These days, even the Good Old Days aren’t as old as they used to be …

Ahead of Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend, John Phillips delves into Simon Heffer’s The Age of Decadence to look at the parallels between our world and that of 1880–1914.

Next to an online review of Simon Heffer’s acclaimed book The Age of Decadence I found a wonderful headline which read ‘Calm down – Trump won’t become President and Britain won’t leave the EU.’

The headline was only from 2016 but now seemed to come from a different universe. The past is, they say, another country, and Heffer’s exploration of Britain from 1880 to 1914 reveals a nation which, while familiar in its geography, seems to occupy a different place in history.

That’s the beauty of good historians – finding something to say about the past which is both new and relevant, and Heffer achieves that in spades by demonstrating that this era when Britain was at the height of its power was also on a precipice from which to fall.

It looked like a contented and thriving country; the working and lower middle classes were enjoying greater individual freedoms and there was a revolution in leisure and entertainment whose legacy can be seen today in buildings such as the London Palladium, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, beloved of Strictly fans, and music halls celebrated by the television show The Good Old Days.

But a mismanaged war in a far-flung land – sounds familiar? – against the Boers proved Britain was no longer invincible. Acts of public protest verging on terrorism as the Suffragettes fought terrible injustices against women and the gulf between the rich and the poor created a crisis of confidence about the country’s place in the world.

Heffer builds his case against an arrogant ruling caste which saw progress only ever going their way despite warning signals of the break-up of the Union as Ireland crept toward civil war and the coming crisis in Europe which lead to a then unimaginable conflict.

But perhaps subconsciously they did see it coming, which is why they started to look back. Heffer claims these Edwardians created Britain’s national obsession with nostalgia, preserving the ancient buildings which the Victorians had been keen to tear down and romanticising the country in literature and poems such as A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, as well as creating the Arts and Crafts movement to counter the age of the machine.

Heffer is best-known as a newspaper columnist, and it was one of his colleagues in that club of soothsayers who came up with the Trump-Brexit prediction which just goes to show how close to the present date The Good Old Days can sometimes be.

But Heffer sums it up best with a quote from Britain’s most famous prophet of the future, sci-fi writer HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, who confidently stated: ‘Man will step from the pinnacle of this civilisation to the beginning of the next.’

Let’s hope he was also wrong about the Martians landing.

Simon Heffer will be speaking about The Age of Decadence in Buxton International Festival’s  Book Weekend, which runs from November 24 to 26. It also includes talks by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, Time Team’s Tony Robinson and The Archers‘ Timothy Bentinck. For more details and to book tickets, click here.

Val McDermid on life in Buxton – Buxton Book Weekend 2017

Ahead of her appearance alongside Denise Mina and Sarah Ward at the Crime Writers Lunch – part of the Buxton Book Weekend 2017, Robbie Carnegie talks to ‘Queen of Crime’ Val McDermid about her time in Buxton and being part of the crime writing world.

RC: You lived in Buxton for 12 years – what are your memories of the town?

VM: I loved living there. It was always a friendly town. I loved the market. I loved the Opera House. I loved the fact you could get straight out into the country. I lived on Green Lane – you could just cross the street and walk up through the woods to Solomon’s Temple. There was that sense of being able to walk out of your front door and be somewhere else.

RC: You included Buxton in one of your novels, didn’t you?

VM: Yes, but not particularly flatteringly! That’s the way it goes, you see. You have a character who doesn’t share the same views as you. People think that the views of your central character are the same as your views but that’s not always the case. Kate Brannigan is a city girl – doesn’t like being more than 10 minutes’ drive from a Marks & Spencers food hall!

RC: Was there any kind of adverse reaction to the depiction of Buxton?

VM: No. I made up a Chinese restaurant and was quite rude about that. Someone got in touch, saying ‘I know that restaurant, I know which restaurant that is!’ and I was like, ‘No! Really it wasn’t!’

RC: Your latest book, Insidious Intent, is the tenth of the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan books. Is there something reassuring in returning to the same characters?

VM: It’s not so much reassuring – it’s familiar ground in one sense, but the exciting thing is how you move forward from where you left them at the end of the last book. It’s a continual journey, if you like, it’s a process of character development of how people cope with things that happen to them and how that becomes part of their lives or not as the case may be. And so coming back to them is intriguing. In one sense, it’s like meeting old friends, but in another there’s that possibility of forward movement.

