As Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts celebrates its 20th anniversary, a conversation with Duncan Honeybourne, concert pianist and Artistic Director, in which he gives a history of the series, his original motivation for establishing a lunchtime concert series in Weymouth, and the ongoing ethos of the series.


The Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts, brainchild of pianist Duncan Honeybourne, were launched at the Weymouth Arts Centre in the summer of 2002. Familiar with the concept of regular lunchtime concerts from his own concert work, Honeybourne had returned to his home town earlier that year and longed to bring regular high quality lunchtime concerts to his own corner of Dorset. He was also keen to establish a platform for chamber music partnerships with friends, to invite friends and colleagues to explore the area, to promote young artists and to try out his own solo programmes. He wanted to build up a loyal audience willing to trust his artistic judgement and give unusual repertoire a hearing as part of a regular series.

Duncan Honeybourne

The Weymouth Arts Centre had earlier been a setting for some of Duncan’s own teenage successes. He had played concertos there, with Angela Nankivell conducting the Arts Centre Orchestra, and it was with Angela – a much-loved and much-missed driving force in Dorset music – that he now drew up a plan for action. Angela, a musician and teacher of rare quality, was by this time – in retirement from the Dorset Music Service – immersing herself in helping the Weymouth Arts Centre evolve and grow, and Duncan tells the story of the chance conversation in which the idea of the Lunchtime Chamber Concerts was born. One day he drove into the car park opposite the Arts Centre and, whilst searching for a parking space, he spotted Angela walking across the car park – with a question for him. “I’m glad I’ve seen you”, she exclaimed. “I’m trying to help the Arts Centre find ways to increase their profile and get people in. Have you got any ideas?” “Yes!” replied Duncan without hesitation. “Why don’t you start a lunchtime concert series?” “Good idea”, said Angela. “Would you like to run it? I’ll do the admin and you can do the artistic side.” By the time he had parked his car, a new strand of Duncan’s future work was sealed. “I had been thinking how much fun it would be to start something like that”, he remembers. “It was something that had to be done, and it was just the right moment in my life for it.”

“We decided to try a summer series on all the Thursdays in August that year,” Duncan recalls. “I gave the first one myself, on the 1st August, and a wonderful team of ladies prepared refreshments. We were gratified by the good turnout, and we decided to make it a regular thing. I was young then, and bursting with ideas. Almost too many ideas! But I’d never have imagined then that we’d still be going two decades later. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge, but the central ideas and priorities have remained unchanged.”

Duncan says that several of his own philosophies have been hard-wired into the raison d’être of the concert series. “Firstly, I abhor the snobbery, elitism and exclusivity which so often attaches itself to classical music. I wanted to create a cosy, welcoming and all-embracing atmosphere, and always to present the music in such a way as everyone felt comfortable, involved and valued. The artists almost always talk to the audience, telling them their own feelings about the works. I’ve always been passionate that you don’t have to have any kind of background in music to get something out of it. It’s all about how you deliver and contextualise it. This sense of dialogue, of our sharing the works we love, aims to foster that very ethos”.

We’ve also tried to keep admission costs low,” Duncan continues, “because we don’t want money to be a bar to anyone coming to enjoy first class professional music. South Dorset isn’t the wealthiest of areas these days, and I don’t want my concerts to be the preserve of a privileged few, just because they’re the only people who can afford to come. Music provides spiritual and emotional nourishment – just look at what they do in that amazing world of music therapy – and I want that to be on offer to all who would like to be part of the experience.”

Duncan’s second objective has been to support young musicians at the beginning of their careers – “I was one myself, in fact, when I started the whole thing”, he observes with a laugh – and to present a wide and challenging range of music, stepping far beyond the established and well-loved masterpieces of the baroque, classical and romantic repertoire. “The old favourite pieces are there, of course”, he is quick to reassure, “but we are able to take far bigger risks in our regular series than the average music club or concert society would be able to do.” Duncan points out that the concerts receive no outside funding, being entirely dependent on the current modest £5 admission charge.

After less than two years in their original home, the concerts had to move to a new venue. The Weymouth Arts Centre closed in 2004 and, after a few concerts at Weymouth College, the series moved permanently to St Mary’s Church in September that year. “The church is a beautiful setting for music and is ideally located in the town centre. We have had a wonderfully fruitful and happy relationship with our hosts there ever since”, Duncan tells us. “Initially we took the old Arts Centre piano to St Mary’s but, in 2007, the Weymouth and Portland Piano Association purchased a new instrument, a Yamaha, which is now housed at St Mary’s Church. And we are lucky enough to be able to use the piano for our concerts. People are constantly remarking on the wonderful setting and piano, and how fortunate we are to have such an ideal set-up. It’s warm and welcoming, and I’ve always tried to make the concerts like that, too.”

