The latest newsletter from Classical Events features an interview with Em Marshall-Luck, Founder-Director of the English Music Festival (EMF) and Director of its recording and publishing arms, EM Records and EM Publishing. Em has been closely involved in a number of British composer societies since her teens, having been Chairman of the Vaughan Williams Society, and an officer of the Elgar and Warlock societies, amongst others. In addition to directing the festival she works as a journalist, speaker and author.
The 2019 Oxfordshire Festival runs from 24 to 27 May, and a further Yorkshire festival is in the planning stages for this autumn.
Jonathan Heaton (Classical Events) interviews
Em Marshall-Luck (Founder-Director of the English Music Festival)
JH. What was your early musical background?
EML. My parents have a great love of classical music, and my father used to sing Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea to me as an infant – this woke an early love of music – and particularly, the sounds of English music – in me. I also listened to Bach incessantly as a child (and still do!). Then, when I was seven, my godmother gave me a tape of Holst’s music, which included the St. Paul’s Suite. As soon as I read the tape booklet and discovered that the piece had been written about and for St Paul’s Girl’s School, I longed to go there. At great personal sacrifice, my parents sent to me to the school, which opened out for me myriad wonderful musical opportunities. Prior to that I played the piano (not particularly well); but at St Paul’s – under the musical directorship of the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton - I was allowed to teach myself the harpsichord and the organ, I set up a music club, gave assemblies on Holst, Howells and Vaughan Williams, and generally spent all my spare time haunting the music wing and listening to music by, and reading about, British composers as much as possible.
JH. Setting up a music festival requires a lot of organisation. What type of experience and opportunities enabled you to carry out this wide-ranging project?
EML. I became a founder member of the Vaughan Williams Society at the age of 14, and the secretary of the Societies and Association of English Singers and Speakers a few years later. I was taken under the wing of a music publisher, and through him met many of the remaining composer relatives (Ursula Vaughan Williams, Ursula Howells, Lady Bliss and Alice Dyson for instance), as well as a number of acclaimed musicians, contemporary composers and authors. I worked with him on books and scores of English music for many years, deepening my love of English music, meeting people and generally finding out how the music world worked. This, and my work on the committees of various British composer societies, gave me a good working knowledge of the music world, as well as some initial contacts which helped when I came to set up the Festival. I was also a Hesse Student at the Aldeburgh Festival, was an intern at a Gloucester Three Choirs, and worked for Music at Oxford for a short while as my first job.
JH. What were some of the key problems you encountered when setting up the festival and what issues persist?
EML. Funding, funding and… funding. Once I had found the right venue (by going round all the potential churches and Abbeys in central England), programme and artists fell into place quite neatly. Finding the money to stage such an event and its associated year-round costs has always been, and remains, a struggle. For many years we were supported by an English-music-loving elderly lady, but she died recently, leaving us a huge financial gap to fill.
JH. The focus of the festival is on English music. What was the motivation behind this sense of cultural and musical direction?
EML. Throughout my teens I became aware that there was a huge body of works by British composers of the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries of tremendous beauty and power (as could be heard on Hyperion and Chandos discs especially), but which were never played in the concert hall. I had a large number of shocking statistics that pointed to the neglect of English music (except, of course, the really famous works such as Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Cello Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending or Holst’s Planets), and I was determined to rectify this and bring these wonderful pieces to live audiences, so that these beautiful works could be heard in the concert hall again (as they were when first written). English music had a bad reputation when I set up the Festival (of being jingoistic, imperialistic, old-fashioned or fuddy-duddy), but this has changed and these works are now working their way finally into the mainstream and back into the concert hall again.
JH. How does this year's festival reflect the aims of EMF? Are there any new commissions and premieres?
EML. The Festival’s aims have changed somewhat, due mainly to the success of its main and initial aim, of getting less familiar works back into the repertoire. Now our focus is on discovering works by composers of the same period (late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries) that have never been heard, for whatever reason, and giving these their world premiere performances. I am also careful to show the whole breadth of the genre of English music – from the mediaeval / baroque periods through to the present day (and including folk music and jazz as well).
I have also been very concerned to commission or host premiere performances of works by contemporary British composers, showing that the English music genre is very much alive and flourishing. So, to fulfil these aims, this year we open with the BBC Concert Orchestra playing those world premiere performances by twentieth-century composers - Robin Milford’s Second Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s The Blue Bird, Stanford’s early Violin Concerto in D and Lord Berners’s Portsmouth Point. We premiere also a new work by David Matthews – a set of Variations for violin and piano (played alongside a new urtext edition of Elgar’s Violin Sonata, with decades of publisher’s errors stripped away). And then other works featuring at this year’s EMF range from lute songs and duets by John Dowland and John Danyel, through 1930s English jazz, to works by the contemporary composers Ian Venables, Paul Carr, Francis Routh and Ola Gjeilo.