RC: I guess that’s something that’s quite unique in the detective genre, isn’t it?

VM: It’s something that crime fiction’s particularly good at, because it’s set against a social-realist background. It’s set in the real world, if you like. So, as society changes, that can also have an impact on your characters. It’s not like you’re frozen in aspic, having decided to start a book in 1986, they’ve all got to be in 1986, or something like that. So you have that sense of forward movement that comes with the passing of time as well.

RC: When you’re coming to Buxton, you’re part of a Crime Writers Lunch, with Denise Mina and Sarah Ward, and crime writing has always been an area where women have dominated. What do you think women bring to the genre?

VM: I think when we’re young, when we’re little girls, we learn that we don’t get what we want by confrontation. Little boys fight for things. Little girls find other, more manipulative, more devious ways, I suppose you’d say, of getting what they want. And I guess that mindset, the understanding of that mindset, allows for the creation of complex plots and complex storytelling. I hate to make generalisations, because someone will then leap up and give five examples of why they’re wrong, but in general I think women crime writers tend to write more complex plots and men’s novels tend to be more linear.

RC: Do you think there’s a kind of ‘sisterhood’ of female crime writers?

VM: I don’t think it’s a gender-based thing. Crime writers are very collegial, generally. We’re pals. Mostly because almost all of us have come to the genre because we love it, we love reading it. We start off as crime readers before we become crime writers. So you’re always hanging out with people whose work you’ve read and whose work you enjoy, and that does lead towards a greater conviviality. Crime writers are definitely the party animals of the literary world! Literary novelists are a bit less convivial and poets are always whingeing, but the crime writers just want to get together, have a good laugh, have a catch-up. So we have social connections as well. I’m now part of a crime writers’ rock band. We play covers of songs that are mostly to do with murder or crime.

RC: What’s your instrument?

VM: I’m the singer. I used to play guitar – I still do, but not well enough to play in public anymore. We did a debut gig at the Edinburgh Festival and we did an event at Bloody Scotland, the Scottish crime writers’ festival, and we already have several gigs lined up for next year!

Val McDermid appears in the Crime Writers Lunch on Sunday 26 November at 12 noon at the Old Hall Hotel.

Buxton Book Weekend runs from 24 to 26 November. For more information on all events, click here.

Buxton Poetry Competition winners announced


A highlight of the Buxton Festival Book Weekend was our poetry competition prize giving. Competition judges Matt Black, Philip Holland and Rob Stephens were joined on stage by winning poets from all three categories of the competition.

The event was opened by competition patron Lady Jasmine Cavendish who talked about the hard work that poets from across the country and the world (including USA, Canada, Brazil and Slovenia) had put into their poems. The winners of the Children’s and Youth Categories were then announced with the winning poets reading their poems to rapturous applause from the audience.

Following a speech by Professor Peter Dewhurst from competition sponsor The University of Derby the winners in the Open Category were announced in reserve order. Fifth place went to Ruth Quinn with her charming poem The Hidden Dragon. Fourth Place was awarded to Josh Ekroy for Entrepreneurs. Third Place was the wonderful A Winter Interlude by Philip Burton. Margaret Morey’s delightful poem Sixties Secret was in Second Place. And the First Prize in the Open Category of the 2016 Buxton Poetry Competition went to Roger Elkin with his moving piece called Songs Without Words.

Songs Without Words by Roger Elkin

What really stuck in Mum’s craw that next Summer
was surrendering her Bechstein baby grand,
that alter of arrival at which she’d taken daily stock
of her upbringing, and her mother’s sacrifice
putting her to the upright. Oh, how she’d ladedahed
at family and friends as graduating to this black-lacquered anvil
straddling the corner of her front room.

So would tackle it, side-saddling the piano-stool’s chintz,
hands lifting and flashing, trafficking the ruffles of notes
as if the caressing of ivories, the spread-fingered rending
were her sole hope of regaining self.

The she’s put all her stumbling discord
back together again with the sweet-saccharine
middle-class fanciness of those Songs Without Words,
the genius of Mendelssohn – uncircumcised Jewboy
become good Lutheran – in sister Fanny’s filigree piano-pieces:
musical antimacassars covering the vulnerabilities
of nothingness, the notes clustering
like sticky flies sucking at ripe blackberries
while Dad smiled wryly with his put-on face,
his fingers itching to switch his TV back to life.

