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Chipping Campden Literature Festival starts with Music Festival following as town welcomes host of artists, thinkers, authors and performers

THE merry month of May has a special significance in the Cotswolds with its traditions of cheese rolling, woolsack lugging, shirt racing and even its own “Olimpick” Games.

But in Chipping Campden – venue of these self-same “Olimpicks” – a newer 21st century convention has arisen that puts this small and beautiful town at the forefront of cultural activity in this country.

Marina Litvinenko
Marina Litvinenko

From Today (Monday, 6th May) a three-week extravaganza celebrating the glory of books and music will begin its annual adventure in the town, demonstrating that it is a small place with a very big vision.

The first week will see the Chipping Campden Literature Festival in full swing with a fascinating array of authors and interviewers and several up-to-the-minute topics under discussion.

The subjects include the lives of the billionaire Barclay brothers, the threats posed from China and Russia (with Marina Litvinenko, widow of the murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko as special guest) and the quest to find the killers of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Among participants in the festival will be former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, journalists Daniel Finkelstein, India Knight, Henry Porter and Lindsay Mackie, and Shakespeare scholar Sir Stanley Wells.

Other highlights will include Paula Byrne discussing her book on Thomas Hardy’s women with readings by Stratford-based actors David and Ali Troughton, and former England cricket captain Mike Brearley talking about his latest book, which he calls “a memoir of the mind”.

Throughout the week there are more than 30 events at which authors will cover a vast expanse of human life through both fiction and non-fiction.

Simon Russell Beale
Simon Russell Beale

This feast of learning will end on Saturday 11th May with a link to the ensuing music festival via an evening called Rêverie, with the actor Sir Simon Russell Beale and the pianist Lucy Parham exploring the life and loves of the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

The Chipping Campden Music Festival then begins in earnest on the evening of Monday 11th May with a concert by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a highly acclaimed group of musicians performing works by Purcell, Biber, Handel and Telemann. It ends on Saturday 25th May with the Festival Academy Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Richard Strauss. The soloist for Strauss’s Four Songs Op. 27 will be the soprano Sophie Bevan.

What connects these two remarkable festivals is the husband-and-wife team of Charlie and Vicky Bennett. Charlie launched the music festival in 2002 and Vicky the literature festival in 2010.

Charlie has now handed over the music festival to the twin talents of operations director Jessica May and artistic director Thomas Hull – conductor of the festival’s academy orchestra - while joining his wife Vicky in organising the literature festival.

Considering that the festival is Charlie’s creation, and that his absorption in it was absolute, the transition to Jessica and Tom has been seamless. Both have been involved in the annual event for some time – Tom almost from the beginning – and their ethos is to put the music before everything.

To that end they’ll continue the task of finding great artists who want to perform in Chipping Campden and attracting the audiences who want to hear them. Their job is made easier by the delight that great musicians have shown in appearing in the town. The revered pianist Alfred Brendel, for instance, has described the acoustic in the festival’s venue, St James’ Church, as one of the best he’s encountered in his 60-year career.

Lucy Parham
Lucy Parham

And this year the customary line-up of major stars is on parade: the internationally renowned baritone Roderick Williams – who lives in Kineton – will be singing Schubert, among others, accompanied by the pianist Roger Vignoles; one of the world’s greatest ensembles, the Takács String Quartet, will be playing works by Haydn, Ravel and Debussy and will be joined by the pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a performance of the String Quintet No. 2 in A major, op. 81 by Antonín Dvořák.

And on the subject of pianists this year’s festival – as usual – is blessed with a fair number of them. They range from the multi-award winning Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Bach, Schubert and Schumann, through to Steven Osborne performing Ravel’s jazz-oriented Piano Concerto in G and culminating in the festival’s president, Paul Lewis, playing Schubert’s last three great piano sonatas – a programme he’s been presenting to sold-out audiences all over Europe. Given that Mr Lewis has been described by Gramophone magazine as “arguably the finest Schubert interpreter of his generation” this should be quite an experience for Chipping Campden’s hugely discerning concert-goers.

Another big name in the mix is the American-born violinist Elena Urioste, who will be playing Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 during the first of the three concerts being given by the festival’s academy orchestra under Tom’s baton.

The orchestra – made up of seasoned performers and up-and-coming young people – is central to the ethos of the festival. “A lot of what we do is producing orchestral players of the future,” Tom told me. “It’s totally about the kids - and for returning ‘pros’ it’s their favourite week of the year.”

Competition for a place in the orchestra is tough. No fewer than 250 young people applied for the 25 seats available. Among these were 40 flautists competing for just two positions.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Sir András Schiff perform some scintillating works by Felix Mendelssohn at Saffron Hall on Saturday, 20 April
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Sir András Schiff perform some scintillating works by Felix Mendelssohn at Saffron Hall on Saturday, 20 April

One of those “coming back”, as it were, is George Wilkes, a young cellist from Shipston. A former student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and now studying in Brussels, George first took part in the orchestra as a junior player in 2015 and returned for the following three years until 2018.

Violinist Elena
Violinist Elena

He said the experiences gave him a valuable insight into orchestral playing at a high level and added: “Never before had I been given the opportunity to perform alongside professional orchestral musicians, and now as a 22-year-old conservatoire student it’s a privilege to be able to come back once again and perform.”

But this is a festival that has something for all generations. One of the attendees will be an 80-year-old woman taking advantage of the student concessions, enabling her to go to all concerts in the first week – lunchtime and evening – for the princely sum of £7!

Her name is Wendy Hill, from Hereford, and she’s a full-time student at Worcester University, where her thesis for a master’s degree is a biography of Elgar’s wife, Alice.

Wendy has some pedigree in this matter, though. For ten years, from 1996 to 2006, she was national secretary of the Elgar Society and now she’s chair of the West Midlands branch of the society.

She said: “Classical music is my main leisure interest, together with Victorian literature.” She’ll certainly be at home in Chipping Campden…

It’s worth noting that every evening concert this year starts at 7pm rather than 7.30pm.

See full prgramme for both festivals and book now at www.campdenmayfestivals.co.uk

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