach B Minor Mass Review

William Ruff of the Nottingham Post attended the performance of JS Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Minster on the first night of the Festival and was moved to write this piece which he has given us permission to publish here:

Festival Baroque Voices. Photo: Hannah Cooke

“Something happened in the nave of Southwell Minster on the opening night of this year’s Festival which should have been impossible. To start at the end: festivals may occasionally conclude with standing ovations but they rarely start with one. But try keeping the Minster audience on their seats after such a stunning performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass by the Festival Baroque Soloists and Voices. But what of the impossibilities which led to this? Marcus Farnsworth’s direction was as invisible as it was masterly. The more one looked the more one couldn’t see how he was doing it. The only explanation was that in rehearsal he had turned his outstanding vocal and instrumental forces into an intuitive chamber ensemble, not only producing beautiful sound individually but also listening, responding, communing with each other, subsuming their own artistry into a greater whole.


Festivals may occasionally conclude with standing ovations but they rarely start with one. But try keeping the Minster audience on their seats after such a stunning performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass by the Festival Baroque Soloists and Voices


The platform layout emphasised the approach, with instruments on one side facing vocalists on the other, able to see each other and perfectly at one in matters of phrasing, balance and timbre. Amongst the most moving aspects of the performance were the duets for two solo voices or for voice and solo instrument as individual musical talents melted into a profoundly spiritual experience infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Photo: Dick Makin

As far as detail is concerned it’s hard to know where to begin and end as the performers’ vision was so unanimous and rooted in complete faithfulness to Bach’s extraordinary music. There was no sense of labouring towards a pinnacle as these musicians had already arrived at the summit before a note was sounded. And there they remained, Bach’s often impossibly difficult music freely flowing in their veins. But amongst my scribblings I found myself noting the way the performers conveyed Bach’s dance rhythms and the way in which they made tiny gradations of dynamics sound so thrilling, often pressing gently on notes to squeeze out their full potential. Then there was the crystal clarity of texture throughout, as evident in the resplendent choruses as in the introspective solos. The sheer volume of sound produced by only ten singers was as remarkable as the fact that each had to move seamlessly from immersion in choral grandeur to the intimacy of the jewel-like arias.

Other highlights? The bright, buoyant opening of the Gloria; the way that musical weight was imparted to the words in phrases like in terra pax; the chiaroscuro effects of light and darkness as the Crucifixus gave way to the triumphant Et resurrexit; the explosive Amen at the end of the Credo; the glorious Osannas capping the Sanctus and Benedictus.

After such a sequence of musical and spiritual profundities delivered by some of the most expert players and singers one is likely ever to hear in this work it’s not surprising that the audience rose so spontaneously to their feet at the end. If Marcus Farnsworth and his like-minded musicians had set out to achieve the impossible, no one present in the Minster on Wednesday was in any doubt that they had succeeded.”

Looking Forward to our Fifth Annual Festival

Happy New Year!  We hope 2018 brings you health and happiness and much pleasurable enjoyment of either making or listening to music – not least at the 2018 Southwell Music Festival.

It is hard to comprehend that this year’s festival will be our fifth but there it is – in the era of ‘fake news’ this is one fact that stubbornly refuses to be denied.  Nor is there any denying the progress made since 2014 to establish a distinctive classical music event with a national reputation. This has been achieved with the help of so many wonderful people – our ensemble of brilliant singers and players, many of whom return year after year, and our wonderful  supporters both locally and further afield including generous sponsors of events and performances, Friends, hosts, volunteers and more.  And not forgetting the ever-supportive staff at our venues, most especially at Southwell Minster.

So we look forward to meeting between Wednesday 22nd and Monday 27th August – this year a six day festival to keep pace with public demand.  Nevertheless please be assured it will remain possible to hear every single programme if that is your heart’s desire.

We will announce the full programme for the 2018 Festival at a free concert in the Minster on Friday 13th April. However, in case you missed it, we hope you will be as excited as we are by the news that our central choral and orchestral concert in the Minster on Saturday 25th August will feature Nottingham’s BBC Young Musician winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

That concert will also include Sir Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time which was written in response to events associated with the rise of Nazism: it is a work which I have wanted to introduce to our public ever since we started the Festival – a passionate cry for tolerance of the stranger which points us towards our common humanity and has become more urgently relevant with every passing year.

