The royal treatment – Guy Johnston on the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Guy Johnston and friends have brought music back to Elizabeth I’s childhood home at Hatfield House. Here he writes for IAM about the process of taking music to an historic location. 

When I approached Lord Salisbury about the idea of a Chamber Music Festival almost 10 years ago, he said how much they had been hoping music would return to Hatfield House and that his ancestors would be happy to know music was alive again in this special setting. The Marble Hall was designed for musical performances and entertainment and Elizabeth I’s imposing Rainbow Portrait in the Marble Hall, which hovered over us during the filming, provided an added inspiration.

They were a very unique few days, performing privately for the Salisbury family in their home and in various different rooms inside Hatfield House while Apple and Biscuit filmed us. Lord Salisbury gave a virtual tour around the house for the cameras with art historian, Dr Emily Burns, who was able to communicate about the various special artefacts in each space. Stephen Johnson spoke eloquently about the musical offerings, and artists such as the Navarra Quartet, Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny, Julian Bliss, Melvyn Tan, Richard Gowers, Katherine Stott and Katherine Broderick performed repertoire ranging from Dowland – who spent some time at the Old Palace at Hatfield House – to the present day with a new commission by Matthew Kaner.

© Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings
Navarra Quartet with Julian Bliss © Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings

We’re aiming to make each programme last around an hour and want it to be informative and something slightly different from the usual concert experience with other dimensions including a tour of the house, pre-concert talks, a welcome from Lord Salisbury, as well as interviews with the Salisbury family and musicians.

We had to be creative with our musical choices, because rehearsal time was limited and our budget could only stretch to a certain amount for the professional recordings and days spent at Hatfield House. I chose Bach’s Cello Suite No 2 in D Minor because I felt its darker tones and searching quality would be apt for the current times we are living through, and contrasted this with Mendelssohn’s more hopeful and joyous Sonata in D Major with pianist Melvyn Tan as if moving from darkness to light, perhaps a message for the future!

© Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings
Long Gallery concert with Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny © Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings

Elsewhere, Julian Bliss joined the Navarra Quartet for Mozart’s uplifting Clarinet Quintet; Katherine Broderick and Katherine Stott, who live in the same village, came with some beautiful songs by Schubert, Fauré Berlioz and Quilter; Richard Gowers performed on the 17th century domestic organ; and Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny performed some ravishing Dowland songs, many inspired to flatter the Virgin Queen.

We decided to keep the festival alive in an effort to support the musicians as well as to stay connected with our supporters. When we streamed our launch video in June, we had 1,000 views within a few weeks, and considering only 140 people can fit into the venue we were happy to know that the performances were reaching a wider community.

It was special to be able to perform for the Salisbury family and some of their friends. The musicians got a sense of an almost forgotten performance experience! For many, this was the first time they had performed since March, and it was wonderful to experience this moment together and the pure joy of being able to share music again in such an intimate setting.

© Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings
The Armoury – filming Stephen Johnson’s introductions © Alexander Barnes / Apple and Biscuit Recordings

I have to admit that when lockdown began and with concerts being cancelled, that I felt a strange kind of relief. I saw an enforced sabbatical ahead of me, one which I have imagined from time to time since I won the BBC Young Musician Competition back in 2000.

The idea of free time was initially restorative, choosing how I wished to structure my days, what I wanted to work on with the cello and think outside the box more than usual. But it wasn’t long before things started to pick up again.

As it happens, the phone rang and I was invited to perform in the Wigmore Hall lockdown series in June, which was a tremendous honour and helped to keep me focused during what was otherwise a very bleak time. I also started giving some socially distanced performances in Cerne Abbas with friends and colleagues following on the NHS clapping tradition with music.

I’m very fortunate to have a teaching position at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The fact that as a musician I have a salary for the first time in my life is a blessing during this uncertain time. I’ve been giving online Zoom sessions and preparing to return for the Fall Semester soon. But I do feel for so many, including my brother, friends and colleagues, who are longing for paid concerts to return beyond the current void of opportunities.

The current situation might feel hopeless sometimes, but people need music, art and an outlet for expression. I’m sure this period in history will shape how we move forward with our lives in the future. There has been a time to breath, to think about what matters most to us, and how to survive through adversity. I hope that our 10th anniversary of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival will be an opportunity for great celebration next year!

Concerts in the company of Lord Salisbury and family will be streamed on YouTube and Instagram from 11 September every Friday evening at 7pm.

Four concerts will be premiered free on the festival’s YouTube channel and instagram on
Fridays 11, 18, 25 September and 2 October 2020, 7:00pm UK time.