The Celtic Tiger was just upon us when the first West Cork Chamber Music Festival took place in summer 1996. And the intervening years have seen the event expand in almost every dimension. It’s stretched from seven to nine days, and it’s grown from the original 14 concerts of 1996 to a tally of 65 events.
Back in 1996 the earliest concerts took place at 5pm. Now the festival is up and running at 10am, and the daily offerings embrace not just performances but masterclasses for young chamber ensembles (with their own associated strand of concerts), public interviews, a composers’ competition, and an annual showcase for instrument makers.
Along the way, the umbrella organisation that runs the festival, West Cork Music, has spawned other festivals in Bantry, including the West Cork Literary Festival (July 12th-18th) and the Masters of Tradition festival (August 19th-23rd).
There were also a number of shorter-lived Easter festivals (which included cycles of the Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas and the Shostakovich string quartets) and a European Quartet Week in Cork city as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2005.
All this might look like a pattern of untrammelled growth, but in fact there have been setbacks. The Easter festivals, which for a couple of years were focused on the Callino Quartet, a string ensemble that came into being at the 1999 festival, is no more. The Quartet Week in the city, which, it had been hoped, would become an annual event, remained a one-off. The chamber music festival’s own early ventures outside the home base to churches in Schull and Skibbereen were dropped in favour of centralisation in Bantry. And West Cork Music’s annual concert season, which existed before the chamber music festival, was dropped in favour of preserving and growing the festival itself.
The festival was originally based wholly in Bantry House, and for many people the spectacular setting of the house, the ever-changing views across the bay, and the intimate, dry acoustic of the library, have long been an intrinsic part of the festival experience. So much so that I’ve been told many times that without Bantry House the festival would surely fold.
But festival director Francis Humphrys couldn't have grown the event nearly fivefold with just the one performing space. And he engineered a transition to a new venue, St Brendan's Church of Ireland, on the main square in Bantry, so slowly that no one seems to have got bothered by the fact that Bantry House is no longer the festival's main venue, although concerts are still held there every day. Most of the concerts are now given in the church, which is acoustically more amenable, although physically uncomfortable.
What the festival needs is its own dedicated venue, and Humphrys’s dogged pursuit of this over many years may well be about to bear fruit. Cork County Council has agreed to fund a feasibility study. Bantry has a population of 3,348, according to the 2011 census, and the annual economic value of the festivals to the town has been measured at €2 million, including 15,000 bed nights and 20 jobs. The biggest bugbear, of course, is likely to be identifying a suitable venue site in a town with the serious constraints that exist in Bantry.
As before, any new centre is not intended to sever the connection with Bantry House, as long as it's still available. But availability is an issue. The house, don't forget, was featured in Channel 4's Country House Rescue series, and there was talk last year of some of its irreplaceable contents being auctioned off to deal with the owners' bank debts. It's not a given that, if the festival wants to have concerts there, Bantry House will always be available.
It’s always fascinating to spend time at the festival’s masterclasses, and the few I sampled this year were no exception. It was particularly interesting to see how tutors from different backgrounds seemed to have to ask one question in particular, no matter which group or what music they were dealing with: why are you playing so loudly?
The problem manifested itself in various ways, through playing that for no apparent reason was simply louder than specified, playing that introduced loudness in the pursuit of expressiveness, or playing that resulted in excessive loudness as a kind of heightened response to an actual instruction to play loudly. It’s as if every encouragement the young musicians saw towards raising their voices, musically speaking, was at risk of being taken as an encouragement to shout.
It’s good to be able to report that the tutors all knew how to practise what they preached. And the playing of the Borodin Quartet in particular – in Borodin’s Second Quartet, Shostakovich’s Second and Fourth, and Glinka’s Sextet – was extraordinarily contained, as if any dynamic level could be suggested or conjured without need for major change.
The way the Borodins did this reminded me of the way certain actors can reveal emotional depth and complexity with the tiniest of facial movements. It’s such an effective and potent process that it seems to create an extra special bond not just between listener and musicians but also between the listener and the music that’s being played.
The festival has become more populist over the years, and the proportion of works written post-1900 has dropped by a quarter or so over the past few years. But there's still room for new works, of course. This year, Ian Wilson went Oirish in his peculiarly titled Sonáid Béaloidis (the intended meaning is Folk Sonata, not Folklore Sonata), a virtuosic solo violin sonata for Alina Ibragimova.
There was also a rare outing for Sofia Gubaidulina's Hommage à TS Eliot, with soprano Katharine Dain deeply affecting in the purity she brought to an emotionally riveting work. And another soprano, Claire Booth, was also consistently gripping in another dark work, Shostakovich's Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. At the lighter end of things, the trio of Philippe Bernold (flute), Chloë Hanslip (violin) and Lilli Maijala (viola) brought great deftness to some atypical, almost fluffy Beethoven in the Serenade in D, Op 25.