It was good to see so many people at our first Christmas concert with the Festival Voices in Southwell Minster on 22nd December, and good to receive such a favourable reaction both from the public and from William Ruff writing in the Nottingham Post who considered that “solo and ensemble singing doesn’t get any better than this.”

We look forward to seeing you in August, if not in April.

That Went Well!

To judge by audience reaction, the 2017 Festival which closed on Bank Holiday Monday 28th August surpassed its predecessors in the quality of programming and performances.  This is remarkable in view of the outstanding quality of previous Festivals.

Music critic William Ruff, writing enthusiastically about the Festival in the Nottingham Post, summed up what we are trying to achieve:

“The Southwell Festival reaches out to musicians and audience alike, embracing them all in the warmest of welcomes.  There really is something for everyone: music new and old, music for small children and for experts, music for singers and for instrumentalists, for large groups and small ensembles.  Even free music for picnickers.”

You can read Mr Ruff’s review in full here and I hope you will.

This year’s Festival also attracted record numbers of attendees: there were 27% more ‘bums on seats’ this year compared to last.  The estimated number of attendees across all festival concerts – both paid for and free – was in excess of 5,000.  In addition there were four well-attended services in the Minster.

The figure does not represent the number of individuals who came since most people attended more than one event; however the significant increase over previous years clearly indicates that more people are coming to the Festival and are choosing to attend more events.

I’m very grateful to everyone who played a part in making this year’s Festival the best yet.  It is an extraordinary community effort and the organisers recognise that we could not succeed without that support from far and wide.  Thank you to our wonderful musicians and to all who have so generously provided practical and financial support.

Now we look forward to next year but before that we also prepare to welcome everyone to a special Christmas concert on Friday 22nd December featuring the outstanding Southwell Festival Voices and distinguished actor David Oakes.  A Christmas Celebration will be a potpourri of sacred and secular words and music for Christmas through the ages.  Tickets are already on sale online here, or by phoning 0115 989 5555 or visiting the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham or the Southwell Cathedral Shop.

Incredibly next year will already be our fifth festival and so we aim to make it even more special. It will run over six days from Wednesday 22nd to Monday 27th August and there is one major highlight we can already announce: at the main Saturday night concert in the Minster on 25th August we will present Sir Michael Tippett’s moving oratorio A Child of our Time preceded by a performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in which the soloist will be the wonderful Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

The full programme for the 2018 Festival will be announced in the Minster on Friday 13th April 2018. Tickets will go on sale to Festival Friends from Monday 14th May and general public booking will open on Monday 4th June.

To sum up and provide further encouragement here’s a short video message I recorded as the 2017 Festival was drawing to a close.

We look forward to your company.


Best Festival Yet?

A message from the Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth


Was last weekend’s Southwell Music Festival the best yet?  The first two festivals were very remarkable occasions but I have the feeling that our third was even better.


What made it so good was the range of music, the richness and vitality of the performances and the amazing level of community involvement.


There were larger audiences than ever – including more people attending from outside the Southwell area; record numbers of local people hosting visiting musicians; an increased number of volunteers and Festival Friends; and more people prepared to offer financial support through sponsorship of events or performers.


Among very many highlights one of the most exciting was the first family concert – Peter and the Wolf at the Minster School.  It was wonderful to see so many young families – including more than 100 children – at this new event which was enthusiastically received.  We are committed to developing the classical music audience of the future and this was a good start.


