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New York Times: A Summer Music School for Stars, Amateurs and Students

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The writer Michael White was at Dartingon 2016, for the New York Times

 

DEVON, England — Medieval manor houses often come with ghosts, and Dartington — a 14th-century estate in rural Devon — no doubt has its share. But they don’t rest in peace during the summer.

On a recent sun-scorched afternoon, the sound of trumpets blasted from an attic by the gatehouse while piano duets thundered from the hall, and a cacophony of wind ensembles, string quartets and opera filled the outbuildings.

The Dartington International Summer School and Festival was in business, with nearly 300 people on-site: some to listen, some to learn, but most of them to play or sing. And they epitomized diversity, with star names like the pianist Steven Osborne, the trumpeter Alison Balsom and a 96-year-old former World War II navigator who came to polish up his violin technique.

The festival, which ran from July 30 to Aug. 27 this year, blurs the usual divide between professional and amateur. It is a cultural democracy, peculiarly English in its way, though driven by the worldview of a wealthy American, Dorothy Elmhirst, who acquired the manor house and its estate in 1925.

 At that point the estate was semiderelict, but Ms. Elmhirst — a daughter of William C. Whitney — and her husband brought it back to life for a utopian experiment in how to live rewardingly, responsibly and ethically, with arts and crafts essential to the plan.

Over the years, the Elmhirsts set up a progressive boarding school and art college. They hosted thinkers, writers, artists and musicians. The liberal ethos they espoused spilled across into the nearby town of Totnes, which became (and still is) a retreat for ’60s peace campaigners and aromatherapists.

Utopian dreams, though, have a habit of not lasting. Ms. Elmhirst died in 1968. The money started to run out. The boarding school was closed in the 1980s. In 2010, the college moved away from the estate, subsumed into another institution.

Apart from an on-site foundation that runs courses in sustainable living, the chief surviving statement of the Elmhirsts’ vision of utopia is the Summer School, which Dartington’s governing trust took on in 1953 and has been running ever since.

To some extent, with its teaching component, Dartington bears comparison with American festivals like Tanglewood or Aspen. But it is the mix of professionals and amateurs that sets Dartington apart. Among the names in residence this year was the Heath Quartet, perhaps the most impressive and dynamic of the newer British string quartets, performing concerts in the evening (but as a trio, because the group’s second violinist was unwell). By day, though, they were teaching attendees as varied as serious music students, surgeons, judges, businesspeople and retirees, all of whom pay to be there. Their fees — a week’s worth of concerts and courses is around 400 pounds, or $524, plus optional accommodation — keep Dartington afloat.

The Heath Quartet also served as the tryout band for composition classes run by Judith Weir, the Master of the Queen’s Music, testing works-in-progress by postgraduate students.

“It’s been an interesting process dealing with this crisis of a missing player,” Ms. Weir said. “The quartet ideas the students came with were preoccupied with balance and ensemble issues. But converted into trios, the concerns are now more soloistic — which has been productive in its way.”

Dartington has always thrived, though, on the unexpected. There is a complex daily schedule of events, and all the public concerts — three per night across the four weeks of the school — are organized well in advance. The highlights in the final week were Mr. Osborne playing Debussy with fierce magnificence, a “Carmen” conducted by the English National Opera’s former music director Sian Edwards, and a Fauré Requiem conducted by one of the original King’s Singers, Nigel Perrin.

But as Dartington participants acknowledge, some of its most memorable moments are spontaneous. People meet, relationships develop, projects spring from nowhere.

“Brokering relationships is part of the job here,” said the pianist Joanna MacGregor, the school’s artistic director. “One of the things I try to do is embed young, student performers into concerts alongside the big names, to give them a sense of what it’s like to work at that level.

“Dartington has always attracted charismatic figures: Stravinsky, Britten, Imogen Holst were all here,” Ms. MacGregor continued. “Peter Maxwell Davies was one of my predecessors as artistic director. It’s an ongoing legacy. And a big attraction for the students and amateurs who come is to make contact with these master musicians. Meet them over breakfast. Go to their classes. Learn from them.”

One of this year’s most remarkable events was a duet by the gifted student pianists Thomas Ang and Joseph Havlat, both of them still at the Royal Academy in London but already performers of powerful presence.

