Meet Robert Ogden, the man behind Northern Aldborough Festival who helps make North Yorkshire an epicentre for classical music
Audiences can step into the ancient village church and experience concerts normally reserved for the cosmopolitan global stage. And the quality of musicianship on offer is partly thanks to the festival’s artistic director, Robert Ogden. Robert runs his family’s flagship jewellery store in Harrogate, which James Robert (JR) Ogden founded in 1893. Before taking on Ogden of Harrogate, he sang all over the world. “From the age of five, I’d sing in the bath and was quite a vocal child,” he says.
At seven, he got a place at Westminster Cathedral in London as a chorister. He went on to train at King’s College, Cambridge, the Royal Northern College of Music and at the Netherlands Opera Studio. An operatic countertenor, he has performed to critical acclaim all over the world. Robert went on to run a record label in London, while still performing on stage. But with a young family, the commitment of rehearsing and touring was difficult to juggle.
His father retired, asking if Robert wanted to help run the jewellery business with his brother – and at the same time Robert was approached by the Northern Aldborough Festival to see if he’d be interested in applying for the role of artistic director. “It just made sense. It was brilliant to be able to move back north for the kids.”
Robert’s wife Lucy, also a professional singer, now teaches singing. Their three children all play too. “It’s a noisy household,” he says. “The kids all play violin, one plays drums, one plays bass, one plays guitar, so they’ve almost got a band.”
This year, Robert has helped launch a competition that’s very close to his heart – a nationwide hunt for the best classical vocal talent. The inaugural New Voices Competition will see young singers perform live at a semi-final and grand-final at the festival this June. “Every year, music graduates face the challenge of getting up the ladder,” Robert says. “A competition can be a great way of not only measuring yourself, but getting some exposure. It can open a lot of doors.”
The competition offers £7k cash prizes and finalists will also get in front of a judging panel headed by one of Britain’s leading sopranos, Dame Felicity Lott. Winners also have an opportunity to perform at partnering festivals including Leeds Lieder, Newbury Spring Festival, Ryedale Festival and Music@Malling. “It’s also an exciting opportunity for us as a festival as there are very few competitions of this size north of London. We could hear some real stars of the future and be there at the launch of a great new talent,” Robert says.
He is aware of the changing cultural climate and the challenges that classical music festivals face. He notes how Young Musician of the Year has gone from prime-time BBC 1 family viewing to the outskirts of cable TV and wonders if concentration spans are now becoming shorter too, with the distractions of the digital age.
“There’s so much competing for audiences’ time that it’s that much harder now, but the rewards of a live concert are so huge. Experiencing the vibrations of the orchestra, there’s nothing like it; it’s a physical experience that you can’t replicate on a screen.”
Despite the classical music sector undergoing funding cuts, the King’s coronation, Robert says, is a great opportunity to put it back centre stage. “King Charles has quite a sophisticated taste in classical music. He’s a big supporter of classical music, and the music he’s chosen for the coronation is a lot of the best in British music-making.”
Ogdens the Jewellers presented King Charles with a gold Breguet watch back in 2008, when he opened the restored Royal Hall in Harrogate. “For the Queen’s coronation in 1937, we made two replica crowns based on the Imperial State crown for a big window display at the time. We also supplied jewellery to Prince George, Duke of Kent, the younger brother of King George VI, and sold Napoleon’s wife’s tiara to a guest at the coronation.”
The archaeological importance of Aldborough is fitting when it comes to Robert’s family as JR Ogden had a passion for archaeology. He was a collaborator of Leonard Woolley, considered the first modern archaeologist, and his archaeologist wife, Katharine. “JR Ogden was very much part of that world of archaeology in the early 20th century,” Robert explains. “He worked to fundraise and support the Woolley expeditions in Ur - modern day Iraq. It’s there that Agatha Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan.”
Christie based her novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, on her experiences at Ur. She married Mallowan within six months of meeting him in 1930. Robert has correspondence between JR and Mallowan, as well as other photos his ancestor took of TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. He is sure there are remarkable stories and connections still to unearth in the family archives.
It’s apt then that this year, the Northern Aldborough Festival sees the return of historian Lucy Worsley as its keynote speaker, on, fittingly, Agatha Christie. Robert hopes new audiences will come along to Aldborough for the festival, especially those who have never experienced a classical concert.
“Everyone gets something out of music. There’s just something about sonority and harmony that you feel physically, it’s a visceral thing. It can be enormously enriching, and have a huge emotional impact. It’s why it’s played at such seismic moments – funerals, weddings, the coronation…I think there can be very few people who are completely unmoved by it.”