Many audience members have taken the trouble to send messages of appreciation and Jamie Campbell and I have received several heart-felt messages from our fellow musicians including the following which show how much the Festival means to them:

  • “I just wanted to thank the two of you again for this wonderful, intense and deeply fulfilling week at Southwell. The spirit of the festival has been absolutely unique and I am incredibly happy and thankful for being invited.”
  • “If I retired tomorrow some of my fondest memories would be from Southwell!”
  • “I think I can say with some certainty that I’ve heard (and been part of) the best Gerontius I will ever hear.  It was absolutely outstanding. It was lovely to be back, and the festival seems to have gone from strength to strength since I was part of it in year one.”
  • “Southwell Music Festival is rapidly becoming the highlight of my musical year, and I felt really privileged to be alongside such a high calibre of singers. Tackling the difficult repertoire of the Late Night Performance was certainly a highlight for me, but nothing comes close to the Angel’s Farewell in Gerontius – wow.”
  • “The festival is a wonderful thing and the town should be so proud of you, and of all the Minster has offered to young people over the generations.”
  • “You have a fabulous festival, a great programme (and printed programme), and it is run to the highest professional standards – welcoming, attentive, well-organised, helpful staff, and, wow, what venues!”
  • “It really was a special few days that didn’t seem like work at all! It was great making music with a vibrant bunch, in a great building and with such a good choir.”
  • “I had an absolutely fantastic time, and I marvelled at the professionalism, standard and community atmosphere you’ve created.”
  • “I had such a fulfilling and enjoyable week; the programme of music was exhilarating and the other musicians were a blast.”


The Sunday Times chief music critic Hugh Canning was with us for the third time – on this occasion making a special detour from the Edinburgh Festival to attend our Gerontius.  He has written:


“During the final weekend, I made a brief excursion to the Southwell Music Festival in Nottinghamshire, for their big event of the bank holiday weekend. Two years ago, they began with Haydn’s Creation. In 2015, it was Mendelssohn’s Elijah. This year, ever more ambitious, the festival’s artistic director Marcus Farnsworth’s choice fell on Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.


“The young baritone, who sang two performances of Schubert’s Schwanengesang earlier in the week, plies his second trade as a conductor of increasing mastery, assembling his choral and orchestral forces mainly from friends and confreres from his student days. The artistic results are remarkable. The 39 professional choral singers made a huge sound to rival the big amateur forces Elgar envisaged, but effortlessly created a sense of intimacy in Southwell’s beautiful, far from grandiose Minster. There is a palpable sense of a community in this tiny market town, wanting to experience music at the highest level, and Farnsworth, a former chorister at the Minster, and his colleagues are providing it.


“Casting the rising tenor David Butt Philip in the title role proved an inspirational choice. His performance suggested a voice of both Verdian and Wagnerian potential in Sanctus fortis and the climactic Take Me Away! He is far too young to be Elgar’s old man, but the inwardness of his singing of the more contemplative music was arresting. He will surely go far in the role. Anna Stéphany’s velvet-voiced Angel delivered the text with clarity and the consoling music with great beauty of tone. David Soar was the commanding Priest and Angel of the Agony. A splendid and moving Gerontius.”


He was not alone in this view. William Ruff, writing enthusiastically in the Nottingham Post, said: “Late August holiday plans for music-lovers have recently become much easier to make.  The only place to be is Southwell.”


In addition the Newark Advertiser celebrated the Festival with extensive coverage in words and pictures and in particular noted the Festival’s contribution to local tourism, and Robert Jenrick MP focused on the Festival in his column.


The 2017 Festival will take place from Thursday 24th to Monday 28th August and plans will be announced in the Spring.


May I thank the local community and our audiences for their enthusiastic support and our wonderful musicians for their untiring commitment.  Together they ensured that the 2016 Festival was an outstanding success.

Southwell Music Festival 2016

Pre-Festival News

southwell music festival 2016

Free Concert to Launch 2016 Programme

2016_launch_concertThe programme for the 2016 Southwell Music Festival will be launched at a free concert on Friday 18th March at 7.30pm in Southwell Minster.

Festival Founder and Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth says:

I will be introducing the programme in the course of a special free concert: our purpose is not only to publish our exciting plans but also to introduce some of the artists taking part.  A free concert is also a small way to say ‘thank you’ for all the generous support which the Festival receives in so many ways.”

The performers that evening include the soprano Alison Rose who will sing songs by Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.  Also appearing in this special preview concert will be clarinettist Matt Glendening, the Principal Clarinet of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, who was the 2015 winner of the Nottingham Young Musician of the Year competition.