So, from the moment the piano left–
legs rag-swagged for protection,
then jacked into the back
of Cheetham’s van ­–
she felt abandoned.

But never let on what she inwardly termed
My mortification,
till decades later after Dad had gone.

All that time, she kept schtum,
silently rehearsing
her version of words without songs.

Competition organiser Claire Barlow comments: it was a delight to meet all our shortlisted poems at the prize giving event. And to hear them read their poems to a warm audience of judges, patron, friends, family and supporters was a joy. I was particularly impressed by the stage-craft of our young winners who read their poems with great style and confidence.

Information on the 2017 Buxton Poetry Competition will be announced in the new year via Thank you to all who entered this year, and congratulations to our winners and runners up.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard and the world’s worst journey

Credit: Eyewitness Accounts with Scott in the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting.


The Odditorium: the tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) includes some amazing characters. Some you’ll have heard of, some you probably won’t. All of them have changed the world, although in some cases the wider world hasn’t noticed yet. They include Joshua Norton, first Emperor of America, and Reginald Bray, who carried out strange experiments with the Royal Mail. I was delighted to be asked to write about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who is by far my favourite explorer. 

When I was at school, we were often told stories about adventurers and explorers as something to aspire to. Captain Robert Falcon Scott was held up as a great example, bravely sacrificing himself in an attempt to reach the South Pole. As Sara Wheeler once described Antarctica, our southernmost continent often seems to be “a testing-ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get’”. Despite that, I find Cherry-Garrard’s accounts of his adventures uplifting and inspiring.

Scott intentionally framed his death as an act of heroism. Bruce Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here (1988) describes a note left by Scott reading: “I have done this to show what an Englishman can do”. This legend-making worked well, and Scott’s story has often been retold. But his account often overshadows the tale of his companion, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. When Cherry-Garrard wrote an account of his time in Antarctica, it was entitled The Worst Journey in the World (1922). This referred not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to Cherry-Garrard’s attempt to collect penguin eggs for scientific research. What Cherry-Garrard went through was about as bad a time as one could go through and survive to write about it. 


Cherry and his two companions travelled 60 miles on foot to reach the Emperor penguin nesting grounds, all in the darkness of an Antarctic winter. Pretty much everything that could do wrong did. Cherry’s teeth shattered from shivering at one point. Yet there was no triumphant return home and, according to Cherry’s account, officials at the Natural History Museum couldn’t care less about the eggs that had been retrieved at such high cost. 

Scott gets most of the glory from that expedition, despite his mistakes. But, for me, Cherry-Garrard’s story is the most precious – his graceful description of suffering and how to bear it has as much to say about daily life as it does about Antarctic exploration.

The Odditorium at the Buxton Festival is a chance for me to talk about one of my favourite people. Cherry’s account of frozen misery is inspiring, and is one of the greatest treasures that has been found in Antarctica. We’ll also be talking about Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, who created the most important work of art in the 20th-century, the bestselling author of books on Tibet (who didn’t even own a passport) and an Italian time lord who built the world’s largest underground temple. In just two hours, you’ll hear an alternative history of the world told through the lives of these remarkable people. 


James Burt

BBC #LovetoRead campaign

Back in May, the BBC launched its #LovetoRead campaign to celebrate reading for pleasure and to ignite a national conversation about books and words. Over the summer, the BBC have partnered with a variety of leading literacy organisations to promote the campaign, encouraging us to share our favourite books and what they mean to us, and to inspire others to love reading too. At the Festival, we have been joining in on the conversation online through Twitter and Facebook. Here, Lucy, Robbie and Lily share their favourite books. Stay tuned for the second instalment!

Lucy – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I discovered this book when I was immersed in all things beautiful while studying History of Art. It was probably the importance of concept of beauty that prevails throughout that appealed to me, or possibly the fact that I felt a New England College would quite suit me…but either way I have adored this book since my first reading. Set in a picturesque New England College, the story is about a small group of eccentric and rather conceited Classics students whose obsessions with the mythological worlds they are studying lead them to experiment in ways that are initially light-hearted and amusing but soon become far more dangerous. The contrast between their beautiful surroundings and the romanticism of the language and myths they are studying is in stark contrast to the darker plot that unfolds which makes this book completely gripping and a little unsettling.   