As well as championing young artists and encouraging unfamiliar repertoire, Duncan has always sought to feature living composers and new music in the series. He has frequently played, recorded and broadcast contemporary piano music at home and abroad, and he has brought a taste of this activity to South Dorset – “in small doses, carefully chosen! I’m mindful that many people can be suspicious of contemporary music per se but, by choosing it with care, programming it with sensitivity and having it eloquently introduced by living, breathing composers at the top of their game, I try to demystify it and engage new enthusiasts. And we’ve had some very distinguished composers visiting us over the years.” At one of the first concerts at St Mary’s 15 years ago John Joubert, the late South African-born composer best known for his choral music and with whose piano music Duncan is closely associated, introduced several of his own works. “That was a unique opportunity for us all to hear a titan of his age talking about what fired his creative passions, what he wanted audiences to listen out for and what he hoped they’d get out of his music.” Other visitors have included Grammy-nominated Dobrinka Tabakova, later to become the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Composer in Residence. “At the very first concert, Andrew Downes was in the audience to listen to his First Piano Sonata, and Andrew – for many years Head of Composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – has been with us on many occasions since, so that’s a very special association too.” But it wasn’t a composer who contributed what, for Duncan, was one of the most memorable and moving verbal additions to the series: “In 2006 we invited Christopher Finzi, son of the composer Gerald Finzi and a distinguished musician himself, to a concert on the very day marking the 50th anniversary of Finzi’s death. I asked him if he would be willing to say a few words to the audience, and he responded with the most wonderful, touching reflection on his father’s personality, musing on what Finzi senior would have thought of the modern world had he come back to see how life had changed. That was a special moment, and a little bit of history was made here in Weymouth.”

The complete song cycles of Finzi were programmed as a series in 2006 and, in 2014-15, Duncan was joined by Catrin Win Morgan, violinist in the renowned Brodowski Quartet, to play the complete violin and piano sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms in a series of concerts spanning the whole season. In 2013-14, Duncan and three colleagues formed the Wessex Piano Quartet for a year-long residency, exploring works for this well-loved combination of piano and strings by Faure, Howells and Dvorak and returning in later seasons to play Mozart, Brahms and Taneyev. Duncan formed the Southampton Piano Trio, originally with teaching colleagues at Southampton University, and gave several successful Weymouth recitals. And, in a collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music in 2013, a memorable concert saw Duncan joining forces with four senior students to play Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Every Christmas is marked by a special seasonal concert, often featuring Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and one year the actor Freddie Fox – once a pupil of Duncan’s at Bryanston School -contributed Christmas readings and reflections to a specially – devised programme entitled “A West Country Christmas.” The Barn Choir, directed by Richard Hall, have been regular Christmas guests since 2004, and the baritone Timothy Dickinson has become a seasonal favourite in recent years.

Among many other highlights of the first ten years was a special celebrity concert in January 2006, when oboist George Caird and cellist Jane Salmon joined Duncan for a recital of which the Dorset Echo wrote: “The three played as well as I have heard anywhere, and to a packed house.”

Tragedy struck in 2011 when Angela Nankivell died after a long illness. “She shouldered the weight of the administrative burden, which was considerable, and was a wonderful musician and a good friend. I miss her very much, and when she was ill I wondered whether we’d be able to continue”, admits Duncan. Fortunately, his colleague and friend Jean Shannon, formerly General Administrator of the Scottish Baroque Ensemble and other premier professional organisations, came to the rescue and became Concerts Manager for almost a decade. “Jean really saved the series,” Duncan tells me, “and I owe her a huge debt. Jean had organised concerts for decades at the Southbank Centre and other London venues, and she knows her job inside out and at the highest level. I could never have coped with the organisation, but Jean put an immense amount of work in and helped us to build on the structure that Angela had already set in place. We streamlined the planning process to 10 concerts per year – previously we’d had more – and we managed to build up our audiences further. Jean created a website, an electronic mailing list and regular reminder bulletins, and our audiences shot up.”

