A west Cork journey from milking parlour to music chamber

How did Francis Humphrys go from farming to developing his labour of love, West Cork Chamber Music Festival?


Francis Humphrys came late to music. His first musical memories, he says, are “probably from college, believe it or not. There was no music in my family at all. I may have gone to a couple of rock gigs. There was a good friend of mine at college who introduced me to classical music. He’s responsible for the festival. I tell him this every year when he comes. At school everyone had to audition for the choir, and I was the first person out of the room. Once they heard my croak, I was evicted.”

His early memories are of the late Beethoven quartets. Wagner came later, “when I got to London. It became quite obsessional. And I gave the bug to other people who haven’t recovered yet.” He made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth twice.

Humphrys is an Englishman, and Ireland figured in his life as a place for childhood holidays. “I remember standing on the bridge in Galway watching the salmon go upstream. And I had a godfather who had a house in Co Wicklow. We used to go there. And my grandmother was Irish. So there was plenty of reason to come to Ireland. There was a connection. And then I came over and never left. Romantic Ireland wasn’t dead and gone.”

Why west Cork? “A series of events suddenly found me on a small farm [there].” His experience of farming was minimal. It was very tough going, “living off half-nothing for a very long time”.

His memory of the moment the festival was born is vivid. “We started with a short series of concerts in Durrus in 1992. That expanded. It must have been in the summer of 1994, at one of the concerts we did in Bantry House; the Vanbrugh Quartet were playing. I went upstairs during the interval and said, ‘I think we should do a festival.’ It was one of the stupid things you say. And they all jumped up and said, ‘Yes.’ It just went from there.”


A tricky beginning

It was, to put it mildly, a difficult beginning. “For a start, the farm deeds were in the bank, and if my wife found out . . . We just kind of took it from year to year. I forget which year we all started getting a small amount of money instead of being voluntary. It must have been when RTÉ put in the sponsorship. The other crucial person was Simon Taylor. ”


Taylor, now the chief executive of the National Concert Hall, then worked for RTÉ. “We did a concert in Bantry House; he came to that, took me aside and said, ‘We’ll give you £10,000 towards a festival. That was 20 per cent of the budget.”

Bantry House was key too. “Egerton [Shelswell-White] said yes. And he needn’t have. Until it got properly organised, it was quite intrusive for them.”

In the early days the biggest challenge was “putting together a programme. And getting in touch with agents and musicians was terrifying. I’d never done anything like this. I’d been sitting on top of a mountain milking cows for the previous 20 years.”

“Now I spend too much time chasing the money to keep the whole show going. It’s not easy. We pulled off a surplus of €1,500 last year. And at one stage I didn’t see how we were going to do that.” A PRSI rebate, a generous donor and some new donors “are holding it together at the moment. The overall budget last year was €514,000. West Cork Music, which also runs a literary festival and a traditional music festival, is a major client of the Arts Council, whose support amounted to €233,000.”


A matter of research

Early on, “it was a matter of thorough research: reading reviews, getting music magazines, looking at what seems interesting, buying the CDs. I had a huge LP collection, but all standard repertoire. And the Vanbrugh are very good at exploring, too.


“The big discovery for me of the last few years has been period instruments performance. I was listening to Italian soprano Roberta Invernizzi last night, just her and a lute. Wonderful. And some of those concerts in this year’s festival are a delight. Kate Hearne, the recorder player and cellist, is great at holding my hand through all that.” The festival formula seems to be extremely robust. “The bookings are already ahead of the final figure for last year, and the festival hasn’t even started. Seven concerts are sold out already.”

And the future? “The word ‘succession’ comes up a lot from my board.” Humphrys turns 70 this year. “It’s not for me to speculate what’s going to happen in Bantry House. But that is a question mark. They have great plans to take a new direction. We’re certainly part of it for the initial stage. I’d love to get a venue built, but we cannot seem to find a suitable site for it. My ambition would be to build a venue that would act as a music centre for the whole of west Cork. But for the moment, it’s year-to-year survival. It’s very tough.”

