Dartington International Summer School

Hannah NepilWed 24th August 2011
The Summer School's idyllic setting (photo: Kate Mount)The Summer School's idyllic setting (photo: Kate Mount)

Making music and friends (and enjoying food!) in Devon

‘You’ve got to give the punters their smoochy moment, but not for long because we can’t have that kind of thing at Dartington.’ With these words, conductor Stephen Dummer reminds me exactly why I signed up for his fêted Tea Dance Band. And as we launch into a fresh, smoocherific rendition of Irving Berlin’s Fox-Trot Medley, all my cares melt away. Even my most recent endeavours - an hour of Bruckner’s Mass, followed by a very serious session in Advanced Composition - seem little more than distant memories.

That’s how it works at Dartington International Summer School, as I discovered a few days ago when I hopped down to rural Devon. Although I had planned to spend my one week taster overdosing on chamber music, I quickly opted for a more scatter-gun approach. It’s common practice at the five-week-long school, which offers amateur and professional musicians more ensembles, courses, master classes, talks and concerts than they could hope to squeeze into healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. So while I had to forgo the Gospel Choir, and resist the urge to Write an Opera, I found plenty to chew over in a master class given by the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, and two recitals by the Finzi Quartet and the clarinettist David Campbell respectively. And that’s before I even began to factor in the delights of Dartington’s banqueting hall.

It’s here, after a ram-packed day, that you might find yourself sitting next to Stephen Kovacevich, discussing life over a bowl of Dartington’s trademark carrot and ginger soup. And that sums up the Dartington ethos: no matter what age or music level you happen to be, everybody mucks in together. Ensembles are mixed ability – in any of last week’s chamber groups you may have found a near-beginner, an advanced player and a member of the Finzi quartet, which was on-hand all week for chamber coaching. Naturally, the participants are delighted. ‘Where else can you recruit all the great and good for your quartet while queuing for a concert but at Dartington?’ asks Sandra, a GP and long-standing visitor at the summer school. Nobody is there to criticise. Even at concerts there is a refreshing lack of divide between performers and audience – after all they’ve spent the week eating and playing together. 

How many places allow musicians of such wide-ranging abilities and age groups to co-exist without fear of judgement or embarrassment? In my experience, it’s pretty rare. The result is a freedom to take risks that one might not find elsewhere. Gideon, a beekeeper I spoke to at dinner, sings the praises of a double bass class he attended last year: ‘I don’t play the double bass, and I’d never been so close to five double basses at once. But it was brilliant. I still remember the ground shaking.’

This year there is even more reason for experimentation: it is John Woolrich’s first summer as Artistic Director. Although participants are quick to seize on signs of change – I even heard whispers that the mid-morning coffee break had been moved to a different room – Woolrich seems in no hurry to undo the work of his predecessor. ‘Gavin Henderson has created something that really works,’ he told me over a plate of Cumberland sausages. ‘And while the summer school may well end up evolving organically, I don’t want to force any changes.’

As an eminent composer and programme-maker, Woolrich has clearly thought carefully about the evening concerts. ‘I like John’s programming,’ says composer and conductor James Weeks, who directed the Chamber Choir last week. ‘He makes surprising connections between music of different periods that happen to use the same technique or have something else that links them.’ Weeks’s own concert with the chamber choir was no exception. Featuring music by Morton Feldman, Birtwistle, Holst, Brahms and Knussen, in Weeks’s view, it made all sorts of fascinating correspondences. ‘I think it’s a programme about memory and lost lovers,’ says Weeks. ‘Knussen’s Requiem, for example, is about his wife and Birtwistle’s Fields of Sorrow is about lovers who have lost their other half. And that period of Birtwistle’s work was particularly influenced by Feldman so by putting them all together in the same concert, Woolrich is making some subtle associations.’

Despite the care he has taken over the programming, Woolrich fully understands where many participants’ priorities lie: ‘Coming to Dartington is a chance to see old friends,’ he says. Liesbeth, a bassoon player from Amsterdam, would agree. She has been coming to Dartington for the last 36 years, and although she values the music-making, ‘it’s also about the socialising,’ she explains. ‘Over the years I have made many friends at the school. And I also see them elsewhere.’ Next month she and her Dartington pals will meet in Amsterdam to sing Choral Evensong. ‘Dartington is a bit like a drug,’ she says, ‘I get my injection every summer and it keeps me going until Easter.’ She isn’t the only one. Over my week I spoke to people who have been coming to the school for four, even five decades.

As for my own experience, I could dwell on the high points: teaming up with members of the Dartington Festival Orchestra and powering through Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, surrounded by empty beer cans. And the low points: getting horribly lost in the Devonshire countryside at two in the morning, with only some disturbing, long-eared silhouettes for company. But it’s probably better to recall the culmination of the week: our choir performance of Bruckner’s Mass, and the moment, just as we prepared to break into the Kyrie, when someone from the orchestra burst onto stage to ask if anyone in the audience had a spare French horn: his friend’s valves had got stuck. A minute later a spectator came forward proffering his instrument, prompting a flurry of cheers, and the following statement from our choirmaster Charles Peebles: ‘Only at Dartington’.

Hannah Nepil

Hannah was born to Czech(o)Slovak parents, her first musical memory involved doddering along to Smetana's Ma Vlást. When not playing the violin she can be found humming Bohemian folk songs.

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