Jean Shannon retired in the autumn of 2019, but fate once again stepped in to assure a smooth and fortuitous succession. Frances Wilson – a pianist, teacher, writer and a publicist celebrated for her popular blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist – had recently relocated to Dorset and Duncan asked her whether she would like to take over the reins from Jean. “Fortunately, for me, and for all of us,” remarks Duncan, “Frances was able to accept my invitation, and a new chapter in our history began! We both delight in taking the opportunity to welcome friends old and new to South Dorset to make music, and the future looks as exciting as the past!”

Just as Frances was settling into her new role, the COVID-19 Lockdown brought the concerts to a sudden halt in March 2020. Although the remainder of the planned season had to be abandoned, Duncan began a regular series of online mini-concerts to keep in touch with the lunchtime audiences. He played a piece each day from March until June 2020, and commissioned a series of thirty new piano miniatures from contemporary composers. This enterprise was supported by donations for the Help Musicians Coronavirus Hardship Fund and led to a critically acclaimed CD, “Contemporary Piano Soundbites”. During the autumn and winter of 2020 Frances and Duncan pioneered several socially-distanced lunchtime concerts, repeating a shorter programme to smaller audiences. In June 2021 Duncan gave the 200th concert in the series, a recital of Schubert and Beethoven piano sonatas, and an enthusiastic audience was glad to be back. The concerts resumed from September 2021, with a single cancelled concert in December due to rocketing COVID rates.

Another feast of delights is planned for 2022-23 and, as it enters its third decade, the health of the Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts seems assured.

“After 20 years,” muses Duncan, “we’re now at the stage where performers who are now established tell me that they gave one of their first concerts for us, and what a pivotal experience it was for them. I believe we still have a role to fulfil, and it’s invigorating and challenging to look forward.”


The 2022/23 season of Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts opens on 7th September with a concert by violinist Leora Cohen, with Duncan Honeybourne. 

Concerts take place once a month at St Mary’s Church in the heart of Weymouth. Ticket prices are exceptionally good value at £5 each and concert-goers can enjoy a pre-concert lunch in the church café in exchange for a small donation. Full details here

Cerne Abbas is a pretty village nestled in “Thomas Hardy country” north of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge). It’s famous for its “rude giant”, carved into the side of a hill above the village, whose origins are unknown, and for the last 29 years, the village has been host to an annual music festival, founded and organised by the Gaudier Ensemble.

The festival was established in Cerne Abbas to provide musicians with an attractive place to perform and an opportunity for them to come together to play the music they wanted to play to the highest artistic standards. The festival has also forged important links with the local community and has created stimulation and inspiration for schoolchildren and young musicians. A generous programme of concerts is combined with open rehearsals and masterclasses for promising young musicians, and leading students from the Royal Academy regularly join the Gaudier Ensemble to perform in some of the concerts. The church of St Mary’s is an excellent venue for the concerts, with its fine acoustic and picturesque location.

I knew about the Cerne Abbas Music Festival from the pianist Susan Tomes (whom I’ve interviewed and subsequently met) who plays with the Gaudier Ensemble, but missed the festival last year due to my house move. This year, I was determined to attend; Cerne Abbas is a 45-minute drive from Portland through some of the most charming countryside, and my father’s visit was a good opportunity to enjoy a Sunday lunchtime recital of one our favourite works – Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.

The opening piece, a quartet by François Devienne for strings and bassoon, was unknown to us but with its idioms and character so redolent of Haydn and Mozart, it felt familiar, and the performance was witty and colourful – what I call “friendly music” which puts everyone in a good mood and receptive for the rest of the concert.

Schubert’s Trout was infused with a warm intimacy, the piano ringing out like a carillon, high-spirited and lively but never dominating, the strings carefree and lyrical. Relaxed and genial, it felt irresistibly spontaneous, with its transparent textures and infectious, memorable melodies. The perfect music for a warm, sunny day in Dorset.

This was a most enjoyable and committed performance, the audience attentive and enthusiastic, and proof once again that fine music making exits and thrives outside of the capital. Next year Cerne Abbas Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary: the dates are already in my diary.

Cerne Abbas Music Festival

Meet the Artist interview with Susan Tomes

Ronan Magill, piano

Piano Sonata No. 3 in C, Op 2, No. 3

Two Bagatelles, Op 126 : G major – Andante con moto & E flat major. – Andante cantabile e grazioso

Piano Sonata No. 29, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’

Friday 26 April, Tincleton Gallery, Dorset


The tiny village of Tincleton is nestled in the pretty Dorset countryside near Moreton, where T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is buried. A converted Victorian school house is home to Tincleton Gallery which exhibits local artists and sculptors and also hosts concerts of jazz and classical music in an elegant vaulted gallery space which was once the schoolroom.

