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Michael White’s classical news: William Byrd; London Choral Sinfonia; St Marylebone Festival; IGF Guitar Summit

15 July, 2021 — By Michael White

St Marylebone Festival

WITH Covid, Brexit, and a government that couldn’t give a damn about the arts, life isn’t easy these days for composers. Most I know are only just surviving.

But survival was still harder back in Tudor times when it was not only your income but your life that you could lose by writing music.

To be a composer then was to work for church and state; and as England’s official religion see-sawed back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, there were dire consequences for those who failed to keep pace and toe the line. One year you’d be writing favoured Mass settings; the next, those same Mass settings would be treasonous. And the only way to keep your head was to keep it down.
But someone who didn’t was William Byrd, one of the truly great English composers who somehow managed to stay on good terms with Protestant monarchs while being a Catholic and writing (albeit quietly) Catholic music.

How he managed to do it has always been a mystery. But it will be under investigation next week when BBC Radio 3 has a special focus on his life and times. Every day from July 19 at noon he’ll be Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week. And every evening at 10.45pm there’s a short drama based around the issues in Byrd’s danger-skirting life, with David Suchet playing the composer.

Radio 3 isn’t the glory it once was, but projects like this usually find the station at its best; and Macleod is the shining light of its not always radiant presenters. So William Byrd week has promise. Details: bbc.co.uk/radio3

Monday is, of course, our Freedom Day – though as Boris Johnston has spent the past week talking down the freedoms he’d previously promised, it’s unclear what immediate effect there will be on concert-going.

But some organisations are wasting no time. And one is the London Choral Sinfonia which launches its new season with an event at the Gresham Centre EC2 (close to St Paul’s tube) on July 20 at 6.30pm.

An invariably excellent collective of young instrumentalists and singers, the LCS will present some of its members in works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Rutter, and celebrate with champagne for everybody in the audience. Which gets my vote for a fine way to spend a summer’s evening. Booking: thelcs.org

• There’s a lot more celebrating in next week’s St Marylebone Festival, which is based at the Parish Church in Marylebone Road, NW1, and runs through to July 23. From Lord Byron and the NHS to John Dankworth, Cleo Laine and the composer Gerald Finzi, tributes flow fast and free. A sure highlight is a recital by pianist Joanna Macgregor on July 20. And it kicks off with a festive choral eucharist this Sunday. No champagne (that I can see advertised) but plenty of other incentives to explore. Booking: stmarylebonefestival.com

Finally, if the classical guitar is your thing, you need to know about the three days of concerts, talks and masterclasses that comprise the IGF Guitar Summit at Kings Place (just north of King’s Cross station for those who haven’t been there so long they’ve forgotten) this weekend.

Running July 16-18, some of the finest players around – young and not so young – are crammed into this event; and there’s a special focus on female guitarists who, up to now, haven’t claimed as high a profile as their male counterparts. Clearly change is on the way. Booking: kingsplace.co.uk

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