Meurig’s music

Meurig Bowen

Meurig Bowen - Credit: Archant

Katie Jarvis conducts an interview with Meurig Bowen, artistic director of Cheltenham Music Festival, featuring high notes on this year’s events, low notes on musical pigeon-holing, and a recurring historical theme

Meurig Bowen

Meurig Bowen - Credit: Archant

Meurig Bowen and I are musing over alternative names for ‘classical music’. At least, he’s sagely musing; my main contribution is to eat a Danish pastry as we chat at Moka, round the corner from the spanking new Cheltenham Festivals box office in the Suffolks.

“It’s a terrible name,” he concedes, “and all of us in the ‘classical music’ business are constantly trying to think of another name for it without the off-putting associations it seems to carry with it - but the alternatives are even worse. Like ‘serious music’. Or ‘complex music’. Or ‘art music’. Disastrous! Not worth pursuing.”

What about ‘music’?

“Indeed! My philosophy – and that of a lot of musicians all over the world – is to get rid of pigeonholing and to get people into whatever music it is because it’s great music. It will change the way you feel about yourself or console you or invigorate you - all those great things that music does!”

Exactly; alongside the millions who adore Beethoven, there are the mega-millions who don’t realise they do. As the great Sir Thomas Beecham pointed out, the English don’t like music but they love the sound it makes - from the Last Night of the Proms to the most persuasive of adverts: Tchaikovsky, inducing a Cadbury’s Fruit-and-Nut-yearning; Dvorak, with a loaf of Hovis tucked under one arm.

“It’s as if the photos of people at Glyndebourne circa 1970 – fancy dress exclusivity – have fixed an image of what all classical music is about. And it’s so untrue.”

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I second that. Just have a look at this year’s brochure for Cheltenham Music Festival – the 70th no less – and I defy anyone (from those who attended Glyndebourne, circa 1970, to Moog moguls) not to find an event they’d love. There’s the John Wilson Orchestra and Matthew Ford celebrating Sinatra; Michael Morpurgo presenting a musical Private Peaceful; James Mayhew (of Ella Bella Ballerina-fame) painting to Saint-Saëns; even a free party in the park with Gamelan, craft, food and drink. Oh – and plenty of Moogs, including a performance by the Will Gregory Ensemble. And that’s on top of the most wonderful (seriously) (complex) classical performances by the likes of Nicola Benedetti, this year’s artist-in-residence; the soul-shaking Benjamin Grosvenor on piano; or the New London Chamber Ensemble playing Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Winds. There are talks (on brass and military bands, and contemporary women composers), films, debates, events that push the boundaries (such as a performance by the Soweto String Ensemble, which arose from a project to teach music to children from poor South African townships); plus, a brand new festival proms series.

What would those worthy Cheltenham burghers, who initiated the festival back in 1945, make of it all, I wonder? Fresh from the horrors of a second world war, they certainly weren’t considering mass-appeal when they planned a programme of three orchestral concerts in the town hall, featuring world premières.

“I don’t think a borough council anywhere in the world would sink a load of money into something as high-brow as that nowadays,” Meurig laughs. “But the musical landscape has changed so significantly since 1945. Apart from the likes of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, there wasn’t such an embedded popular music culture in the way that it exploded from the 50s onwards. So if you’re in a borough council meeting in 1945, you’re going to think: orchestras and conductors; composers and soloists.

“But, paradoxically, I would also say there wasn’t so much of a division between classical and popular music genres back then. You only have to think of the tenor Enrico Caruso: millions upon millions were buying his 78s. And then there was John McCormack, the Irish tenor, who made himself incredibly rich and popular around the world with It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in 1914, which we’re going to be hearing in the festival this year. I suppose you might now call those people ‘crossover artists’. They didn’t have a term for it then because they didn’t need to; there wasn’t a sense of crossing over from one side of the fence to the other.”

Since Meurig joined the festival as artistic director back in 2007, one of his key aims has been to rip down those fences and stamp on them. And he’s succeeding - not only through innovative programming but also thanks to his own refreshingly eclectic tastes. He’s as likely to enthuse about Genesis (and what a coup in persuading Tony Banks to Cheltenham this year) as to chat ‘Tallis’ or ‘Messiaen’.

His own musical education started early – his father was a Welsh tenor whose concerts Meurig often attended: opera from the age of five; the Messiah in the Albert Hall at six. He became a chorister in the family’s North London church (“an endangered species, I fear”), even reaching the final of Chorister of the Year, aged 10, “But I didn’t really get going on either the viola or the piano until 10 or 11; I wouldn’t practise and I couldn’t concentrate. I wasn’t one of those high-achieving early starters, by any means.”