When they weren’t giving concerts, they too were playing for composition and conducting classes, or helping captains of industry three times their age to master Bartok.

“What I like about this place is the lack of barriers,” Mr. Havlat said. “The stars, the amateurs, the students — everybody works together, with no obvious hierarchies. And playing for amateur classes, I get confronted with music I’d never see in college. Someone turned up yesterday wanting to run through Honegger’s cello concerto. A discovery.”

Dartington discoveries include the fact that serious musicians can have interests beyond serious music. This year offered Alfred Brendel lecturing on Woody Allen, and a Charlie Chaplin film with live accompaniment from Ms. MacGregor backed by a jazz ensemble. Regular participants fondly talk about years gone by with Buddhist monks and alphorns in the tiltyard. Eccentricity is not discouraged.

Whether it can flourish in the future, though, is a unanswered question. With no public funding for its day-to-day existence and the Elmhirst money largely spent, Dartington Trust is struggling, and there has been much debate about what it should do to “take the vision of the past into the 21st century,” as the trust’s chairman, Greg Parston, puts it.

Plans to commercialize the estate, which would have halved the Summer School’s accommodation, have been criticized and dropped. But the trust’s website prophesies collapse “within five years if we continue as we are.”

Perhaps the quirky, English-democratic charm of Dartington is unsustainable. But there are many who would fight to keep it, and Ms. Weir is one.

“It’s not just that it does extraordinary work,” she said, “but that it stands for something. It’s this country’s version of how we do music. Isn’t that worth holding onto?”

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Joanna MacGregor extends position as Artistic Director

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Photo credit: Kate Mount

 

Joanna MacGregor extends position as Artistic Director
 

The Dartington Hall Trust is delighted to announce that Joanna MacGregor OBE will be extending her position as Artistic Director for The Dartington International Summer School & Festival until summer 2019. Joanna’s carefully curated programme is stronger than ever with more than ninety concerts and events taking place over four weeks next August. Dartington’s commitment to developing the arts and creativity is embraced by Joanna, and the world famous summer school is designed for everyone: professional musicians, music students and of course local concertgoers. 2017 will see Sweeney Todd and Peter Grimes sit alongside legendary pianist Alfred Brendel on Schubert and folk sessions with Martin and Eliza Carthy. We also look forward to Dartington’s second Party in the Town on 28 April 2017, happening all over Totnes and collaborating with local artists.
 
Since her inaugural festival in 2015, Joanna MacGregor’s programme has substantially increased the festival audience, and attracted exciting new artists to the South West.
 
Dartington’s CEO, Rhodri Samuel says ‘The International Summer School & Festival is our flagship arts event and Joanna MacGregor’s spectacular line up builds upon Dartington’s vision to curate and enable talent. As a new vision for Dartington emerges, we are thrilled that the future of the International Summer School & Festival is looking particularly bright under Joanna’s Artistic Directorship. I am delighted to have secured Joanna for another two years.’

Joanna MacGregor, Artistic Director, says ‘Dartington has been an historically important and vibrant environment for arts, and the four-week Dartington International Summer School & Festival is a joyous, boundary-breaking part of that. I’m delighted to be able to take the Summer School forward towards its seventieth birthday, and continue its great tradition of music-making, friendship and creativity.’
Dartington’s International Summer School & Festival 2017 courses are now open for bookings.
https://www.dartington.org/whats-on/summer-school

Please get in touch with the Summer School office for further details:
+44 (0)1803 847080
summerschool@dartington.org

Notes for Editors

About The Dartington Hall Trust
Dartington uses its landed estate to support creative, resilient communities to make positive social change. We create jobs and build homes, support regional food production and farming, and enrich lives through the arts. Our enterprise activities include the Shops at Dartington, a conference centre with accommodation and the award-winning White Hart restaurant and bar. Dartington International Summer School and Festival programme is part
of Dartington’s work to enrich lives through the arts for positive social change. Dartington Hall Trust is a registered charity – charity number 279756.

Follow @DartingtonArts on Twitter, or www.facebook.com/dartingtonArts to keep up to date.

Professor Joanna MacGregor, OBE, FRAM is one of the world’s most innovative musicians, appearing as a concert pianist, curator and collaborator. Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor of the University of London, Joanna MacGregor is also the Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School & Festival.