Organiser and host Joan Burdett-Coutts is friendly and welcoming, and one can take a glass of wine into the concert room, underlining the convivial ambiance of these events. The audience is very loyal, some people travelling from far outside the county to attend, and many come to all the concerts in the series.

The first time I met pianist Ronan Magill he played Liszt and Schubert, and some of his own compositions from his Titanic suite, on the Bechstein in my living room – a pre-performance ahead of a “proper” concert later that week. It’s a real treat to be so close to the music, and the music maker, and the audience at Tincleton Gallery enjoyed the same intimacy and immediacy of sound.

Ronan’s programme offered a snapshot of the extremes of Beethoven’s compositional life, from an early sonata, composed in 1795, to two Bagatelles from the Op 126, written after the final three piano sonatas and inhabiting the same otherwordliness as these works, and the monumental Hammerklavier sonata, one of the highest peaks of the pianist’s repertoire.

The early sonata is full of Hadynesque wit in its outer movements, deftly portrayed by Ronan, but the slow movement looks forward to the emotional depth and range of the Hammerklavier and the late sonatas, and was played with an elegance and sensitivity which found even greater expression in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier.

The first and last Bagatelles from the Op 126 contain all the brilliance, rhetoric and mercurial character of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and set the tone nicely for the Hammerklavier after the interval (during which more wine, nibbles and conversation).

The Hammerklavier is justly regarded by pianists as one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, and marks a significant point in Beethoven’s compositional life – a musical manifesto, which reaffirms the composer’s presence in the world, after the turbulent, difficult years of the Heilingenstadt Testament (a letter from October 1802 in which Beethoven expressed his despair over his increasing deafness). The sonata is a pianistic tour de force, from its infamous and perilously daring grand opening leap of an octave and a half  to its finger-twisting final fugue. As Beethoven himself stated, ‘it will give pianists something to do’. The cumulative effect of this work is overwhelming: an expression of huge power, richness and logic, and Ronan rose to the challenge of the majestic breadth of this great sonata

The Adagio sostentuto is the emotional heart of this expansive work, and here time was suspended in music which has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, combined with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne, all played with a Mozartian clarity and broad dynamic palette. And out of this other-worldly place came a restless physicality in the gigantic explosion of the final fugue and its deliberate dissonances and crunchy harmonies.

What can one play after such a mountain has been scaled? Schubert’s sixth Moment Musical in consoling A flat major offered a gentle salve and shared the introspection of Beethoven in his more reflective moments.

Concerts at Tincleton Gallery

A picturesque drive through west Dorset, the sun setting over the sea, snow still covering some of the higher ground along the route, took us to West Bay yesterday evening for a concert by violinist Philippa Mo at Sladers Yard, a small gallery in a historic Georgian rope storage warehouse.

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Sladers Yard, West Bay

By day the gallery’s café, by night, with seating arranged in the round on three sides, the small space was transformed into an intimate concert venue for a programme of music for solo violin by Teleman, Pisendel, Bach, Smirnov, Tartini and Karg-Elert. This was the fifth concert in Philippa’s series ‘Partita, Fantasia, Caprice’, her personal journey through Bach’s solo violin sonatas, complemented by baroque and contemporary music which reveals connections between music and composers. Philippa introduced each work in the programme, highlighting points of interest which gave the audience a way in to the music.

As someone who frequents piano concerts, usually in larger-scale venues where one can feel at one remove from the performer/s, the experience of hearing and seeing Philippa perform in such a small space was fascinating. The late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter queried why audiences might want to see him playing and opted to play in almost complete darkness, so the audience couldn’t see him “working”, but I think audiences have a great fascination with the way musicians produce the music and if you’re ‘up close and personal’ in a small space such as Sladers Yard, you really appreciate the physicality of music making. You’re right there with the performer in the moment of creation, following the fingers, the body. In addition, in a small space with a good acoustic, I heard wondrous colours, harmonics and resonances from the instrument which I had not thought possible, sounds and timbres which may be lost in a larger space or when the violinist is accompanied by a piano or other instruments.

