I have an association with the National Centre for Early Music which has grown from strength to strength over the years, going right back to the early days of the York Early Music Festival.
I’d been living in York, working on the Mystery Plays, and I’d become increasingly interested in finding permanent quarters for the festival. Thankfully, we were offered the Grade I listed, decommissioned medieval church of St Margaret’s and the rest, as they say, is history.
In so-called normal times our programme is extremely varied, presenting not only the best of early music from all over the world, but also a hugely popular range of folk, jazz, world music, film and events for children. We also stage a Christmas Festival and, of course, the York Early Music Festival, Beverley and East Riding Music Festival, plus two important competitions. Alongside this we run a packed outreach programme working with schools, universities, healthcare professionals and many community organisations. The setting of St Margaret’s is picturesque, so it comes as no surprise that we’re also a popular venue for weddings, conferences, events and celebrations. We never stand still. We’re a small close-knit team with a fabulous support network of volunteers and the building is always busy.
When COVID-19 struck, we were about to celebrate Early Music Day (which takes place on the anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday) with a sold-out concert performed by harpsichordist Steven Devine. When lockdown happened, we decided to act quickly as we didn’t want to disappoint our audience and Plan B was quickly put into place. Devine performed Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues alone in the church and we live-streamed the concert. It was a poignant performance watched by thousands and we were overwhelmed by the messages of support we received from all around the world.
Throughout the following months, we worked from home and kept the music going with streamed performances of past concerts from our archives, plus a weekly series Bach Bites featuring Devine’s concert. In July, we successfully staged a digital weekend version of the annual York Early Music Festival, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. There’s also been a fabulous support network with other like-minded organisations. We’ve helped to promote and sell each other’s events and, just as importantly, offered each other a great deal of moral support.
We’ve already delivered a series of folk concerts in safe bubbles in our lovely grounds, plus performances for families of Opera North’s Hansel and Gretel. We’ve also managed to produce a series of videos which help D/deaf children with two more in production and have kept our singing group, Cuppa and a chorus, going throughout the summer with a virtual version.
We were delighted to receive funding from Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund. Their financial support means that we can now start putting plans in place for the future. As with any other venue that is coming back to life, safety is paramount and we’ve arranged cabaret-style seating in small bubbles to make sure social distancing is observed. There’s even table service for pre-ordered drinks.
A programme of autumn concerts featuring Chiaroscuro, Kathryn Roberts and Seth Lakeman, silent film screenings set to live music and family-friendly concerts are already on sale. We’re getting ready to announce this year’s York Early Music Christmas Festival, a weekend of festive concerts which will be live-streamed and plans for a new festival in early 2021 are already in the pipeline.
These strange times have taught us all how important music is to our well-being and we’re proud and privileged to help.
By Delma Tomlin, Director and Chief Executive, National Centre for Early Music, York
Main image: Delma Tomlin by Ben Pugh.