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Spring Fever

Patric Standford visits York University's New Music Festival

The Spring Festival of New Music promoted by the University of York ended last weekend after an invaluable ten days of workshops, recitals and discussions lead by a notable team of the country's foremost authorities and yet, to the amazement of everyone attending the final concert last Saturday, there was neither BBC Radio 3 presence nor even its apparent interest. Organiser and Professor of Music at York, Nicola LeFanu, was at a loss to know what more to do in trying to enthuse the BBC pundits who, having abandoned their expertise in Manchester, seem to believe there is unlikely to be anything new and worthwhile in the north unless they have a hand in making it. As the conductor Elgar Howarth pointed out, we harbour formidable creative talent in this country by any European standards. It is a tragedy then that the remarkably positive work supporting it receives scant recognition nationally. Elgar Howarth knows. He is a champion of this work. I benefitted from his generous direction in similar workshops 25 years ago, though I did not have the support of quite such an efficient, brilliant, warm and extremely helpful orchestra as the English Northern Philharmonia - an orchestra that now spends as much time presenting concerts as it does in the pit of Opera North in Leeds. Their work is of the highest quality and their repertoire is wide, enterprising, and fearlessly adventurous. This is the third time they have taken on a series of workshops and a concert of works by younger, unpublished and not professionally performed composers over the last few years - and the first time that Nicola LeFanu and the University of York have taken on the huge task of incorporating the project into a Festival.

From 60 scores submitted for the ENP workshops, a selection of 20 was finally shortlisted by Elgar Howarth, Professor John Casken of Manchester University and Nicola LeFanu for the workshops, five of which diverse pieces were chosen to make up the concert. Among the composers represented were Simon Speare (born in Cornwall in 1962), whose Fields Beyond was a clear, direct and colourful use of the orchestra, introducing a cimbalom! John Stringer and Graham Lynch both produced scores that were dense and neurotic, not really distinguishing themselves from that 'international 80s' idiom, but effective none the less. There was an attractive cantata by Owen Leech to poems by Max Jacob at the centre of which some gentle arpeggios and turns of phrase had a touch of Ravel because the bright and skillful soprano Ilana Jacobs was singing in French; and the programme ended with an anguished and aggressive work The Eagle on the Cross by the older and more experienced Albanian Thoma Simaku, born in 1958, who fled his own country seven years ago and now lives in York.

This was, however, only a small part of the workshop content. How good it would be to be able to flag a forthcoming Radio 3 series, or have a Festival CD. This is how so much wasted arts funding could be channelled.

 Copyright © Patric Standford, May 15th 1999