You might guess, on hearing he got to Cambridge on a choral scholarship, that school was prestigious and fee-paying. In fact, it was a London comp. “Though we’re talking Highgate and Hampstead borders, a fairly upmarket intake. This was the 1970s, when there was perhaps a greater belief among left-leaning people in London to stick to your guns and send your children to state schools. I’m not sure whether that’s so prevalent now.”

That couldn’t have been an easy ride, though?

“Sure. I did get roughed up a bit, and was teased in particular for being a choirboy still at 14, because my voice broke quite late. I think it’s tough for any young person who goes against the grain a bit at school, and classical music is no exception.”

What does he think of Julian Lloyd Webber’s recently-observed concerns that youngsters entering the classical music business nowadays are overwhelmingly from private-school backgrounds, leaving state pupils far behind?

There are, Meurig points out, a fair number of bursaries for talented children to attend specialist music schools, “But I’m deeply concerned at recent local-authority cuts, which have nuked peripatetic music-teaching in most areas of the country.” Two years ago, Gloucestershire made all its peripatetic music teachers redundant as part of a deal which saw new music hubs set up, funded by the Arts Council.

“The idea was that schools would reengage those people individually through their own budget; but, of course, it’s music teaching: unless there’s a particularly visionary head teacher setting aside budget, music lessons are seen as an optional extra in many cases. There’s a tendency, instead, towards whole-class music teaching, which is a government philosophy that everybody at a certain age should have a chance to play an instrument. That’s laudably egalitarian but the problem is that they’re getting one hour a week for a term, with 29 others, and they can just about play Three Blind Mice, if they’re lucky, at the end. What’s the good of that?”

It’s no coincidence that Meurig has engaged Nicola Benedetti as artist-in-residence this year. “Apart from being an amazing violinist and standard-bearer for her generation in classical music, education is at the top of her priority. Part of her week-long residency, on top of three concerts, will involve spending two days, with a specially-convened ensemble, with over 150 string players from all around Gloucestershire – primary-school kids, secondary-school kids, state school and private. For two whole days, they will be working with one of the world’s top violinists, playing Holst and Shostakovich, enjoying masterclasses, being inspired.”

He and his wife Rachel – a music teacher – take their own daughter, nearly-four-year-old Raffi, to all sorts of musical events. She loved the Magic Flute at the Everyman, and she’s just beginning on violin and cello. “We noticed early on she was quite responsive to music, but I think all children are, potentially. We often play Radio 3 in the car when I’m driving her to places but, when she asks me to change it to her Disney CD, then of course I do because there’s fantastic music in those Disney films as well. I do believe, if you expose children early on to a wide range of music, they won’t start pigeonholing.”

As if proof were needed, the festival received a letter a few weeks ago from a gentleman in his 80s, now living in Hertfordshire, who was at that first-ever Cheltenham festival concert back in 1945, as a 12-year-old. “He says it triggered a lifelong love of music.”

This year’s opening concert in the town hall will feature the first and last pieces played on that first night nearly 70 years ago. But that’s one of the few similarities. Those same Cheltenham burghers would never have dreamed of many of this year’s events, such as The Great Animal Orchestra, inspired by animal sounds recorded by American environmentalist Bernie Krause: American Pacific tree frogs, African elephants, gorillas and exotic birds. Or even the Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener, who sadly died last year, to be held in near-darkness in Gloucester Cathedral. “One of the pieces is called Towards Silence, for four string quartets who surround the audience in the nave. It’s a really cosmic, mystical reflection on near-death experience and is musically an invocation of passing out of consciousness as the piece proceeds.”

Innovative; fascinating; ground-breaking; traditional; all-age-focused; courageous: welcome to Cheltenham Music Festival.

“I think we have a very dedicated and discerning core of an audience and that’s been growing steadily in the last few years, but new faces every year are equally important,” Meurig says. “If somebody does come up to me afterwards – a complete stranger – to say, ‘I’ve never been to anything like that before but I decided to take a punt and I’m just letting you know that it was amazing’. Or, ‘I was crying my eyes out for the last 15 minutes’. Or, ‘It’s made me want to take up the violin again’ - those things are punch-the-air moments for me and I just want as many of them as possible.”

Cheltenham Festivals’ box office is at 15 Suffolk Parade, Cheltenham GL50 2AE, 0844 880 8094 (5p from BT landlines, mobile charges vary);


This article by Katie Jarvis is from the July 2014 issue of Cotswold Life

For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @Katiejarvis

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