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Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tetbury Music Festival

Tenebrae in action. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Tenebrae in action. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Plato claimed that ‘music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to imagination, and life to everything.’

Few would argue with him. Music is evocative, it transports us back to the place where we first heard a certain song or classical piece. It touches our emotions and moves us. It soothes, encourages, lifts, and supports the very fabric of our being. It unites us. It also lives on, acting as a legacy to the composer who put the very notes together.

For 20 years, the Royal market town of Tetbury in Gloucestershire has been celebrating the very best of classical music, performed by some of the world’s most accomplished musicians. September marks the 20th anniversary of Tetbury Music Festival – a festival HM King Charles III has supported since its beginnings.

Great British Life: Highgrove shop, Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town CouncilHighgrove shop, Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town Council

Tetbury of course is just minutes away from one of his and Queen Camilla’s favourite country homes, Highgrove and their organic gardens will be open during the festival, which takes place September 23 until October 1. Long Street in Tetbury is home to the Highgrove shop, which sells Duchy of Cornwall and King Charles’s estate produce.

‘King Charles III is our patron and has been since our inception in 2003. He is always encouraging and understands the role that the festival plays not only in enriching the life of the area, but also by playing its part in providing work and opportunities to musicians,’ says Caz Weller Knight, festival director for Tetbury Music Festival.

Great British Life: Isata Kanneh-Mason. Photo: David VenniIsata Kanneh-Mason. Photo: David Venni

Highlights for 20th anniversary

Before looking back at how the festival has changed over the two decades Caz explains what audiences can expect at this year’s special milestone festival. A series of concerts, each acting as a highlight in their own way together provide a week of wonderful music.

‘We have consciously looked back to the first years of the festival, so are especially thrilled to welcome back cellist Steven Isserlis on Saturday, September 30, performing with the acclaimed Canadian pianist Connie Shih,’ says Caz.

‘Steven was involved with the festival for ten years from its inception in 2003 as artistic advisor, and consequently played a large part in shaping the festival offer which has always been to provide a programme of concerts featuring exceptional and international artists.’

Steven and Connie's programme will explore cello music made famous by the 20th-century cello legend, Pablo Casals.

Tetbury Music Festival begins with a concert on Saturday, September 23, at the Goods Shed, performed by a youthful trio, namely violinists Kristine and Roberts Balanas with pianist Siquian Li. This concert will showcase not only two beautiful violin sonatas, but also crosses over into the realm of electric violin.

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, who is in great demand internationally as a soloist and chamber musician, will be delighting audiences with her choice of programme including Schumann's Kinderszenenen and Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata at St Mary’s Church on Thursday, September 28. Earlier this year Isata released her new album, ‘Childhood Tales.’ She is the daughter of Kadiatu and Stuart Kanneh-Mason, two humble parents from Nottingham who wanted their children to enjoy music and play an instrument. All seven of their offspring are remarkable musicians.

Great British Life: Doric String Quartet. Photo: Alexander R BrownDoric String Quartet. Photo: Alexander R Brown

‘BBC Radio 3 will be in Tetbury to record it for broadcast later in the year, and Isata will then go on to play this same programme at Wigmore Hall, London – but you can hear it at Tetbury first!’ says Caz.

The Doric String Quartet offers an evening of chamber music, performing works by Joseph Haydn, Béla Bartók and Edward Elgar on Friday, September 29 at St Marys’ Church, Tetbury. Meanwhile at the same venue on Sunday, October 1, choral music lovers can enjoy the exquisite vocals of ‘Tenebrae’ choir, founded by former King’s Singer Nigel Short, who will perform works by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Robert White and William Mundy.

A few years ago, Festival organisers introduced a series of lectures/talks to complement the concerts. This year the Chief Executive of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Crispin Woodhead, a natural and engaging public speaker, as well as musician, university lecturer, linguist, agent, and entrepreneur, will be explaining how Beethoven has become the soundtrack of a playground in North London thanks to a pioneering set of decisions taken under his leadership.

Great British Life: One of the popular concerts in St Marys' Church, TetburyOne of the popular concerts in St Marys' Church, Tetbury

How the festival has grown

Much has happened in 20 years since Tetbury Music Festival began. As Caz rightly points out, the festival administration has changed to keep up with the ever-changing digital technology.

‘Tickets are now sold online through our website, whereas in 2003 supporters would apply for them by post with a self-addressed envelope, or queue round the block at Tetbury Visitors Centre to buy them in person!’ she recalls.

But this adaptation to change proved essential with certain events of 2020 and subsequent years.

‘The internet, and the ability to reach our supporters by email, enabled the festival to navigate the challenges of the Covid years better than would have been possible in 2003 – for which I am truly grateful,’ admits Caz.

During lockdown, the festival team not only remained in contact with supporters, suggesting music to listen to online when the 2020 Festival was cancelled, but a video recording of several of those cancelled artists was made to provide a ‘Virtual Festival’ for those who wanted to listen at home.