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July 27th 2016: Final Note Magazine interview

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In Conversation with Joanna MacGregor

June 11, 2016

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

As one of the leading virtuosos and recording artists of our time, pianist Joanna MacGregor OBE is hailed the world over for her technical brilliance, musical intelligence, and effortless poetic command of her instrument. She has received Honorary Doctorates from Bath University, Bath Spa University and the Open University, as well as Honorary Fellowships from the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity College of Music and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. From 2015 to 2016 she was a Visiting Fellow at Oriel College Oxford, and in June 2016 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cambridge. MacGregor is currently Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor of the University of London. She is also the Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School & Festival.

Over the course of her illustrious career, the British pianist has collaborated with a variety of distinguished conductors including Pierre Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, Valery Gergiev, Sir Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas. She has performed alongside many of the industry’s finest orchestras such as the London Symphony and Sydney Symphony orchestras, Chicago, Melbourne and Oslo Philharmonic orchestras, the Berlin Symphony and Salzburg Camerata. Ever in demand for her keen interpretative facility, MacGregor has premiered many innovative works from a diverse range of composers. Together with her frequent presence on the stage of the BBC Proms, MacGregor performs regularly at major international venues, including Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre, Barbican Centre, Sydney Opera House, Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Mozarteum in Salzburg. In recent years MacGregor has garnered significant acclaim for her interpretations of the keyboard manuscripts of J. S. Bach. She is also the author and creator of the hugely successful Piano Worldpedagogical series.

Aside from her talent as a performer, MacGregor is also admired as a conductor, composer, pedagogue and festival curator. She made her conducting debut in 2002 and went on to solo-direct concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Liverpool Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata and the Hallé. MacGregor has enjoyed a close artistic partnership with Britten Sinfonia for more than fifteen years. As a respected festival curator she has lent her artistic vision to the Bath International Music Festival (2006–2012), the multi-arts Deloitte Ignite Festival at the Royal Opera House (2010), and an orchestral series for Luxembourg Philharmonie, entitled ‘Aventures’, (2012–2013).

With a busy concert season ahead in Europe, Japan, China and the USA, MacGregor is also preparing a recording of the complete Chopin Mazurkas, and will perform them at Wigmore Hall in 2017.

She is currently creating a new ballet with the celebrated choreographer Kim Brandstrup and cultural historian Marina Warner.

Here, we chat to the dynamic musician about Bach, Mozart, writing piano manuals, working with Boulez, pedagogy, and her career as a pianist.

What are your fondest memories of studying piano with your mother?

My mother had me when she was young, and I was her first piano student (she’s taught very small children the piano all her life, and still does, at the age of 80). She was very imaginative in her musical tastes: together we played Bach, Mozart, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Beatles songs, and gospel music.

Why did you decide to follow a career in music?

I’m devoted to practicing and studying music, mainly. It’s the physical and intellectual stamina it requires that I still find so exciting; I really enjoy talking a pencil and marking the score, and spending hours with a work. It’s allowed me to travel all over the world, which I never expected, as a performer.

When did you first begin to compose, and how does that element of your musician self inform your performance self?

Somebody said to me recently that performers play differently if they compose too; they perform from inside the music. I think you look very closely indeed at the text, and at all the little clues…even the handwriting of a composer. I wrote tiny pieces from the age of 3, when I started playing. I think it’s great to approach music like a composition student, taking the work apart and looking at it both structurally and emotionally (not just a ‘famous’ piece, which has to played ‘perfectly’). Familiar repertoire suddenly becomes radical—it’s impossible to play a Beethoven sonata without appreciating how contemporary and fearless Beethoven is, or perform Liszt’s Nuages gris without marveling at the pared-down, melancholic language and innovative harmony.

As a noted interpreter of the keyboard works of J. S. Bach, when did you feel finally ready to approach hisGoldberg Variations?

Not for ages. I’d played Bach all my life—partitas, concertos, the French Suites, Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue—but came to the Goldbergs years later. Once you start studying and playing that piece, you’ll never stop; it’s completely immersive. You’ll return to it again and again, and start collecting lots of different recordings. It’s notoriously difficult, and totally rewarding; it will shift your brain around. Rather like reading a very great novel for the first time, I was relieved to discover how witty and fleeting it was, as well as weighty.

Having played all of Mozart’s 27 concertos, what have you learned about his process?

