Why I refuse to accept the current state of (non) play
Wednesday, August 19, 2020
Jamie Walton, cellist and Founder and Curator of the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival on how live concerts must not be allowed to fade away: 'We seem to be living in some kind of paralysed state, whilst the rest of Europe creatively wakes up'
I’m sitting in a 5000 square foot marquee, its wooden floor strewn with scores from an intense few hours of rehearsing Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 (arr Webern). The espresso cups littering the socially distanced stage are testament to some intense concentration from my fellow artists as we head into our eighth concert within the last 10 days in this remote part of North Yorkshire. Part of me is still incredulous: how on earth have we done this when the government had, in effect, stopped all indoor concerts until at least next month?
Our North York Moors Chamber Music Festival – now in its twelfth year – opened on August 9 with the Quartetto di Cremona, having travelled from Italy the day before, performing Beethoven op 132 and the Schubert string quintet. Never was there such relief to hear the opening bars of such a piece. Our sheer determination could easily have been thwarted – concerts banned, a local virus outbreak, flights cancelled, quarantine restrictions. A gamble? You bet it was. But a fearless passion and utter refusal on my part to accept the current state of live musical silence across the UK drove me to convert sheer exasperation into stubborn creativity. Why should we follow everyone else and meekly cancel too? I wasn’t seeing much leadership out there suggesting we should challenge this enforced silence. Whilst pubs and restaurants were priority, I was not prepared to see live music be seen as a mere ‘optional extra’.
This climate of fear peddled by our government isn’t just crippling the nation’s confidence, but ominously threatening the viability of many within the Arts
This is a real worry after all that has happened this year. This climate of fear peddled by our government isn’t just crippling the nation’s confidence (and now potentially ruining the lives of our youngest hopes) but ominously threatening the viability of many within the Arts. We seem to be living in some kind of paralysed state, whilst the rest of Europe creatively wakes up. This somehow seems cruelly apt now that we have left the European Union. Many of us feel the anger and frustration at this hollowing-out of the Arts but it is no good to feel anger – like many artists, the only option is to channel it into expression. I felt within myself an increasing intensity of creative energy and determination. After all, isn’t this what the Arts are for? Music has the capacity not only to heal but to express what we cannot possibly make sense of; therefore, how cruel that our industry has been forced to hibernate or, in many cases, collapse altogether.
Whilst the powers that be may not treasure the necessity of our creative talents, some of us do and will stand up for an industry which during lockdown provided solace for many. This is not about preservation; some elements of our world which have been swept away won’t come back. They were built on thin foundations rather than authenticity.
So how did we do it? The options of using churches was a non-starter even after the tentative steps to return from 1st August. Nervous church authorities were going to tie us up in red tape. We decided the best option was to go with a huge marquee in some kind of large open space on business premises (the law was very clear on needing this) that could allow social distancing throughout. A marquee also had the advantage of it could be made ‘outside’ in legal terms if we needed to – and, boy, did that little lifeboat save us in the first week when Boris delayed the shift to indoors by two weeks. Otherwise we would have been sunk. The cost was eye-watering but this was the time to take risks. We installed a wooden floor and set about the construction of thirteen 8-foot acoustic panels to help convert this cavernous space into something which resembled a concert hall, albeit one with the sound of birdsong and tractors.
Everyone involved had to have a bit of a leap of faith – musicians were booked on trust and quite prepared to get contracts through only a week in advance – just in case. Similar for printing our brochure. We brought our local landscape to use with our acoustic panels decorated with moorland coastal scenes from our landscape photographer Paul Ingram.
What was the result? The gods were smiling on us as for the first week: when we were forced to be ‘outdoors’ we experienced the heatwave. The acoustic was a revelation and the musicians were relieved making music together.
This experience has been a thrilling revelation to the point that we are now tempted to stick with this formula for next year’s festival after the dazzling success of this one, staged against all odds. Necessity is the mother of invention and we just need to find a way through that isn’t in the text books. If the government are going to tear up the rule book, then so should we.
For more information, please visit www.northyorkmoorsfestival.com
Photos by Matthew Johnson