‘The loyalty of our supporters, many of whom left their ticket money with us for this purpose, meant that we were able to give some financial support to all the artists who would have played at that 2020 festival; professional musicians lost their livelihoods overnight when lockdown came and many struggled, and I know this gesture was deeply appreciated,’ recalls Caz.

‘We have seen the enthusiasm for the festival bounce right back in the years since Covid; my own feeling is that people now have an enhanced appreciation for live performance, and also for the pleasure of shared experiences, now that we all know too well what it is to be isolated from each other,’ she adds.

The festival’s home remains as the church of St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen, or St Marys’ Church for short. It is a superb example of Georgian gothic architecture with excellent acoustics and generous seating capacity of over 400. Whilst most concerts take place here, one additional amenity has appeared on the scene since the festival began in 2003.

In 2016, the Goods Shed Art Centre was converted from a former Great Western Railway building into an amazing new venue and opened in the spring of 2017 having received generous support from Tetbury Town Council, the public and regional donors. It is an excellent all year-round venue for concerts, club events, workshops, exhibitions, and films and is supported by a delightful café.

‘The festival uses the Goods Shed as a very welcome second venue. Its Steinway B piano, drop-down screen, raked seating and built-in sound system makes it a perfect and comfortable venue for lectures and our more intimate concerts,’ says Caz.

What hasn’t changed is the size of the festival or the time of year it takes place, which is the first weekend of October and the evenings of the week running up to that weekend.

‘We think this is a very good spot in the calendar. The summer lies behind us and people are starting to get excited about the unique flavour of autumn, when candlelight concerts of impeccable quality and the opportunity to reconnect with friends over a good meal afterwards is a rather nice prospect,’ says Caz.

However, whilst the size may have stayed the same, supporters are now travelling from further afield to come and enjoy the concerts on offer and the town of Tetbury itself.

Great British Life: The Chipping Steps, Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town CouncilThe Chipping Steps, Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town Council

The festival’s importance for both town and performers

Over the years, Tetbury Music Festival has forged strong links with BBC Radio 3. Many radio recordings have been made of Festival concerts in St Marys’ Church – no doubt helped by its extremely good acoustics. Back in 2019, in addition to the concerts in October, the Festival and BBC Radio 3 put on a joint spring concert series that showcased several BBC Young Artists and will be returning to record Isata Kanneh-Mason’s concert.

‘I think the festival is a source of pride for the town, and equally, the Festival benefits hugely from the historic setting and the many attractions that the town offers to its visitors, as well as the support of many of the businesses in the town,’ admits Caz.

‘The role that festivals, concert series and music clubs across the country play in supporting both 'up and coming' and established artists should not be underestimated – in aggregate we are part of the cardiovascular system of the arts in the UK and play a necessary part in providing year-round dates in the calendars of the nation's artists.’

The festival also draws new faces into Tetbury which is full of historic landmarks paying tribute to its woollen and brewery heritage and hospitality. Named after an abbess called Tetta, it is the Cotswolds’ second largest town and is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Tetbury has a wide range of independent businesses, antique shops, excellent eateries, and picturesque features such as The Chipping Steps and church spire, one of the tallest in the country, Tetbury is a popular location. But it is also notably a town which holds on to old and creates new traditions – some that are both a little bit mad and lots of fun. In May, this madness really shines. Tetbury Wacky Races, a crazy soapbox derby, set up in 2012 as part of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Celebrations, takes place on May’s first bank holiday Monday. The wackiness continues with Tetbury Woolsack Races on the last bank holiday of that month, attracting up to 5,000 people. Individuals and teams show off their strength and endurance by racing with a sack of wool on their backs up Gumstool Hill, that reaches a gradient of 1 in 4. It is a nod to the thriving woollen industry which helped make Tetbury what it is today.

Great British Life: The Royal market town of Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town CouncilThe Royal market town of Tetbury. Photo: Tetbury Town Council

Fun and community are part of Tetbury’s DNA and, as forementioned, so too is a love for music. This September honours two decades of world-class musicians sharing their talents and passion for music in this beautiful Cotswold town. Almost entirely run by volunteers, which includes the Board of Trustees, Tetbury Music Festival no longer includes any of the original founding members on a day-to-day basis.

READ MORE: Spending 24 hours in the Cotswolds market town of Tetbury

‘So, another thing to celebrate at this 20-year milestone is that successful passing of the baton to the next generation of enthusiasts, who believe as I do, that Tetbury Music Festival is an absolute jewel, offering as it does the opportunity for anyone who wishes to come, to hear great music performed by international stars just a few moments from home,’ exclaims Caz.

‘My hope for the future is that we will continue to offer performances by top musicians of the same high calibre as we do now, that our venues will continue to be filled with our enthusiastic and supportive audiences, and that we will continue to 'make the maths work' by attracting those generous sponsors who are happy to give the extra financial support that enables us to keep doing what we are doing.’

As the town gets ready to host its special 20th anniversary music festival featuring top end classical music, Tetbury has every reason to celebrate. And as a certain Royal someone who loves this market town would say, it will be fit for a King.

Tickets are on sale from Prices are £10-35 and children aged 8-16 go free when accompanied by a paying adult (some terms and conditions apply).


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