Summer schools are typically a place to take an interest, explore that interest in more depth with some tuition, and meet other like-minded people. It’s not often that there is the chance to explore the fuller possibilities of a genre – to be able to combine a week of opera with Latin American music, or to try out Baroque Folk music alongside Baroque violin classes. The Dartington International Summer School and Festival takes a wide range of arts specialities and places them side by side for each of the weeks in August, offering participants and the public audience a culturally diverse experience.
At the helm, its Artistic Director Joanna MacGregor is the kind of modern pianist that you’d want to be drinking with after hours in the bar. Such is her individual musical expertise and reputation that a collection of celebrated musicians – including Emma Kirkby, Carolyn Sampson, Alfred and Adrian Brendel – return regularly from year to year as ‘tutors’. If you read MacGregor’s biography, you quickly get her gist – she’s keen to embrace multimedia and modern cross-arts ideas into her performances, and this is really in evidence in what she is programming in her second year at Dartington. She has expanded the remit to include jazz, Latin and music theatre, and has invited people like the poet Alice Oswald to collaborate.
There’s a healing aspect to the 1,200 acres of grounds we have here.
In particular, the chance for music students to improvise while silent film is projected onto the walls of the barn theatre is something MacGregor recalls fondly as a highlight from last year. This year, pre-auditioned opera students along with the Dartington Orchestra will perform Britten’s Peter Grimes during the final week. Participants can combine different singing styles with gospel and jazz, and there is a focus on woodwind and brass masterclasses for instrumentalists.
It’s easy to see how over 6,000 people will walk through the grounds surrounding the beautiful hall in Devon, and many come in as audience members for the evenings as well. MacGregor is responsible for a 150% increase in audiences and hopes the number will continue to grow. ‘There’s the chance to go to three different concerts and then finish up in the bar with all the performers,’ MacGregor enthuses, ‘it’s a summer school in the day but a festival at night.’
At Dartington, life isn’t just about the music either. The Summer School has a whole range of literary activities – creative writing and lectures about history, poetry and musical themes – meaning that for some, the music making may be a secondary discovery. With four slots to sign up for each day, everyone can sculpt their own week. There are opportunities for the finest pianists, conductors or composers to audition for some exceptional masterclasses and intensive work, or for chamber musicians to get world class coaching, but there is also space for the hobby musician to get involved with music making. And MacGregor’s planning demonstrates some savvy linking of themes – the opening week combines early music with stories in transit, placing Middle Eastern art forms alongside medieval music, the idea of the travelling musician, and even putting minimalist composer Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ on fretted instruments.
And if it all gets too overwhelming, there is a constant stream of yoga and T’ai Chi on offer. ‘There’s a healing aspect to the 1,200 acres of grounds we have here,’ MacGregor explains, ‘people can swim in the river, lie on the lawn under the moonlight – there’s a sense of a retreat.’
This year’s Dartington International Summer School runs from July 29–August 26