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Cheltenham Music Festival: Reimagining classic music in the picturesque English countryside

Gloucester Cathedral during the Cheltenham Music Festival

The Cheltenham Music Festival has been held annually since 1945 in the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds, one of the most picturesque areas of the UK. It is the eldest of a selection of arts festivals run every year, including festivals dedicated to Jazz, Science and Literature.

Taking place from 8-15 July, the Cheltenham Music Festival will showcase some of the most exciting international acts in classical music. 

The ever innovative Manchester Collective will perform a piece by Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Caroline Shaw, while the collective’s leader, the violinist Rakhi Singh will take audiences through a late-night electronic set of her musical influences.

Scottish folk classical group the Maxwell Quartet have teamed up with pianist Alasdair Beatson for a performance and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, James Newby and Jan Philip Schulze, will each perform a selection of classic pieces. Finally, the festival will finish with a performance of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by the Scottish Ensemble. More than just the traditional performance, the Scottish Ensemble will bring together strings, harpsichord and electronics, complemented by a foliage installation that will flood the stage.

Classical music festival that is relevant for the 21st century
Michael Duffy

If any of these names are unfamiliar to you though, that’s all the more reason to get excited, suggests George Parris, the conductor of The Carice Singers. 

Founded by Parris when he was just 18 years old in 2011, The Carice Singers have quickly risen to become an incredibly well respected vocal ensemble. They’ve been invited back to the Cheltenham Music Festival as this year’s artists-in-residence.

Revellers at last year's festival STILL MOVING MEDIA LLP/STILL MOVING MEDIA LLP

As artists-in-residence, The Carice Singers will perform a headline showcase, a group mixtape event where they alongside other groups will perform “an evening of relaxed, rule-free classical music,” as well as running a composer academy where they spend five days working with musicians to experiment and learn.

It means instead of rushing off after performing a single show as per usual, Parris and his group will be a part of the festival for people to interact with. 

“I'm sure people will see us rushing between things. But we will also have the time to just stay and talk and explain and inform people of what our work involves. I think that's so important these days,” he says.

Michael Duffy, the head of programming for the festival, echoes the sentiment that making the festival more approachable has been an important goal. “I think a lot about balance because our aim is to create a festival that speaks to people from different backgrounds, and a classical music festival that is relevant for the 21st century.”

“I think it comes down to thinking about the experience we’re creating for people to approach the music. For some of our events, this is the traditional concert experience in one of Cheltenham’s beautiful period buildings. For others, we tear up the rules around classical music ‘norms’, taking over more unusual spaces like a brewery or people’s front rooms. We think a lot about how the music is being presented to audiences and try to ensure this is the best it possibly can be whatever the context,” Duffy continues.

George Parris The Carice Singers

Keeping the festival fresh with contemporary entries in the classical canon, 40 living composers will have their work featured across the programme that Duffy aims “to make relationships with audiences of all backgrounds, and indeed want to be leading the conversation about diversifying audiences, showing people how this genre is still incredibly relevant in 2023 and beyond.”

It completely breaks through the haze
George Parris

Still, Cheltenham’s magic is also in its traditionalism. From the idyllic English countryside town setting to the stunning halls performances take place in.

“I grew up near Cheltenham. And the area around Cheltenham, Gloucestershire has a place in my heart,” Parris says. He talks of its “Regency Spa Town vibe” that creates a relaxed haze over the place. “But I love how the festival completely breaks through that haze with its programming and connecting to people in the local area. It’s a model on how to do things.”

Inside a concert at the festival Cheltenham Festivals

Parris first brought The Carice Singers together as a fun choir idea for his 18th birthday in the Cotswolds. It was never meant to go further than that one night, yet 12 years later it has grown into an artistic project that takes Parris and his ensemble around the country.

For their main performance on 9 July, The Carice Singers will present a selection of international pieces in the Cheltenham College Chapel. 

“In the summer, it's filled with natural light. The sort of stone it’s built out of is radiant as well. So it's a special venue in that respect,” he says.

The themes of light and summer inspired Parris. They will perform Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti’s ‘Lux aeterna’ in honour of his 100th anniversary. He was a “pioneer, a rule breaker in so many ways, and a sort of soundscaper, I call him because he's really interested in the natural property of sound.”

They will also perform a new piece by British-Iranian composer Soosan Lolavar as well as Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov’s ‘Prayer for Ukraine’. “I loved how it linked ideas of Europe,” Parris notes.

The Carice Singers perform in last year's Mixtape Cheltenham Festivals

Finally, Parris is looking forward to taking part in another mixtape event after first trying it last year. Alongside the Manchester Collective, NikNak and Jordan Ashman, The Carice Singers will all create an improvised piece together. 

“They will be listening to us, and then they will be doing their own thing,” he says. “That's quite strange in itself, because performers don’t usually listen to each other in the same concerts. It’ll mean they will be thinking about how to tie in what they're doing to what we're doing.”

“It’s an approach, especially to classical music making, that you never get. “It’s refreshing and it's lovely to do it.”

Posted on 07 Jul 2023 16:04 link