The whole concert was an intensely absorbing experience. In such a small space, one is compelled to listen attentively, and Philippa’s understated mannerisms and gestures are proof that one can create a profound ‘presence’ by sound alone.

The final concert in Philippa Mo’s series is on 8 June at Sladers Yard, West Bay, Dorset.

Concert-goers can enjoy a glass of wine or local craft beer before and during the concerts and there is also the option to stay for supper at Sladers Yard after the concert. The atmosphere is friendly and convivial.


Meet the Artist interview with Philippa Mo

 

For this concert, I exchanged the deep red plush seats of London’s Wigmore Hall for my first visit to Plush Festival, held in the tiny village of Plush, deep in Thomas Hardy country in Dorset. Here in 1995, far from the madding crowd, Adrian Brendel established the festival in a spirit of collaboration and shared music-making. A deconsecrated church, which sits in the arcadian grounds of Plush Manor (bought by the Brendel family in the early 1990s as a bucolic retreat) is the venue for the concerts. Its generous acoustic and small size make it perfect for intimate chamber music and solo recitals; in addition, visitors may sit in on open rehearsals.

I’d known about the village of Plush (the pub, the Brace of Pheasants does a good Sunday lunch) and the Brendel connection for years, but this was my first visit to the Festival – part of my determination to seek out quality classical music in Dorset, my new home since I moved from London in May.

The drive to Plush suggests one is entering a special place. Leaving Dorchester (Hardy’s “Casterbridge”), I left the A-road and passed through the villages of Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton (“Longpuddle”). Then a sharp right turn and up a steep hill and there was a sign to Plush Festival, guiding the way. The village is chocolate-box-pretty, with the pub at its heart. The signs to the festival pointed beyond the centre of the village and a winding, tree-lined lane takes you into the grounds of Plush Manor. A helpful gentleman guided me to park my car in an adjacent field and asked if I’d been to Plush before.

Outside the church, small groups of people lolled in foldout camping chairs or lounged on picnics rugs. Some were even enjoying a picnic ahead of the concert. A small bar offered wine, prosecco and soft drinks, and there was a bunting-draped stall next door selling CDs. The murmur of conversation was accompanied by birdsong. A friend texted (before my mobile reception disappeared) to say he was at Glyndebourne for the afternoon, and I thought there was a touch of the Glyndebourne experience, in microcosm, at Plush – though minus the dinner jackets: people were dressed casually. After all, this was a lunchtime on a sunny Saturday in August…..

10567-b5caaf2a50ce50da7f81d22244175770The soloist for this concert was Filippo Gorini, a prize-winning young Italian pianist. His programme was unexpected for a weekend lunchtime recital – Schumann’s Geistervariationen (“Ghost” Variations) and Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier Sonata – but Kat Brendel, Festival Director, told me afterwards that this was “the programme he wanted to play”. It proved a bold and successful choice.

Schumann composed his Ghost Variations in 1854, shortly before he was committed to a mental asylum. It was his final piece, dedicated to his beloved Clara, and the work is freighted with melancholy and tenderness. Filippo Gorini caught the tragic intensity and intimate poignancy of the work. Understated, elegant and restrained, one felt Gorini fully appreciated that Schumann is a composer who wears his heart on his sleeve; the final variation ended on a whisper, with Gorini allowing the sound to fade into the stillness of the church.

Beethoven, by contrast, is at his most declamatory in the Hammerklavier Sonata, which opens with a daring leap across the keyboard and a rollicking fanfare motif. This was masterfully shaped by Gorini who brought energy and vivid colour to the music. At its heart is the Adagio, a huge slow movement of infinite serenity and profundity which in Gorini’s hands felt like a stand-alone piece of music. Time was suspended, and while a butterfly fluttered, agitato, around the church, nothing could break Gorini’s concentration – nor the audience’s (who were as committed as any Wigmore audience). This movement, played with an intense concentration which echoed Gorini’s sensitive approach to the Schumann, has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality.

Chatting afterwards, I mentioned to one audience member that I felt Gorini had the ability to make one forget a pianist was actually present during the performance. It’s a rare talent, and his lack of ego or unnecessary gesture undoubtedly contributed to this impressive performance.

If you think great music is only to be found in the metropolis, think again: Sir Andras Schiff returns to Plush Festival tomorrow for a sold out concert, and past seasons have enjoyed performances by Paul Lewis and Till Fellner.


This years Plush Festival continues from 14-16 September. Full details here

 

 

 

Header image: courtesy of Plush Manor