JH. Composers such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams are well-known to British audiences, but what is the response to contemporary English composers?
EML. In my experience, audiences respond very well to contemporary composers. At the EMF we build relationships with composers who consider themselves to be within the English tradition (without being at all anachronistic or pastiche) – composers such as Richard Blackford, Paul Carr, Paul Lewis, Christopher Wright, Richard Pantcheff, Ian Venables and David Matthews. These are composers whose music has, to a greater or lesser extent, a lyrical core, whilst still being innovative and forward-looking. I am expecting a very enthusiastic audience response at this year’s Festival, in particular, to David Matthews’s Variations, to Ian Venables’s song-cycle, and to Paul Carr’s Stabat Mater – our audiences always love Carr’s radiantly lush, emotionally charged and luxuriantly gorgeous music.
JH. At what point and why did you consider EM Records and later EM Publishing to be a viable strategic venture?
EML. EM Records came into existence after about the sixth Festival. Audience members were telling me how much they loved and appreciated the opportunity to hear the works we were discovering, but saying that they wanted to be able to hear these again. And I was concerned to be able to bring these pieces to anyone who wanted to hear them, anywhere in the world, not just those able to get to Oxfordshire during the second May bank holiday! EM Records was the obvious solution and has been a thrilling and exciting journey.
EM Publishing first came about because we were aware that one of the reasons for the neglect of this repertoire was the difficulty of getting hold of scores, many of which languished in libraries in manuscript form. We wanted to help performances take place by offering high-quality, urtext edition, printed scores of the music. We were then offered a book for publication, and EM Publishing has grown from there! Again, funding is tight – recording and publishing are expensive operations, but anything we make is then ploughed straight back into making new recordings or publications available
JH. What have been the most successful releases and are there any more in the pipeline?
EML. I have been involved with new music since the beginning of my career. Orchestra of the Swan has commissioned numerous new works over the years and I have worked very closely with a number of composers such as John Woolrich, Tansy Davies, Huw Watkins, Joe Cutler, Thomas Adès, Gerald Barry and many more. It is important work and a thrill to be there at the birth of a new piece.
JH. What are your most memorable performances?
EML. Our most popular and successful recording has to be EMRCD047, Of Such Ecstatic Sound, featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor John Andrews, violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck and cellist Joseph Spooner in Percy Sherwood’s Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, alongside a Cowen Symphony. The Sherwood is a fabulous work, full of tunes and beauty and excitement, and this disc required a repress after just a few months, it sold so well!
Other highlights have been EMRCD037-38, Now Comes Beauty, a disc of works the EMFG has commissioned over the years. This includes a searingly beautiful song-cycle by John Pickard, sung by Roderick Williams, alongside works by Paul Carr, David Owen Norris, Paul Lewis, David Matthews, Matthew Curtis, Richard Blackford, Philip Lane and Christopher Wright, played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Another BBC Concert Orchestra disc of course, EMRCD023 – The Fire that Breaks from Thee, with the world premiere recordings of Violin Concertos by Robin Milford and C.V. Stanford – was another best-seller and a wonderful disc – as was an early recording, EMRCD004, with Holst’s The Coming of Christ, featuring the much-loved actor Robert Hardy.
Our most recent release is a triple-disc set of the complete music for violin and piano by Parry; forthcoming issues include a disc of songs by Parry and Sterndale Bennett; a disc of songs by Holst and Holbrooke; contemporary music by Richard Pantcheff commissioned by the EMF; a disc of John Gardner with the BBC Concert Orchestra; light piano music from Paul Guinery; a disc of English music for two guitars, and many others!
JH. There has also been a wide range of speakers at the EMF. What have been some of the memorable events for you and what are you looking forward to this year?
EML. Probably the most memorable talk we ever had was a composer’s forum prior to an EMF New Commissions concert, in which a number of composers, including Paul Lewis, Richard Blackford, Paul Carr and Christopher Wright discussed the process of composition. We also once had an interesting forum on The Future of English composition. This year I am especially looking forward to the opening talk of our series, in which Lewis Foreman and conductor Martin Yates will discuss the new works being performed in the opening concert of the EMF, by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Lord Berners and Milford.
JH. When you have some spare time how do you enjoy it?
EML. With a five-year son whom my husband and I are home-educating, there is no spare time at all! But an ideal “free” day would involve walking in the countryside with my family and Irish Wolfhound, visiting castles, forts, Abbeys or other historical sites, and, very importantly, enjoying very fine food and wines in lunches and dinners at cosy rural pubs or restaurants! Then it would be back home for a glass of good red wine by our log-burner with perhaps some Ella Fitzgerald on to relax to, and a board game or (probably black and white) film!
Blog written by Jill Davies, who runs the Severn Muses project as well as Chamber Music Plus.
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