Robbie – The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

It was a hard job to choose between John Irving’s novels – should I go for A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According To Garp, A Widow for One Year, Until I Find You? In the end, it had to be The Hotel New Hampshire, a typically sprawling saga of an eccentric family, filled with recurrent Irving themes (private school, Vienna, bears, wrestling, sex and death) as well as his trademark black humour and sudden heartbreaking poignancy. I first read it in my early 20s and it’s stayed with me ever since.

Lily – A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I can remember reading The Kite Runner as part of my English Literature GCSE and I was completely bowled over by it. A Thousand Splendid Suns is equally powerful. In both books, you feel like you are there witnessing the story unfold right in front of you. Hosseini engages with all your senses – you can taste the food, you can feel the heat, you can hear the characters and feel their pain and heartache. Suns explores the relationship between two Afghan women married to the same man, and their resilience and strength during the rise of the Taliban. It’s a fantastic book that I have read again and again, and each time fills me with emotion and admiration for the two women – themes that continue to resonate with today.











Book Weekend favourites

As the Buxton Festival Book Weekend is now less than two months away(!), the Festival team decided to share which events they are looking forward to this year.

“I’m very much looking forward to the Book Weekend this year with the added bonus of having some opera available to attend too! English Touring Opera will be performing one of my favourite operas, The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi on the opening day of the Weekend this year.  And then on Saturday afternoon one of my favourite speakers, Matthew Parris will be giving us another one of his entertaining talks. I love listening to Matthew’s programme Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 which he delivers brilliantly and it is always a joy to hear him speak at the Festival. A lovely autumnal weekend of culture in a beautiful spa town – what more could you ask for?!” Lee Barnes Administrator

“As a Derbyshire farmer’s daughter who has many memories of being in and driving Land Rovers I am of course looking forward to Ben Fogle’s talk on Friday evening! The Mary Queen of Scots talk will be the first official event in the newly refurbished Pump Room in The Crescent – a little historic event for Buxton and the Festival!” Liz Mackenzie PR & Press Manager

“I first met Helen Keen in 2008 when I reviewed her show It Is Rocket Science at the Buxton Fringe. In it, she managed the unique trick of being engaging, informative, educational and very funny, as she told the history of manned space travel. The show was a hit, not just in Buxton, but wherever it was performed, leading to it being expanded into a series on BBC Radio 4. I was thrilled to see that Helen had her first book out, using the popularity of TV series Game of Thrones as a jumping off point to look at the scientific and historical questions it throws up in her own unique style. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones myself, but I know that won’t matter – looking back on my review of her Buxton debut I wrote: ‘Helen herself has a highly engaging personality and such an obvious enthusiasm that the audience cannot fail to be captivated.’” Robbie Carnegie Marketing & Web Manager

“As a Tudor fanatic, particularly Elizabeth I, I am really interested to hear David Templeman’s talk on the Queen’s Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (or Mary Queen of Scots). Mary (like Josephine Wilkinson’s talk on Katherine Howard at the 2016 Festival) is largely a misunderstood character who really had a sad and unfortunate personal life. I am also looking forward to William Sitwell’s talk on Lord Woolton who was Minister for Food during WW2. I’m also a Game of Thrones fan (though I’m still on season 3 – need to hurry and catch up!) so I’m interested to hear Helen Keen on Saturday afternoon.” Lily Bracegirdle Artists & Engagement Manager

“I really like the line-up for the Literary Lunch on Sunday. Matthew Dennison who will be talking about the life of Beatrix Potter (it’s also the 150th anniversary of her birth), which is complemented nicely by Marina Warner’s book about fairy tale and Clare Hartwell’s book which looks at the landscape and history of Derbyshire.” Lucy Durack Development Director

“I’m so excited for the book weekend this November as it encompasses all my favourite things – food, heritage, poetry and Derbyshire! I’m particularly looking forward to seeing The Odditorium on Saturday evening, I’ve been listening to David Bramwell’s podcasts ( and I can’t wait for him and the other speakers to introduce their wonderfully eccentric characters from history. I’m also looking forward to buying all my Christmas presents early at the Waterstones pop-up shop!” Claire Barlow Literary & Outreach Manager


Kathryn Harkup and Hugh Fraser at Buxton Festival 2016

This year, we welcomed Kathryn Harkup and Hugh Fraser to the 2016 Buxton Festival to talk about Agatha Christie and the poisons she uses in her novels. Still not sure whether to buy Kathryn’s book or missed Waterstones at this year’s Festival? Take a look at this lovely review by Anna Caig who attended the talk.