I always think Mozart is like the weather on the west coast of Ireland—magically changeable and endlessly inventive. The sky darkens in one bar, and the sun comes out in the next. It’s not possible to work on a Mozart concerto without playing every other part in your head, and singing the orchestral score out loud. You’ll definitely become a more collaborative, responsive and empathetic musician. And I like the music Mozart writes in specific tonalities: C minor, A major, F major, B flat major. It’s music of a quicksilver mind, able to touch on depth and tragedy in the most subtle way, as well as irony and tenderness.

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You are highly regarded for your intelligent and authentic realizations of contemporary music — why is the cultivation of ‘New Music’ so important to you?

I studied composition when I was young, so I spent all my time with composers, not performers. It became very natural to play a lot of contemporary music, and to commission music. I realised it made me more receptive to the quiddities of classical repertoire—I became more aware of the daring of many traditional composers, and of how they were talking to each other through their pieces. It also taught me how to really practice.

If you could have a ‘jazz off’ (similar to a dance off) with any musician in the world, who would you choose and what would make the programme?

I’d love to collaborate with Björk on a song cycle, something intense and brooding.

Collaboration is fundamental to the performing arts — from your vast experience performing alongside some of the world’s leading conductors, what makes a successful musical partnership?

Ah, knowing the score inside out. If you collaborate with orchestras and conductors, you must come to the rehearsal knowing the orchestral part as least as well as your own, ready to play with the orchestra. I absolutely adored working with Pierre Boulez, who was warm, witty, kind, and immensely practical. We premiered Birtwistle’s thorny Antiphonies together, and he twinkled through Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind. I was privileged to spend time with him.

In terms of collaborating with musicians outside the classical world—like Andy Sheppard, Nitin Sawhney and Kathryn Tickell—it’s important to come completely open, and ready to try anything. Being prepared to improvise is essential: listening and responding, rather than being virtuosic.

As a concert pianist, traveling is part and parcel of your vocation — how do you deal with the hours following a performance when you are alone in your hotel room?

Oddly, pianists are very good at being on their own; it’s all the solitary hours of practice we do. I really welcome the hours spent travelling as I can do lots of reading and thinking. My idea of a perfect tour is going on a road trip alone, driving through amazing landscapes all day, and playing in a different venue every night. A few years ago I toured the Scottish Highlands, playing the Goldbergs; it was absolute bliss.

What inspired your contribution to the canon of piano pedagogy manuals, and how does the Piano Worldseries differ from its competitors?

I grew up in a home where little children came to have piano lessons, so I was very aware of young people wanting to be excited and amused, even if the music they were playing had three notes and two rhythms. Also, they love to improvise, play jazz and pop, as well as classical melodies; so I invented the cartoon stories ofPiano World, where colourful characters made it possible for children to explore everything straight away. Quite often people bring their Piano World books to my concerts. Years later a piece of mine—Lowside Blues—was set for a Grade 7 Associated Board exam, and I was staggered by the number of pianists playing it worldwide! I wrote it while driving through Mississippi; it was meant to be a bluesy, funny piece, also slightly grumpy.

Individuality, fearless talent, creativity, and the ability to design opportunities are among the many elements fundamental to building a lasting career in classical music — how do you encourage your students to work on such aspects of their musical development?

Well, the piano students at the Royal Academy of Music all come with a very high degree of technical skill and musicianship. But I encourage them to develop other skills—curating, improvising, working with multimedia, commissioning composers, conducting from the keyboard, having a working knowledge of early keyboards—that will help them flourish at the beginning of their careers. Every summer term we run a Piano Festival, which is largely curated now by the students themselves, and it’s a testament to their incredible imagination and unstoppable energy. This year it includes live music to film, the chamber music of Peteris Vasks, a focus on Medtner, Stravinsky, and contemporary Polish music, the complete keyboard music of Ligeti, and lots of chamber music. They’re completely fearless!

We write challenges into the exam curriculum—playing a Mozart concerto and writing your own cadenza, for example—that help develop their initiative, and creative instincts. I’m thrilled that so many of our pianists are already creating their own record labels, concert series and festivals—even while they’re students.

If you could step back in time and hang out with your favorite composer for an hour, whom would you choose and what would you like to ask them?

