A big weekend at Battle Arts and Music Festival

Battle Arts and Music Festival
Battle Arts and Music Festival

The first Battle Arts & Music Festival reached its climax with a series of signature weekend concerts, the highlight of two weeks of events featuring music, literature, dance, workshops and visual arts.

Two successful concerts earlier in the year set out the festival’s ambition to attract “world-class” performers to the town, and this promise was certwainly carried through into the main festival.

With renowned artists Sir Andrew Davies and Tim Rice-Oxley as patrons, and the newly-formed Battle Festival Sinfonia bringing together instrumentalists and soloists from leading national orchestras, the festival has certainly punched above its weight from the start.

Add to that the renowned vocalist Ruthie Culver performing with the stylish and inventive UtterJazz (of which more later), the sheer quality of the headline events both thrilled and moved the audiences.

One of the festival’s themes was to educate, inform and embrace all ages – with workshops aimed at encouraging young talent (the festival performers of the future?) and Tim Rice-Oxley’s mentoring sessions – and in this spirit the thoughtful programming of artistic director Dan Cornford combined well-known pieces with works performed less often, but equally deserving of their place in the repertoire.

Friday 24th October

And so Friday night in St Mary’s Church in Battle saw a large audience treated to A Sussex Legacy, a programme of music celebrating some of the county’s rich musical heritage (both past and present), with works selected to mark the centenary of 1914. Elgar dominated the first half, with a stirring Cello Concerto the highlight. For those of us more familiar with the version for full orchestra, this arrangement for chamber orchestra was a different experience, but the combination of Matthew Sharp’s sympathetic and passionate cello, the Battle Festival Sinfonia, ably conducted by Simon Baggs, and the hall acoustics captured perfectly the scale and emotive force of the piece.

Matthew – like many of the festival musicians, a master of many talents – returned in the second half in the baritone role for Reconciliation from Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem. From the pulpit, soprano Jacobine van Laar provided the counterpoint to Walt Whitman’s poignant verse, a timely reminder of the futility and tragedy of war.

A suitably sombre and elegiac Lament by Hove-born Frank Bridge - dedicated to the victims of the Lusitania – was followed by Vaughan William’s Concerto Grosso, with a vibrant and sparkling performance from the Sinfonia in full flow.

A festival is as much about heralding the new as celebrating the old, and the next two short works were world premiere performances from Sussex composer Tony Biggin. The words for Steyning –with Matthew Sharp again impressive as baritone – came from a poem written in the trenches by a young soldier from West Sussex. Biggin’s careful arrangement brought the text to its fore, with its lament for lost innocence (“And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair”), capturing the young man’s longing for home and the “lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring”.

The second piece though was arguably the highlight of the second half. The Requiem has taken Biggin 14 years to complete, and the short movement premiered here, If Only, with Alec Davison’s moving text and Jacobine van Laar’s melancholy and evocative soprano, took the audience to new levels of emotion , yet without straying into sentimentality. The Requiem has yet to be performed in full, so perhaps 2015’s festival will be an opportunity for this?

The evening concluded on more familiar ground with George Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow, written in East Chiltington by a composer whose death in the trenches in 1916 left a talent unfulfilled. Again, the sense of place and longing was perfectly captured in a passionate and sensitive rendition.

Saturday 25th October

Saturday lunchtime, and St Mary’s was again the venue for a short recital and talk about the war poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Professor Kelsey Thornton – academic and editor of the Gurney Society Journal – traced Gurney’s poetic development from a young man keen to enlist amidst the patriotism of 1914, to a bitter, disillusioned veteran of the trenches, unable even to mourn the loss of his closest friends, and destined to spend the rest of his life in institutions. The accompanying music was perfectly chosen as a counterpoint to this, pianist Marisa Thornton-Wood introducing the key themes of each song, and Mae Heydorn’s soprano moving effortlessly from the elegiac By A Bierside to the rumbustious Captain Stratton’s Fancy, written as a tonic for British POWs in German camps.

Saturday evening’s concert, in the splendid setting of the Abbot’s Hall at Battle Abbey School, brought together works by Bach, and his contemporaries Handel and Telemann. The Sinfonia, conducted by harpsichordist Bernard Robertson , gave insightful and well-paced interpretations of these Baroque chamber classics.

Handel was represented by a selection of arias and duets which opened each half of the programme, performed with great verve by soprano Jacobine van Laar (soprano) and alto Mae Heydorn. The highlight here was undoubtedly Mae’s spirited and energetic “Iris, hence away” (from Semele), which carried orchestra and audience together on a breathless flight of wit and joy.

The first half ended with CPE Bach’s Flute Concerto in A major, soloist Stewart McIlwham particularly impressive in the lively final allegro. After the interval, Dan Cornford took centre stage for Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major, a majestic work with an evocative and sombre third movement, and played here with great passion.

Finally, J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, carried off with verve by soloists Rosie Staniforth and Dominic Moore, brought a memorable evening to a close.

Sunday 26th October

Ruthie Culver & the UtterJazz Quartet have – quite rightly – been earning plaudits for their jazz settings of Britten’s songs by WH Auden, and here they were complemented by the actor Anton Lesser’s engaging readings of Auden’s poetry - “Miss Gee” in particular memorable for the sudden change of tone from black comedy to a far darker tragedy.

Britten’s own settings – played here over the PA during the interval – are well known, but these versions are a delightful melange of invention, drama and wit. Ruthie’s expressive and dynamic voice stamped her authority on each song, but the band too more than played its part – Dan Hewson’s piano and keyboards setting the tone, the versatile and multi-talented Jonny Gee providing engaging bass solos, complemented by Mick Foster’s soaring clarinet and sax, and all held tightly together by the drums of Andrea Trillo. Highlights were many -Seascape perfectly reflecting the ebb and flow of the tide, an evocative Nocturne, but perhaps most moving was Funeral Blues, the setting of “Stop all the clocks” with a background somewhere between a New Orleans street funeral and 1930s Berlin, and which led to more than a few lumps in throats and damp eyes before the rousing comic finale of “When you’re feeling like expressing your affection”.

From here straight to St. Mary’s for the final concert. A longer interval before the next concert would have been welcome – the performers happily mingled after each show, but no opportunity to linger this time.

A smaller audience this evening, perhaps inevitable given the scheduling, but still the tireless Battle Festival Sinfonia, again conducted by Bernard Robertson, played once more with great flair, insight and virtuosity.

Haydn’s overture to Lo Speziale opened the evening, followed by Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, played by Nick Carpenter on the unusual basset clarinet, which added more substance and tonal range to the piece, and was carried off with aplomb.

J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia Concertante in A major is a minor delight and was here given a lively reading by soloists Patrick Savage (violin) and Roberto Sorrentino (cello). The concert ended with Clementi’s Symphony No 2 in D major, another rarer work, and perhaps not an obvious choice to close the festival. Once more though, Dan Cornford’s sense of programming proved to be immaculate, and the expansive and joyful Haydnesque melodies brought the concert and the weekend to a suitably upbeat and satisfying conclusion.

Battle Festival 2015

And so to 2015. Without a doubt, the organisers have set themselves a high standard. There remains much to explore and excite in the musical history of Sussex, but, for all its sense of place, this festival is not constrained by town and county borders, and so much the better.

The festival team – led by the indefatigable David Furness – has certainly laid the foundations for a significant new event in the Sussex cultural calendar, and one which – on this evidence - will no doubt attract attention from far and wide in years to come.