He is very proud of two non-festival promotions, the complete Shostakovich quartets from the peerless Borodin Quartet in 2000, and European Quartet Week, part of the 2005 celebration of Cork as European City of Culture. But, he says, “each year I fall in love with the festival programme”. This year he is especially looking forward to a Seamus Heaney memorial concert, a recital by soprano Ailish Tynan, Lawrence Power switching between violin and viola for a marathon of Brahms sonatas, and the big bash of the closing concert.

If he has a regret, it is that, “if 10 years ago my head was where it is now, we might be much farther down the road with the venue. I think there was an opportunity there. On the other hand, we might be broke and gone.”

westcorkmusic.ie, 1850-788789






Bantry House, 8pm Danish String Quartet, Doric String Quartet, Nurit Stark (violin), Cédric Pescia (piano), Vanbrugh Quartet. Hans Abrahamsen: Ten Preludes; Janacek: Quartet No 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); Busoni: Violin Sonata No 2 Op 36a; Debussy: Quartet in G minor.




St Brendan’s Church, 11am Danish String Quartet. Haydn: Quartet in B flat Op 76 No 4 (Sunrise); Nielsen; Quartet No 3 in E flat Op 44.

St Brendan’s Hall, 11.30am, 2pm Young Composers Forum with Deirdre Gribbin. Adm free

St Brendan’s Church, 4pm Philippe Cassard, Cédric Pescia (piano duet). Music by Schubert.

Bantry House, 8pm Philippe Sly (bass baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Zemlinsky String Quartet, Carolin Widmann (violin). Mahler: Rückert Lieder; Mendelssohn: Quartet in F minor Op 80; Bartók: Solo Violin Sonata.

Bantry House, 10.30pm Vanbrugh String Quartet. Beethoven: Quartet in C sharp minor Op 131.




St Brendan’s Church, 11am Maria Keohane  (soprano), Ruby Hughes (mezzo soprano), Concerto Copenhagen. Uccellini: La scatola degli aghi; Monteverdi: L’Orfeo Prologue; Buonamente: Sonata second a tre violini; Merula: Su la cetra amorosa; Marini: Sonata in ecco con tre violini; Fontana; Sonata No 16 a tre violini; Merula: Hor ch’è tempo di dormire; Castello: Sonata decimaquinta. Monteverdi: Pur di miro; Uccellini: Aria sopra la Bergamasca.

St Brendan’s Hall, 2pm Delmege String Quartet. Tippett: Quartet No 2; Amy Rooney: Foreground Background (first performance); Brahms: Quartet in B flat Op 67.

St Brendan’s Church, 4pm Gergana Gergova (violin), Alban Gerhardt (cello). Eric Tanguy: Sonata; Ervin Schulhoff: Duo; Kodály: Duo Op 7.

Bantry House, 8pm Alina Ibragimova (violin), Alban Gerhardt (cello), Philippe Cassard (piano), Nurit Stark (violin), Cédric Pescia (piano), Julius Drake (piano), Doric String Quartet. Ravel: Piano Trio; Enescu: Violin Sonata No 3 (dans le caractère populaire roumain); Korngold: Piano Quintet in E Op 15.

Bantry House, 10.30pm Danish String Quartet. Beethoven: Quartet in A minor Op 132.





St Brendan’s Church, 11am Zemlinsky String Quartet. Quartets by Mendelssohn and Dvorak.

St Brendan’s Hall, 2pm Yes Chamber Orchestra/Ronald Masin. Grieg: Holberg Suite; Vivaldi: Concerto in A minor for two violins RV522; Britten: Simple Symphony.

Old Cinema, 3pm Talk on The French Method of Bow Making. Adm free

Bantry House, 4pm Carolin Widmann (piano), José Gallardo (piano). Schumann: Violin Sonatas.