There will also be a chance to hear solo performances by the internationally-acclaimed young Polish violinist Maria Włoszczowska who will play Telemann and Bela Bartók’s Romanian Dances. Maria is one of the many outstanding performers who enjoy being part of the Festival ensemble and whose contribution makes the quality of Festival performances so outstanding.

A flyer with details of the launch concert can be downloaded here.

southwell music festival

2016 – The Dream of Gerontius

Plans for the 2016 Southwell Music Festival (25-29 August) are now being finalised and we are delighted to announce that the main work will be Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.  It will be performed in the Minster on Saturday 27th August at 7.30pm.

Three outstanding soloists, who each enjoy a growing international reputation on the opera and concert stage and in the recording studio, will take the solo parts:

The choir and orchestra will be formed from the ensemble of more than 80 visiting professional musicians who make up the Southwell Festival Voices and Southwell Festival Sinfonia.

Details of the remainder of the 2016 programme will be announced during a special free concert at the Minster on Friday 18th March at 7.30pm.

“A community event of an astoundingly high standard”

We have heard from a variety of sources that last weekend’s Festival was considered to be of a remarkably high quality.  Now the Festival has received its first review in the national press – a column published on the Sunday Times website today by the paper’s chief music critic Mr Hugh Canning.

Under the sub-heading “Southwell Music Festival is the new kid on the block, but already it’s a wow for Hugh Canning” he suggests that Southwell Minster’s status as one or Britain’s best-kept secrets may change following the establishment of the Festival.

Having attended both of the first two festivals Mr Canning is ideally placed to judge our progress, saying that “If last year’s Creation was a bold and brave opener, [Elijah] was a clear indication that Southwell can already equal, even surpass, more established festivals.”

In 2014 he sensed “a community event of an astoundingly high standard” when attending what he describes as “a vivid, life-enhancing performance of Haydn’s The Creation”.  He is equally full of praise for this year’s Elijah and everyone connected with it – “one of the most gripping live performances I have heard”.

Hugh Canning also enjoyed our Schubertiade and in particular the Trout Quintet: “A thrillingly fresh account of a much-performed work…I’ve heard less gripping readings from much bigger names.”

He also attended the late-night performance of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross given in the round and in semi-darkness beneath the Minster’s central tower and found this possibly the most memorable concert of all that he attended.

We are delighted that Hugh Canning should have made not one but two evidently enjoyable visits to Southwell and his comments will be much appreciated by everyone connected with the Festival who has done so much to bring it about.

This year Hugh also took part in the Festival himself – conducting the highly enjoyable illustrated conversation with our Patron Dame Felicity Lott: we are most grateful to him for doing so. Hugh’s full article on the Sunday Times website can be found here where it sits behind a paywall.

With best wishes


southwell music festival

The 2015 Programme

My thanks to all those who joined us at Southwell Minster last month for the launch of the 2015 Festival programme – and thank you for so many appreciative comments.

The programme will be on the same lines as 2014 with a mix of lunchtime, evening and late night concerts.  At its centre is Mendelssohn’s great oratorio Elijah which will be given on Saturday evening 29th August in the Minster: this will be a wonderful showcase for the outstanding young professional singers and instrumentalists – led by one of Britain’s leading bass-baritones Andrew Foster-Williams in the title role.

The big change this year – by popular demand – is that we are starting a day earlier – on Thursday 27th August.  We will then repeat that evening’s simultaneous concerts in the State Chamber and The Stage at the Old Theatre Deli the following day.  In this way we are able to increase the number of tickets available by about 30%.

Full details of the programme can be found here and booking information is available here.  Alternatively the brochure is available from a number of locations in and around Southwell and at arts and other venues across Nottinghamshire.

We are immensely grateful to a large number of very generous sponsors – led once more by our Festival Sponsor Mr Geoffrey Bond – whose contributions have enabled us to plan this exciting programme with confidence.

We have also been encouraged by the number of people signing up as Festival Friends and are most grateful for their support.  It is still not too late to join and take advantage of a number of valuable benefits.

We look forward to seeing you in August.