Neil Thomas looks forward to the return of a sumptuously stylish date in the musical calendar. 

It is one of Shropshire’s most prestigious events, bringing together world class musicians to celebrate the works of one of the greatest classical composers. 

And this year the English Haydn Festival – one of Bridgnorth’s most highly acclaimed summer events – is back for the first time in three years, after a pandemic-enforced hiatus.  

Scheduled to run from 7th to the 11th of June, it is the 28th in the series, making it a firmly-established fixture in the classical music calendar.  

It celebrates the work of the Austrian, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and other famous 18th century composers. 

A likeness of Franz Joseph Haydn in acrylic 

Haydn has been dubbed ‘Father of the Symphony’ and was instrumental in the development of chamber music such as the string quartet and piano trio. He was a friend and mentor of Mozart and a tutor of Beethoven – and in his heyday more famous than both. 

His successful stays in London in the 1790s resulted in his adoption as a formative ‘English’ composer. 

“What the festival brings to Bridgnorth goes far beyond music, I think,” reflects Mike Proudman, chairman of the English Haydn Festival Trust and principal organiser. “Aside from the economic value to the town, the festival carries tremendous prestige. For instance, most years the Austrian Ambassador to the UK visits the festival, to mark Haydn’s importance in his country.” 

Mike says this year’s event is even more eagerly anticipated because of the enforced break. 

“We did hold a one-off Beethoven concert last September, delayed from 2020, to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, and it was like a rave. We were very cautious, taking everybody’s temperatures and so on, but it didn’t put people off. They were just so excited to be at a live event and really got into it. I’m sure people will be just as excited to be at this summer’s festival.” 

The theme will be music from the Baroque era, through the Classical period to the Romantic years leading to the present day. 

As well as Haydn, the festival will feature works by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, C P E Bach, J C Bach, and a newly-discovered cello concerto by the brilliant French composer Jean Balthasar Tricklir (1750-1813) who was greatly influenced by Joseph Haydn. 

Star trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins

The festival hosts a line-up of internationally-acclaimed soloists including trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins, violinist Simon Standage, cellist Pavel Serbin, flautist Eva Caballero and keyboard player and musical director Steven Devine, who conducts the English Haydn Orchestra.  

Main venue is St Mary’s Church in Bridgnorth, with the opening lunchtime concert, by wind instrument chamber group, The Revolutionary Wind Machine, taking place at Acton Round Church. 

The evening concerts include Haydn’s symphonies, in particular two composed whilst he was living in London, known as the ‘London’ symphonies. 

A series of one-hour lunchtime concerts feature The Consone Quartet, The English Haydn Piano Trio and The Salomon String Quintet. 

“What the festival brings to Bridgnorth goes far beyond music”

The centrepiece of the Grand Opening Concert on Wednesday evening will be Haydn’s famous Trumpet Concerto, performed by Crispian Steele-Perkins, who is considered to be the world’s leading player of the Baroque Trumpet. He is unique in performing regularly upon genuine antique trumpets. In addition to his work with classical orchestras and period instruments, Crispian has developed a body of television and film work which is universally recognisable – most famously he played the theme tune to BBC’s Antiques Road Show, the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.   

Other participants in the festival similarly demonstrate the event’s credentials. Conductor Steven Devine, for instance, is the co-principal keyboard player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and also performs regularly with many other groups around Europe. He has recorded over 30 discs with other artists and ensembles and made six solo recordings, including Bach’s Goldberg Variations which received wide critical acclaim. He made his London conducting debut in 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall and is a regular performer there – including his Proms directing debut in August 2007. He has conducted the Mozart Festival Orchestra in every major concert hall in the UK and also across Switzerland. Steven is Music Director for New Chamber Opera in Oxford. 

“We did hold a one-off Beethoven concert last September, delayed from 2020, to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, and it was like a rave.”

The English Haydn Orchestra’s leader Simon Standage studied music at King’s College, Cambridge. He is best known for playing and conducting music of the Baroque and Classical eras on original instruments. Simon is professor of Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. 

Steven Devine, conductor of the English Haydn Orchestra

Spanish-born Eva Caballero performs with period instrument orchestras and ensembles in the UK and abroad. She was awarded a scholarship to study at Trinity College before continuing her studies on historical flutes at the Royal Academy of Music. 

Pavel Serbin is recognised for not only his orchestral and solo performances, but his passion for research into lost compositions of both Russian and European 18th century composers.  

“This year’s festival is special in that it celebrates the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee,” Mike continues. “Having a glass of wine with friends in the marquee before the concert or during intervals would be a nice way to celebrate.” 

Simon Standage
Pavel Serbin

The English Haydn Festival was set up in 1993 by violinist John Reid – a star player and orchestra leader – in collaboration with American musicologist Professor Robbins ‘Robbie’ Landon, with the intention of providing live performances of classical music to a rural community.  

“John loved Haydn and very much wanted to share his enthusiasm for him with other people,” Mike recalls fondly. 

Mike became involved in 2000, using his vast business experience as the owner of a successful electronics company set up in the 1970s, to place the festival on a surer commercial footing. 

“It was a very ambitious event, with a budget of £160,000, so needed careful management. I was delighted to get involved and have loved it. 

The Consone String Quartet

“We have a very loyal Friends’ group who give us great practical support. Their subscriptions contribute to the costs of organising the festival and sponsor individual concerts. In return, they get a package which includes receiving early notice of festival dates, advanced notice of the programme, early booking opportunity, information about festival plans, an Autumn meeting and buffet lunch and a musical reception in the Spring to meet the organisers and sponsors and make advanced bookings.” 

Boston-born Robbins Landon, a Haydn specialist, whose research helped to restore many of the composer’s works to the active repertory after more than a century of neglect, died in southern France aged 83 in 2009. 

“This year’s festival is special in that it celebrates the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.”

The year before, John Reid had died from cancer, at the age of 63.  

His widow Sandra is still involved in the festival, helping to carry the flame he started. 

Although the couple lived in Newport, John chose Bridgnorth as the venue because he believed it was like a ‘mini-Salzburg’, the Austrian town which holds a famous music festival. 

When world class musicians perform internationally-renowned classical pieces that have charmed audiences for 200 years, in the setting of a late 18th century church built by stellar engineer Thomas Telford, beside the spectacular remains of a medieval castle overlooking the majestic River Severn, it seems about as civilised as entertainment gets. John Reid, that is some legacy. 

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