St Brendan’s Church, 8pm Allison Bell (soprano), Sebastian Philpott (trumpet), Clíona Doris (harp), Vanbrugh String Quartet, Philippe Sly (bass baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Lise Berthaud (viola), Juliette Bausor (flute). Deirdre Gribbin: Island People; Anahorish; Schumann: Dichterliebe; Tavener: To a Child Dancing in the Wind.





St Brendan’s Church, 11 am Maria Keohane (soprano), Sebastian Philpott (trumpet), Concerto Copenhagen. Purcell: Fantasia upon a Ground in D; O Solitude; Tell me som pitying angel; The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation; Trumpet Sonata in D; Dowland: Come again; Can she excuse; King of Denmark’s Galliard; What poor Astronomers; Flow my tears; Schmelzer: Sonata a tre violini; Biber: Sonata a 6. Pachelbel: Canon and Gigue.

St Brendan’s Hall, 2pm Benz String Quartet. Beethoven: Quartet in D Op 18 No 3; Christopher McAteer: Intaglio (first performance); Prokofiev: Quartet in B minor Op 50.

Old Cinema, 3pm Talk, The Art of Violin-Making Throughout the Ages. Adm free

St Brendan’s Church, 4pm Ruby Hughes (mezzo soprano), Julius Drake (piano). Schumann: Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart; Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Schoenberg: Erwartung; Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm; Verlassen; James MacMillan: Ballad; The Children; Scots Song.

Bantry House, 8pm Julian Bliss (clarinet), Lise Berthaud (viola), Philippe Cassard (piano), Nurit Stark (violin), Cédric Pescia (piano), Danish String Quartet. Mozart: Clarinet Trio in E flat (Kegelstatt); Valentin Silvestrov: Post Scriptum; Zarebski: Piano Quintet.

Bantry House, 10.30pm Alina Ibragimova (violin), Andreas Brantelid (cello), Cédric Tiberghien (piano). Schubert: Trio D929.





St Brendan’s Church, 11am Alban Gerhardt (cello). Bach: Cello Suites Nos 4 & 6.

St Brendan’s Hall, 2pm Cepheus String Quartet. Quartets by Beethoven and Shostakovich, plus first performance of Patrick Connolly: music from the room next door.

Old Cinema, 3pm Talk, Music in Georgian Dublin. Adm free

St Brendan’s Church, 4pm Andreas Brantelid (cello), José Gallardo (piano). Gram: Cello Sonata; Grieg: Cello Sonata; Grainger: Scandinavian Suite.

Bantry House, 8pm Carolin Widmann (violin), Gergana Gergova (violin), Andreas Brantelid (cello), Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Zemlinsky String Quartet. Jörg Widmann: Etudes I-III; Schumann: Piano Trio in D minor Op 63; Dvorak: Piano Quintet in A Op 5.

Bantry House, 10.30pm Doric String Quartet. Beethoven: Quartet in E flat Op 127.





St Brendan’s Church, 11am Maria Keohane (soprano), Ruby Hughes (mezzo soprano), Kate Hearne (recorder), Fredrik From (violin), Sebastian Philpott (trumpet), Concerto Copenhagen/Lars-Ulrik Mortensen. Vivaldi: Combatta un gentil cor; Violin Concerto in D RV212; Concerto in G minor RV157; Salve Regina K617; Recorder Concerto in F RV442; Sum in medio tempestatum RV632.

Bantry House, 3pm Lawrence Power (viola), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano). Sonatas by Brahms.

St Brendan’s Church, 8pm Ailish Tynan (soprano), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Joseph Middleton (piano), Gergana Gergova (violin), Lise Berthaud (viola), Philip Higham (cello), Mattias Frostenson (double bass), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Cormac Ó hAodáin (horn), Sarah Burnett (bassoon), Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Doric String Quartet. Schubert: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen; Beethoven; Septet; Chausson: Concert.

Bantry House, 10.30pm Zemlinsky String Quartet. Beethoven: Quartet in B flat Op 130 (with Grosse Fuge).

Listings for festival concerts on Friday 4 and Saturday 5 will appear in The Ticket on Friday 4

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