My sister and I went to see Kathryn Harkup speak about this book at the Buxton festival, in conversation with Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings in the BBC David Suchet Poirot adaptations. Murder geek heaven. I have to admit that most of the people I spoke to about my plans for that afternoon seemed to think that going to a talk on the use of poisons in the novels of Agatha Christie was an unusual and surprising way to spend my time. Even those who enjoy Christie do not necessarily want to indulge in this level of specialist exploration of plot minutiae. In the words of my brother-in-law’s friend who was visiting them for the weekend: “Wow, your wife has some pretty niche interests.”…

 Read the full review here.

Book Weekend 2016 complete programme announced

The complete programme for the Book Weekend running from 18-20 November has now been finalised with new additions Germaine Greer, David Templeman and Clare Hartwell. 

To see the full programme, follow the link to the digital version of the brochure here.

Visit the website to book your tickets now!


Chatting with Festival supporter Mark Sutherland

During the Festival, I sat down with Mark Sutherland who is a great supporter of the Festival.

So Mark, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in Sheffield where by day I am a career civil servant working in project management in the Department for Work and Pensions. Outside of work I enjoy travel, reading, drinking too much beer and wine, visiting museums and galleries, and attending opera and concerts. I regularly attend performances at the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall. Occasionally I also write reviews of these performances for the website I am also a member of the BBC Trust’s Yorkshire Audience Council.

How did you first find out about Buxton Festival?

I was introduced to the Festival by a friend of mine Norma Hird who also happens to be a member of the Festival Board. Knowing my passion for opera and the fact I attend operas in the UK and abroad it was Norma who suggested I come to Buxton. I was ashamed to say that I hadn’t been to the Festival despite it being on my own doorstep.

What attracted you to the Festival, and what was the first event that you attended?

It was the variety of events and Norma’s steer that attracted me to the Festival back in 2012. The first event I attended was Intermezzo – an opera by Richard Strauss. As a lover of Strauss operas I thought this was a fantastic production with Janis Kelly terrific in the lead role. It was also the first time I had heard the fabulous Northern Chamber Orchestra who play such a critical role at the Festival each year.

Is there a particular part of the Festival that you like?

For me the unique selling point of the Buxton Festival is that it’s really three festivals in one; a fantastic marriage of opera, music and books. I love the fact the festival showcases rarely performed operas. Each day is varied from the talks and concerts in the morning and afternoon to the opera in the evening and then the late night jazz which makes the Festival very special.

Do you book your tickets fairly early? 

As a benefactor of the Festival I make good use of the priority booking period. So this year I booked my tickets in February which was just as well as several of the events I booked including the 9am talk with Nick Robinson and Peter Hennessy, and the Oldie Literary Lunch with Joan Bakewell and David Aaronovitch sold out quickly. The great innovation this year was that priority booking could now be done online which in my view was about time too.

Have you attended every year since you first visited the town and Festival?

Yes, since my first Festival in 2012 I have attended every year. I now try and spend around 10 days at the Festival going to as many events as I can. In addition I have attended the Autumn Literary Weekend since it was launched in 2014 and also various Friends of Buxton Festival events both in Buxton and London.

During the last five Festivals I have had some great experiences watching the operas and attending some fine concerts. It has also been great to meet in person some of the literary speakers. Personal favourites have included Alan Johnson, Gyles Brandreth, Peter Hennessy and Jean Seaton, the official historian of the BBC, who I met many times at the BBC Archives so it was great to hear her talking about her research. Each year I am an enthusiastic user of Twitter giving my feedback on events I have enjoyed.

What attracted you to the Festival this year?

It was the usual mixture of rarely performed operas, established and talented young musicians, alongside a range of interesting speakers.

What was your favourite event and why?