I’d like to see Mozart play K271; and watch Liszt composing La Lugubre Gondola (I’d be very happy to be invisible). I’d like to sit down and talk about life to John Cage, whom I never met.

When not music making, how do you like to spend your time?

Reading, particularly medieval writers and medieval theology, and contemporary poetry. I love the Sussex landscape, and my garden. I like early architecture and film.

5 pieces of music that collectively summarize you as an artist?

I’ve no idea about summarizing myself as an artist…! At the moment I’m deep into playing late Beethoven, late Liszt, early Ligeti, Stravinsky, and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Erik Satie, Charles Ives, and John Cage are also important to me.

What are you most looking forward to over the coming summer months?

I’ll be running Dartington Summer School and Festival all through August, and playing with lots of wonderful instrumentalists and singers. Then I’ll be preparing the complete Chopin Mazurkas, which I start recording in Aldeburgh this autumn.

To find out more about Joanna MacGregor see: http://soundcircus.com/ and https://www.ram.ac.uk/departments/piano/summer-piano-festival All images displayed in this article are subject to copyright.

NHK World: Joanna MacGregor lecturing on Chopin’s Mazurkas, 9th July 2016

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Japan’s public broadcasting service NHK  filmed five  lectures  from the Royal Academy of Music in London, exploring connections between music and society in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and contemporary composers.

See Joanna MacGregor’s lecture on Chopin here: link

It explores the political and psychological processes of Chopin’s Mazurkas, touching on nationalism and Polish culture, improvisation, and what legacies there are for us as contemporary musicians.

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The third Summer Piano Festival at the Royal Academy of Music is coming!

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Welcome to the Royal Academy of Music’s third Summer Piano Festival – a festival that involves our pianists collaborating with string players, singers, percussionists, composers, visual artists, dancers and actors. We wanted to create a series that reflects the boldness, wit and diversity of the repertoire young pianists play today; so we’ve put together a programme overflowing with ideas and original work, curated by the students themselves.

There’s music from the last four centuries, and some very special celebrations. Firstly, of the mercurial, endlessly innovative Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who died ten years ago this summer. Seven adventurous Academy pianists perform his complete solo keyboard music – from the early 1940s to the 1990s – in one day (1st July). There’s also a focus on strong, contemporary Polish music – Polish Music Exposed – as well as three concerts contrasting the arch-romantic Russian composer/pianist Medtner with Stravinsky, over the two days. And we celebrate the spiritually poetic music of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, on his seventieth birthday (30th June).

All these programmes run concurrently – you can move around freely and hear different pianists playing very different music, all day.

Pianists have always been multitasking creatures; they inevitably end up conducting, curating, communicating, commissioning and composing, as well as performing. So I hope this short, packed festival gives you an idea of the sheer range, individuality and exuberance involved in being a pianist – not just playing the notes, but being a deeply creative and involved musician.

 

Joanna MacGregor honoured as Doctor of Music at Cambridge University, June 15th 2016

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Joanna MacGregor was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge today, alongside Sir Nicholas Serota, Sir Nicholas Hytner and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. The sun shone in Clare College Gardens before lunch; then a procession through town took them to Senate House, where their degrees were conferred by Lord Sainsbury, Chancellor of Cambridge University. The Doctor of Music traditionally has a particularly glamorous gown – burgundy silk and gold organza….

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With the President of Murray Edwards College, Dame Barbara Stocking

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Hats are worn after the ceremony!

Dartington’s first Party in The Town, Totnes: May 27th 2016

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Adriano Adewale Party in the TownDartington International Summer School and Festival put on its first-ever Party in the Town in Totnes on May 27th – over 400 local performers and schoolchildren performed in packed venues, from the beautiful parish church of St Mary’s and the medieval Guildhall to the funky ballroom in The Barrel House.

It climaxed with British jazz warrior and sax legend Courtney Pine in Civic Hall (introduced in true rock n’ roll style by Joanna MacGregor). Events and performances – from 6pm to 11pm – were all free, and rapturously received: there were queues and packed houses all over Totnes. A fantastic night!

After having introduced Courtney Pine's House of Legends, headline act, Party in the Town, May 27th 2016

After having introduced Courtney Pine’s House of Legends, headline act, Party in the Town, May 27th 2016

T01_7698T02_1533Courtney Pine performing at Party in the Town