School’s out, rain falls, Russia squabbles . . . and Alnwick Festival feels the pain

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Already looking ahead: Alnwick Festival plans for 2018 to be bigger and better than 2017 (see photo below)

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CAN A SCHOOL CLOSURE, a spat between Eastern bloc neighbours and some showery intervals have an undesirable effect on an international festival?

Perhaps not, if you’re a long-established ‘multi-fest’ like Edinburgh’s, or a World Athletics Championship in London which even norovirus couldn’t (quite) stop.

But quite possibly they can, as in the case of Northumberland’s pride and joy, the annual Alnwick International Music Festival.

The term ‘music festival’ understates the event’s true scale. As well as music, there’s generally a lot of colourful, lively dancing: international groups from Eastern Europe, Asia, the United States and Africa – dancers as well as accompanying musicians, all in bright, traditional costumes – augment the astonishing depth of regional talent to put an ancient market town firmly on the world stage.

But it wasn’t quite the same this year. The town square wasn’t as tightly packed for the daytime performances, the evening venues and workshops not as overflowing with audience as in previous years, the Festival buzz less evident throughout the town.

Musician and educator BERNARD TRAFFORD, recently retired from headship of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School, was the first Voice of the North writer to spot the difference when he spent several hours there dodging the daytime showers.

“In contrast to previous visits,” he reported, “the square seemed quiet (undoubtedly the dreadful showery weather played a part that day). There were musicians aplenty, solos, duos and ensembles, but the bill lacked the  usual number of dance troupes and bustling stages that have delighted so many in the past.

Alnwick Town Square . . . not quite as busy as Bernard remembers it

 “There was no lack of quality, far from it. And it was good to see home-grown talent in strength, including the host town’s own young folk group, the cleverly-named Alnwicky. But the strong, genuinely international element, seemed to be missing.

“Where were those regular overseas visitors? Was Brexit to blame? Or financial pressures? Or something else?”

Voice of the North decided to dig deeper. A second writer, CARO FENTIMAN, was commissioned to get an impression of what had slightly blighted the festival in the town where she lives. 

“I spoke to Jonathan Justice, newly-appointed chair of the Festival committee,” writes Caro. “Whilst he was rightly pleased with this year’s event, he explained that the absence of more international groups had been mainly due to the lack of accommodation in the town.

“He told me: ‘Previously, performers have stayed at the old Duchess High School, but now it has closed and we have been unable to find a suitable alternative. We are actively looking for accommodation for next year’ (and with the Duke’s Middle School now permanently closed I suggested THAT might be an option).

“Justice went on to add that plans are already well underway for an exciting week of music next summer and he told me that ‘subject to confirmation I already have performers from China, Cambodia and the United States lined up to take part in 2018, as well as line dancers and Morris dancers.’

” The sensitive political situation in Russia and the Ukraine has created challenges, but Justice sourced a mainly-Ukrainian Cossack group from Manchester this year to add diversity to the programme.

“It’s clear from talking to this hardworking chairman, supported by an impressive team of local volunteers, that he has big ambitions for the festival.

 “’An education programme is a personal goal of mine, he told me. ‘I’d love to be able to involve local schools in music and culture programmes with the performers.”

It seems possible that such a programme might help to solve the accommodation issue – might local families come forward to play host to international performers as they learn more about their music and culture through a broader project?

“Would it not be wonderful for Alnwick to open its arms – and its doors- to musicians from across the globe and contradict the often negative rhetoric surrounding Brexit?

 So come on, Northumberland. We need imaginative ideas for hosting overseas groups in 2018. Anyone got a spare hall, Scout hut, even school? Surely we know someone with empty bedrooms or several tents?

 Can the County rise to the challenge and ensure that Alnwick’s International Music Festival lives up to its name and maintains its position as a prestigious arts event in one of the UK’s most beautiful old towns?

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