That’s a difficult question as there is always so much great stuff at the Festival. In the opera series I really enjoyed Beethoven’s Leonore. As someone who has seen Fidelio, the opera that Leonore eventually became, a number of times it was fascinating to see the genesis of this masterpiece. In the music series a standout was the concert from celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich. The late night jazz concerts in the Pavilion Cafe just get better and I loved the gigs from Jazz At The Movies and Digby Fairweather’s Half Dozen. In the literary series Alexei Sayle was hilarious, Peter Hennessy entertaining in all three of his talks, and it was great to hear D J Taylor, a writer and critic I greatly admire. 

What would you say to someone who is new to opera?

Give it a go, don’t be scared. Opera is an art form for everyone not just the few. Many of the plots may be bonkers but the music and the singing will surely bowl you over. The glorious Frank Matcham designed Buxton Opera House is a terrific venue to enjoy a night of opera. Next year the Buxton Festival will be producing Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring. This a great introduction for those new to opera. It’s a funny story, has some great music and is sung in English. Definitely give it a go!

What would you say to someone who is new to the Festival?

Enjoy all the Festival has to offer. Buxton is buzzing during July with the Fringe running alongside the main festival. Try and sample as much as you can whether it’s the opera, concerts or literary events. Buxton is definitely the “friendly” festival supported by a great Board of Directors and Executive Team, fantastic interns (some of whom end up working for the Festival full time!) and volunteers who all make sure you have a great time. I guarantee that if you come to the Buxton Festival, just like me, you will come back year after year!

Thanks, Mark!

Lucy Durack Development Director

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow reflects on the 2016 Buxton Festival

‘The first Festival weekend is without doubt a visceral and hugely rewarding explosion, exuding an excitement, summing up as it does much more than the year-long planning trajectory.’

It’s a pleasure to write in the afterglow of the 2016 Buxton Festival, when memory is filled to overflowing not only with the enormous number of events, operas, concerts and talks, but also with such enthusiasm for the artists who were with us, and the audiences who were so fulsome in their praise and interest. There is so much to talk about but forgive a slightly random selection of topics.

The year long preparation for each Festival has several phases across many disciplines including fund raising, marketing, logistical planning and company management which means drawing together all the strands of accommodation, contact sheets, rehearsal schedules and rehearsal venue booking to name a few. The Festival Company is large as you’d imagine; principal artists, directors, designers, conductors, stage, production and technical managers, choristers and young artists, repetiteurs, assistant directors, props supervisor, costume and wigs supervisors, dressers, lighting designers, concert managers, volunteer ushers and not least, the members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra. The extended company of course includes every concert artist and every speaker, each one of which has travel, accommodation and rehearsal requirements. I know of no other Festival on our scale that brings such a huge number of visiting artists who form our Festival’s offerings each year. Three new opera productions alone make enormous demands upon any planning exercise. Grange Park for example produces three operas each summer, but Buxton Festival offers much more than that. It’s salutary to look at the size of back-up staff involved elsewhere. In comparison, we have a small office staff working year round, so you can imagine the extraordinary motivation required amongst those who provide the foundation upon which the Company of artists arrive to deliver the Festival. It has to be exceptional.

But lest one might fall into the trap of thinking that it is only year long preparation that is pertinent, the artistic planning that falls to me looks further and further ahead. We now work to a rolling three year planning cycle, which is necessary of course to build a vision of strategic planning not only in terms of repertoire and programming in general but also in terms of interesting and drawing artists to us, artists, directors and conductors who have engagements in their diaries stretching two, three or four years ahead. Forward strategic planning is also important to our private and corporate donors alike; they need to see development, aspiration and purpose in our vision of what the Festival is and will be. So our repertoire for the next three years is accordingly already planned, and I shall write about this very soon.

I said in one of the many speeches required of me this summer at Buxton that I was one of the luckiest people alive, only to be countered by Alan Davey the controller of Radio 3 who was present at that performance of Leonore, whose claim he felt as controller of such an enormous output including the Proms probably trumped mine! But the pleasure I have in carefully choosing operas amongst so much else, and then directors and conductors and finally casting wonderful artists very thoughtfully, is intense. This is only exceeded by the most gratifying of all feelings, the joy of performing and seeing opening nights, when the quality of the artists and all involved goes well beyond what one in a balanced way dreamed of. So the truly wonderful international cast of Leonore, the exquisitely subtle and refined cast of Tamerlano, and the enormously skilled and brave cast of Capuleti stole my heart and those of the audiences and critics too. It’s enormously enjoyable also to see the directors and conductors, friends all, delving deeply into the core of these three operas and creating new insights that made me not the only one to go back time and time again to see more performances.

