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

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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