First St Andrew’s Festival in Sheffield Sets Good Standards

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Haydn, Kohn and others Northern String Quartet, Zhok Hora klezmer band, Bright Season folk group,Neil McSweeney singer-songwriter, The Larkin Strings, St Andrew’s Psalter Lane, Sheffield, 9-16.11.2014. (JN)

It is a rare treat to be able to attend an entire music festival. The St Andrew’s Festival in Sheffield featured local musicians – normally a recipe for low standards and dull performance. This preconception was shattered by the opening concert already reviewed on for this website highlighting the excellent playing of the Northern String Quartet and works by Ray Kohn and Shostakovitch.

Highlights of the rest of the festival twinkle like stars in my memory. There was the strong voices and playing by the folk band, Bright Season. The full house who heard the impressive singer-songwriter Neil McSweeney. The pianism of young Lucy Tang’s Beethoven and the poise of cellist Elliot Bailey’s Haydn C major concerto. And the dynamism of the Larkin Strings led by Gavin Usher. If I were to be critical, it would be in assessing the support acts. These should be like the hors d’oeuvre before a main course. They should be tasty and stimulate the senses so as to heighten the enjoyment of what is to come. Judging by comments overheard by audience members and what I listened to with my own ears, both support acts to Bright Season and Neil McSweeney were too flat and left the main course needing to provide their own stimulation.

The Larkin Strings performed another premiere – Ray Kohn’s Octet. After hearing this composer’s String Quartet no.12  I was looking forward to the Octet. My slight disappointment was not only caused by my sense that the Quartet was a more deeply-felt work, but also by the appearance of obvious wrong notes in the Larkin’s performance. Further investigation uncovered the story behind the wrong notes. The cellist who had rehearsed the work in the previous months had pulled out at the last minute leaving the substitute sight reading her part. The cellist who had let them down was the same cellist who had performed the first movement of Haydn’s C Major Concerto only two days before.

The other highlight for me was the evening with the Zhok Hora klezmer band. Their evident enthusiasm for the short pieces they presented to a smiling audience was enough literally to have people getting up and dancing in the aisles! Their programme was varied and gave the opportunity for all six of the musicians to demonstrate their individuality as well as their collective sound. Ian Stern’s singing voice was only heard once, but I would have liked to have heard more of him. Lindsay Aitkenhead’s viola was a most memorable voice and Jo Veal’s clarinet showed all the “voices” of the instrument. Ray Kohn, the violinist, had constructed an immensely innovative work for his band. Ex Tempore seemed to express a full Buddhist philosophy entirely through a theatrical presentation of klezmer pieces. He said that as every concert was filmed and will be accessible on You Tube. I suspect it will be a performance that will need repeated viewing to fully understand it.

So, for me, the highlights appeared at the start of the festival: the Northern String Quartet and Zhok Hora which took up the first two evenings. But the overall success of this first venture has meant that another St Andrew’s festival is planned for next year. I shall certainly attend and hope that the standard set by this year’s highlights will be carried through in 2015.

Joseph Kovaks

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