Over moors for overtures

Four years ago Jamie Walton realised a long-held dream... to launch a classical festival in one of the county’s most remote locations. David Denton meets him.

Jamie Walton

In that part of Yorkshire where sheep tend to outnumber people, a group of famous young musicians are arriving from around the world to take part in the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, one of the most remarkable and unique among Europe’s classical music events.

“It was my father who would take me on long walks when I was a young boy,” explains Jamie Walton, the founder and artistic director of the festival. “The abiding impression came with the very first time I set eyes on the distinctive colour of the heathers that cover much of the North York Moors National Park.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“From that moment I felt I had a personal connection with the area, and years later, having performed one evening at the Whitby Music Club, I was up at five the following morning to drive south for a lunchtime concert. The journey that I took across the moors, shrouded in mist, was a life-enhancing revelation of great beauty that will forever remain in my memory. Then one of my first concerts as a young man was in a barn, if memory serves me right, in the village of Sinnington on the edge of the moors, and I discovered such a large and enthusiastic audience.”

It was then that the thoughts of a festival, somewhere on the distant time horizon, slowly began to take shape and looked like becoming a reality 12 years ago when he took the first tentative steps with concerts in the rustic setting of St Hilda’s at Danby and St Mary’s in Lastingham.

Taking time out from his busy career, as one of our most highly regarded cellists, it was while walking from his base in Appleton-le-Moors that Walton first discovered the churches and priories, many of historic importance, that are dotted around this massive area of 554 square miles in little-known locations such as Lythe and Egton Bridge.

“The energy I felt inside those buildings contributed so much to the music and atmosphere, and the more I discovered the further afield I wanted to explore, for their locations are in some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere in the world, and makes the journey to the church just part of the magic of the evening’s concert.”

His next task was to persuade his famous young musical friends that his festival would not just be about music, but an event that would draw them back to the moors each year.

With their commitment to share in this highly unlikely venture, mostly playing music outside of their normal concert repertoire, the first festival was launched four years ago. Much to Walton’s relief it was an instant success, with demand for tickets so exceeding supply that one audience member found himself seated in the pulpit.

“We have the use of three self-catering cottages in Whitby, which the festival provides for the artists, and where we are ensconced for the two-week period. This means we are living and working together, very close to St Hilda’s Priory at Sneaton Castle, where the Sisters welcome us for our rehearsals and two of the major concerts. It feels rather like a working holiday with a marvellous atmosphere of goodwill, friendship and celebration.”

Walton’s original intention had been to bring music to the people of this sparsely populated region at a price they could easily afford, but news that something very special was happening in North Yorkshire quickly spread to music lovers around the country. Soon part of the audience became those on holiday for the whole festival period, this year’s eleven concerts taking place in ten locations.

The news also travelled south and into the music establishment, the festival only just being pipped at the post by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when the Royal Philharmonic Society presented its coveted award in 2011.

“I know we have to provide musically interesting programmes, yet an essential part of the festival is to take the audience to churches they will be discovering for the first time, and that will engender a new interest in an often remote building.”

That is certainly the case in Lastingham, a small hamlet nestled in a geographic hollow on the southern edge of the moors, with new research pointing to the possibility that a religious building may have stood on that site since the year 655.

For someone who normally takes the stage in the world’s great concert halls, it must have been an usual experience for the violinist, and Classical Brit Award winner, Jack Liebeck, who found himself walking down a rickety cart-track to reach the charming 15th-century church situated in the middle of a field just outside the village of Danby.

He returns again this year with his wife, the violinist Victoria Sayles, and, together with Russian violist Alexander Zemtsov, pianist Adam Johnson and Australian violinist Madeleine Easton, they form part of the regular nucleus, with “guests” arriving from nine countries to join them for specific concerts. This year they include the Moscow-born Leeds Piano Competition prizewinner, Katya Apekisheva.

“I had in mind for some years a celebration of Benjamin Britten’s music to mark the centenary of his birth year, but that has grown into a festival theme of British music from the 17th century through to the present day, and takes in 14 composers,” continues Walton, whose recording of Britten’s Cello Suites is issued this week to coincide with the festival.

Opening tomorrow in Guisborough’s historic church of St Nicholas, and ending in the imposing St Hilda’s on Whitby’s West Cliff on August 24, Walton’s vision to bring music to some of Yorkshire’s most dramatic locations has certainly paid off.

North York Moors Chamber 
Music Festival, 01751 417795, www.northyorkmoorsfestival.com.