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A Pastoral Symphony
Oliver Moor

Not all great art is to be found in cities. Despite the best efforts of the foot-and-mouth virus - or perhaps that should be despite the draconian steps taken to conquer it ñ the British countryside will, as the government are so keen to point out, be open for business this summer. Even though walking may still be impossible in many places, Britain’s lakes and mountains will be the perfect backdrop for a surprising number of arts festivals.

Classical music lovers are particularly well served. From this week, the music festival scene really comes to life. Perhaps the pick of the early crop is the Loch Shiel Spring Festival, which runs from the 21st to the 28th of May. Set in the spectacular setting of Glenfinnan, the festival has attracted a wide range of talent, from both Scotland and elsewhere. The highlight will be undoubtedly be renowned pianist Gusztav Fenyo performing Beethoven and Chopin, but there’s a great deal more on offer, and not just in the concert hall. An eclectic mix of traditional Russian music will be performed on board the opening day cruise on Loch Shiel: included in the £15 ticket price is a free dram of malt whisky and the chance to sample the local smoked salmon.

Moving south into England, we find the first of several Yorkshire festivals taking place in Beverley from the 24th - 28th May. The Early Music Festival has enlisted the Tallis Scholars and the Academy Of Ancient Music as well as a host of other talents. Early music - which includes Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, but also works from as long ago as the 12th Century -- seems to be something of a Yorkshire fascination. The National Centre for Early Music is based in the city, and Yorkshire is the home of the world’s largest producer of period instruments -- the Renaissance Workshop Company of Bradford. York itself holds an baroque festival from the 6th -15th July, this year featuring, amongst many others, the Gabrielli Consort performing works by Monteverdi.

The tiny Yorkshire Dales village of Grassington hosts a spectacular two-week festival from the 15th - 30th of June, and this one’s not just classical. Barry Cryer and Germaine Greer are amongst this year’s speakers; jazz is represented by Acker Bilk, and there’s even a Queen tribute band. However, if you’re looking for classical music it's certainly to be found: Maria Ewing, the Almira String Quartet, and the Orpheus Lute Duo will also be there.

Absent from this year’s listing - but returning next year - is the unique Chard Festival in Somerset. This event celebrates women in music: in the ten years it has been running, Chard has seen performances of works by not only the most well-known female composers such as Clara Schumann and Hildegard of Bingen, but also the hugely underperformed Lili Boulanger and Elisabeth Jaquet De La Guerre. Chard has also championed contemporary female composers such as Jennifer Fowler and Karen Wimhurst, with several works being premiered at each of the previous festivals. Considered by The Daily Telegraph to be one of Europe’s ten best musical events, the festival has in the past attracted major stars such as percussionist Evelyn Glennie. May 2002 should be worth waiting for.

Of the early summer events, the most famous is probably Aldeburgh, in the peaceful Suffolk countryside. Now in its 54th year, the festival, started by Benjamin Britten, is now world renowned, and this year’s extravaganza, running from the 8th - 24th of June, will do nothing to dent its reputation. The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Borodin String Quartet, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will be performing, as well as a full-scale production of Britten’s Rape Of Lucrece, which is to be filmed for BBC Television. The problem with the Aldeburgh is that it is now so famous that many of the events are sold out, although it should certainly be worth calling for returns. A similar story will probably be found at Cheltenham Music Festival (30th June - 15th July), which this year features some of classical music's biggest stars: Emma Kirkby, Steven Isserlis and Artur Pizzaro to name but three.

You would probably be better off waiting a few weeks and heading for the Derbyshire town of Buxton. From the 12th - 22nd July, Buxton hosts a more intimate event, but one which stages four different operas in Buxton's newly-restored Opera House. The festival also includes a strong literary component: Fay Weldon, Margeret Drabble, and Melvyn Bragg, amongst others, will be on hand to discuss their works.

Cumbria and the Lake District have been hit hard by the current farming crisis, and many byways are still likely to be closed even in August. However, the Lake District Summer Music International Festival is still going ahead: it runs from 4th - 15th August, and features the Sorrel String Quartet, Alexander Melnikov, and the winner of the BBCís Young Musician Of The Year, Guy Johnson.

By this time we are, of course, getting perilously near to the Edinburgh Festival - and the Proms will be in full swing in London’s Albert Hall. But who needs to be cooped up in a city centre when there's such a wealth of talent available outside? This year, despite all the countrysideís problems, there's still room for a pastoral symphony. Go and hear it for yourself.

British Arts Festivals Association: http://www.artsfestivals.co.uk/index.html
Loch Shiel: http://www.shielfestival.freeuk.com/
Chard: http://chardfestival.org.uk/
Aldeburgh: http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/
Grassington: http://www.grassington-festival.org.uk/
Buxton: http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/
York & Beverley: http://www.yorkearlymusic.org/
Lake District: http://www.ldsm.org.uk/
Cheltenham: http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk/index.cfm

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