One of our greatest sadnesses in this profession is knowing that most likely all our new productions will be put to sleep, or rather cast aside after the Festival closes, because storage for us is far too expensive an option, and try as we might to provide for one, an after-life for any production anywhere is rare. Having said that, we do aim to, and we are discussing at this time the possibility of some of our productions being seen elsewhere in the near future – this is the holy grail of aspiration and good business of course.

People so often in this world of short sound bytes perhaps but also more widely from habit, want to talk about their ‘picks’ or ‘hits’ or ‘favourites’ from this Festival or that, or Proms season, or Opera season; I find this quite difficult. Interviewers often want a précis of ‘highlights’ on which to focus their article, or to pin their subjects down to bite-sized elements. Most often I’ve been asked for a favourite opera, easy but not as easy as you’d think, or a favourite opera house, or favourite composer, or more close to home favourite artist in the Festival or special concert in the making. I’m afraid I don’t do this lightly. My wife might be allowed to press me into answering a question such as which composer actually has contributed most to a love and appreciation of music and musicality in the broadest sense. But I’d give you five of the most important composers if asked, with the caveat that the entire issue is personal to me, not polemical in the slightest. Well, perhaps just a little bit polemical, but not too much! So what would I say about the Festival just past bearing in mind the complexity of the question?

When I was at Cambridge as an organ scholar, full of the joys of professionalism beckoning, I went home for a weekend and heard the Chelmsford Cathedral Choir in concert performing Tallis’ ‘If ye love me’, a sublimely simple deeply affecting short motet. Professional choirs of course sing this wonderfully, but the performance of the amateur cathedral choir had a simplicity and commitment that brought tears to my eyes. I’ve never forgotten it. There’s a moral in this. Of course Angela Hewitt’s and Stephen Kovacevich’s recitals were quite fabulous, as they should have been, unerring musicians of such quality and dedication as they are. And Sarah Jane Brandon’s Strauss and James Gilchrist’s Vaughan-Williams were deeply affecting. Then there was the Manchester Chamber Choir’s fervent Bach and McMillan. And then quite a few of our Opera principals performing major roles for the very first time and without exception proving masters and mistresses of them, and a glittering future awaits them. Then very specially, the Schubert Ensemble playing a programme specifically tailored for our Festival audiences who above all are so intelligently curious, including the Schumann Piano Quartet which is so often overshadowed by the Piano Quintet. Playing of their quality and insight only comes with maturity and experience. This was very special for me. Equally exceptional and rare are talks such as Peter Hennessey’s with Nick Robinson, freed from broadcasting as they both were, discussing political interviewing with pin point lucidity and easy charm.

The greatest joy though is to plan a Festival with an inner structure of mini-festivals, as so many of our audience come to Buxton for several or many days, to see all three operas and take in as much of the concerts and talks as they can. They share my own curiosity which is so essential and such a natural part of a love for the arts and artists.

Nothing can be more thrilling though than the opening weekend of the Festival. First nights are the apogee of all we do, and for all the artists too. Everything in our planning and preparation aims for this stunning weekend, the opening of three new opera productions in strict succession, a technical achievement alone of some proportion to say the least. Of course performances of a work grow and mutate when repeated – that’s why I particularly love doing as much opera as I do, because we rehearse much more than for concerts and we then can live within the piece longer, and naturally, no performance is ever identical. But opening nights are what we aim for, and what we structure every element of careful preparation and rehearsal specifically for.  It’s easy to forget that nearly every symphony concert, in this country at least, is an opening night, and probably the only night! In the world of opera we take the same pains and view, to produce the best at opening night. The first Festival weekend is without doubt a visceral and hugely rewarding explosion, exuding an excitement, summing up as it does much more than the year-long planning trajectory. All those who dedicate their lives to an eclectic but closely focused arts Festival such as Buxton have the required single mindedness; the reward is our intelligent audience’s appreciation. I look forward to the whole process coming to happy fruition once more next summer with eagerness and confidence.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director