‘This is the big one’: Sligo Festival of Baroque Music returns for 2021

Artistic director Nicola Cleary aiming to bring continental enthusiam to the west

Nicola Cleary: ‘Even without knowing it, I just thought of Sligo as someplace that I thought we could put down our roots.’

Nicola Cleary: ‘Even without knowing it, I just thought of Sligo as someplace that I thought we could put down our roots.’

 

Violinist Nicola Cleary was appointed artistic director of the Sligo Festival of Baroque Music in April 2019 with just a five-month lead-in to that year’s festival. Last year, plans had to be made and remade, and in spite of all the constraints a truncated festival took place.

With Dublin then under Level 3 restrictions, no one could travel from the capital to hear a concert. But the players of the Irish Baroque Orchestra were able to go to Sligo, as they were travelling for work.

This year sees a full programme, one in which the thrust of Cleary’s ambition is clearly to be seen. This year’s festival is focused on Bach, and her personal highlight from the programme is: “The 300th anniversary celebration of the Brandenburg Concertos. This is the big one. We’re going to perform all six concertos on Saturday 25th.

There’s obviously a real, live appreciation of music, and people seem to be a lot more open in Sligo

“We’ve brought the London Handel Players. They’re the core players, but we have some Irish players joining them as well. We’re trying to work on making collaborative programmes, so everything is rehearsed in Sligo. The choir Sestina is coming from Belfast, with a small chamber ensemble, and they’re doing two Bach’s Missae breves.

“The flute player Rachel Brown and the oboist and recorder player Andreas Helm are coming for the Brandenburgs, but they will also be involved in the project with Sestina. It’s really exciting to have that kind of collaboration.”

Cleary didn’t start her career in early music.

“I started as a conventional violinist, studying and going through the usual hoops. I went to London, then went on and did a lot of chamber ensemble work in Germany. Then I came back to Ireland and reared my family. I worked from here, and married an Irish man. That’s why, from 1997, I based myself here. I’m now a solo mom again. I left the last of our three children in London, where he’s taking up studies in the Guildhall. It’s a bit like history repeating itself in that sense.”

When her children got a bit older, “I found this ensemble in Paris, Orfeo 55, Nathalie Stutzmann’s ensemble, and I joined with them. Through Nathalie Stutzmann I came across a lot of singers, baroque singers. They’re really so organic in everything they do. Maybe it’s that we’re not as restricted in one sense. Early music performers take huge liberties in what they feel musically. If it works, then why not?”

Although she never formally studied as an early music violinist, “I’d had a lot of early music training through Doris Keogh in the Royal Irish Academy of Music without realising it. When I was a teenager in the Academy I played a rebec [a medieval bowed instrument]. Not many modern violinists have rebecs thrown at them as well as recorders and dance and sung madrigals.”

In the most positive sense imaginable, she adds, “We didn’t realise what we were doing.”

Her move to Sligo was not primarily a musical one. “I moved to Sligo to restore an old building I fell in love with. It’s a project. It’s not finished. But it’s getting there. It’s an old Georgian premises. It’s just something that you’re attracted to. I love architecture I love the idea of being able to breathe life back into something.

We’re remaining true to the ethos of the festival, focusing around a theme

“My husband is also from the west though he’s not from Sligo. When we looked at Ireland, I suppose that in Sligo there was always this sense of – even when I played in concerts with the orchestras – it was always on the circuit. There’s obviously a real, live appreciation of music, and people seem to be a lot more open. Definitely there’s an audience there. Even without knowing it, I just thought of Sligo as someplace that I thought we could put down our roots.”

The baroque festival was already under way when she arrived. And in Sligo she met Rod Alston, the festival’s founder and original artistic director. “I suppose as part of engaging in the community I joined with Rod and his ensemble. He’s been really supportive in everything I’ve tried to do. Before I went off to audition in Paris I played everything through with him.”

More than once she describes her musical experiences as very “organic” and “natural”. I may not have done formal studies in early music or baroque performance. Maybe I will get the time to delve into that more, now. But it’s in the bones, it’s in the blood. I find it very liberating. I love the whole idea of improvising, the freedoms of experimenting with ornamentation. That’s something we don’t get in our formal modern training. And also the energy. Just the sheer joy of the music, the vitality.”

I ask about how she wants to change the festival.

“I don’t believe it’s about changing the festival. It’s about bringing more people to the festival, more listeners. And also throwing open the door of the whole festival weekend to the community. We’ve done that this year, out of sheer necessity. We’ve had to look for alternative venues.

“Instead of having our home in one building, we are now using various locations across the town, the Catholic Cathedral, St John’s Cathedral, the Hawk’s Well Theatre, the Presbyterian Church, Gilhooly Hall, a little treasure though it has some issues, and we also have a free, outdoor performance on Saturday 25th. These type of events are new to the festival. At the same time, we’re remaining true to the ethos of the festival, focusing around a theme.”

She mentions, with reluctance, the dread word “accessibility” for audience, a term that often suggests a process of dumbing down for audiences. But she adds, “There’s a huge following on the continent just for early music.” Her goal is to generate the same enthusiasm for her festival in Sligo. 

The Sligo Festival of Baroque Music takes place from September 24th-26th

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