East Yorkshire's Howdenshire Music Project goes global with online following

A shared vision to make classical music accessible to the people of the Howdenshire area of East Yorkshire has spawned a project that now has a global online following. Lucy Oates reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.

Howdenshire Music Project commitee members Philip Mepham, Amy Butler and Steve Goulden. Picture: Tony Johnson.
Howdenshire Music Project commitee members Philip Mepham, Amy Butler and Steve Goulden. Picture: Tony Johnson.

The Howdenshire Music Project has been bringing acclaimed classical musicians to Howden for almost three years, where they perform in the magnificent surroundings of the town’s Grade II-listed Minster. Although the arts sector has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the volunteers who run the project adapted by broadcasting performances online through their Facebook page and YouTube channel, with some viewed more than 10,000 times by people around the world.

The project stemmed from an idea that Steven Goulden, a professional tenor from Skelton near Howden, had back in 2018. He recalls: “The Minster stages some fantastic concerts in the evenings, but I wanted to offer a series of lunchtime concerts that people who might not be able to go out in the evenings could enjoy. I was determined that they should be free of charge and accessible to everyone. Our original remit was to relieve isolation.”

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Steven’s fiancée, Amy Butler, a professional pianist from the nearby village of Saltmarshe, was supportive of the idea from the outset, but points out: “It was Steven’s vision; he is very good at visualising something and then making it happen. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about classical music being elitist or stuffy, so we wanted it to be relaxed, friendly and informal.

Howdenshire Music Project commitee member and pianist Amy Butler. Picture: Tony Johnson.

We get people from residential homes coming along with their carers, parents bringing young children and even workers popping in on their lunch break.”

Steven continues: “I’m a local lad and I’ve been connected with Howden Minster for most of my life. I was in the choir when I was younger and performed concerts there as part of the Minster fundraising appeal during the 1990s. It’s a beacon for the local community and the first thing you see as you approach Howden on the motorway.

“Amy and I are both classical musicians and, although it’s having something of a renaissance, thanks to Classic FM, a lot of people have never heard it live. We wanted our lunchtime concerts to be inclusive and welcoming.”

After approaching Ian Stewart, secretary of the Parochial Church Council, Steven was given the go-ahead to stage an initial one-off, trial concert in October 2018. It was so well-received that he then received permission to organise a series of monthly concerts in Howden Minster between May and October 2019, which he persuaded local businesses to sponsor. “When we asked audiences for feedback, they said they’d previously had to travel much further afield to attend live performances of classical music,” says Steven.

Commitee member Steve Goulden, who is also a professional singer. Picture: Tony Johnson.

The overwhelmingly positive response spurred Amy and Steven on, and they approached Philip Mepham, chairman of Howden Civic Society and a keen supporter of the arts, for help. In no time at all, a committee of volunteers had been formed and the Howdenshire Music Project was born. Steven, Amy and Philip were joined on the committee by Ian and Rosemary Stewart, and, working together, they secured grant funding from Howden Town Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council, as well as attracting more sponsors.

With a busy programme of concerts lined up for 2020, the committee’s plans were thrown into chaos by the pandemic and the first national lockdown.

“We cancelled some of our concerts and, unsure what to do next, we set up a Facebook page and YouTube Channel and invited people to send in musical requests for Amy to play on the piano. We got some lovely responses, with people asking for everything from the Beatles to opera,” says Steven.

This was enough to convince the committee that it was worth investing in sound and visual equipment to enable them to broadcast their concerts online. When restrictions temporarily eased last July, they invited Graziana Presicce, an Italian concert pianist, to perform at Howden Minster. The concert was aired on Facebook and YouTube, and has now been viewed by around 7,000 people around the world.

“Musicians have had a difficult time during the last year, so we wanted to continue offering them a platform and giving them the opportunity of paid work,” Steven explains.

Although he admits that learning how to get to grips with this new technology was a steep learning curve, the Howdenshire Music Project went on to broadcast five concerts online during 2020.

At around the same time, the committee launched a campaign to raise funds for a new grand piano that would be based in Howden Minster permanently.

“We’d not done anything like it before,” admits Amy, “but we decided to try online crowd-funding, having been inspired by Captain Tom’s achievements during lockdown.”

Steven adds: “We recorded some interludes featuring local musicians in between the concerts to keep the impetus and the fundraising going. They were a great success and, to our surprise, we’d surpassed our fundraising target by the end of December.”

Held in April, the first concert of the 2021 series had to take place behind closed doors due to the ongoing restrictions, but it didn’t stop the committee kicking off the season ‘with a bang’, as Steven puts it. The performance by Julian Jacobson, an acclaimed concert pianist who is professor of piano and chamber music at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, has received more than 10,000 views on YouTube. Thankfully, the May concert, featuring soprano Bethan Terry and pianist Francesca Lauri, was staged three days after restrictions lifted, so the audience was allowed back into the Minster. Places had to be pre-booked and measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus were in place.

Amy says: “We were fully booked and had a waiting list for tickets too. It was quite an emotional event and coincided with us learning that we’d been given Arts Council funding that will allow us to keep expanding. I think part of the reason people were so keen to come back was that music is therapeutic and healing. It’s very immersive; our concerts take you out of yourself for an hour.”

Despite the challenges of the last year, the Howdenshire Music Project’s lunchtime concert series has established a growing following.

“One of the reasons we chose to call it the Howdenshire Music Project was that we wanted to attract people from the surrounding villages, but we soon realised that people were coming from much further afield,” says Steven. “Many of our regulars enjoy visiting the shops and tea rooms of Howden as part of their visit.”

Highlights for the coming months include a performance by Andy Mellor (clarinet) and Sean Greenheld (piano) next week, and a concert by Thomas Edwards (French horn) and Sean Greenheld (piano) on August 19. On October 9, a full day of concerts has been planned to celebrate the new grand piano. Howden Minster’s team of bell-ringers will kick-start proceedings in the morning, and the event will showcase leading musicians including pianists Duncan Honeybourne, Libby Burgess and Kasparas Mikužis, and violinist Harry Kneeshaw. It will also feature a hotly anticipated world premiere by award-winning composer Sadie Harrison.

Full details can be found at www.howdenminsterconcerts.co.uk.