Bury Festival looks set to reach its apex

The Bury St Edmunds Festival may be a couple of days shorter this year but there are no fewer events. New venues have provided an added focus to the event which continues to be the launch pad for Suffolk’s festival season.

Throughout the summer months Suffolk has become a centre for arts festivals both large and small. There’s HideTide theatre in Halesworth, PULSE and Ip-Art in Ipswich, the Aldeburgh Festival and Snape Proms and Latitude at Henham, in addition to smaller town festivals at Saxmundham, Framlingham and Yoxford.

But it is the Bury Festival that lays the foundations for this diverse series of events. It’s a festival that embraces the broadest scope possible of arts-related events: from cutting edge theatre to tribute bands; from top notch jazz to a series of rarely screened films.

Festival director Nick Wells said that this year the addition of the new Apex concert venue and a new film programme has given the festival an entirely new focus and lease of life.

The festival has always been evolving but this year external factors have made that evolution all the more dramatic.


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For the first time ever, the Festival is starting on a Thursday rather than the traditional Friday. Nick admits with a laugh that up until a week before the announcement there was no hint of a change in date but at the last minute he was offered an act that he couldn’t turn down and they couldn’t do any other date.

“With a week to go before we published I was offered the Congolese super-band Staff Benda Bilili and I had finished programming. I knew that we had their film in the festival and I really wanted to have them play live but had nowhere to put them. So I added an extra day at the beginning of the Festival – that’s how strategic thinking goes,” he added with a laugh.

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“Also that meant we could accommodate Greene King, who were wanting to stage a charity ball on the Thursday, so it gave added weight to the decision to move the opening date.”

He said that Staff Benda Bilili are riding on top of a world music wave at the moment and the Bury Festival provides a chance to experience the band live before watching their story on the big screen.

“I only discovered them comparitively recently, only after the film made such an impact at Cannes last year. I started researching their music, heard their first CD and was completely blown away. Their sound is rather reminscent of Cuban swing. They have a sort of rumba groove which they put some wonderful vocals over the top.

“Over the top of this are some really infectious guitar solos performed by a 17 year old prodigy who has designed and built an electric lute and made it out of a tin can. It’s going to kick off the Festival with a bang and I am exploring the possibility of getting them into the Apex bar afterwards for an informal reception.”

He said that his own personal highlights include a concert by The Penguin Caf� Orchestra (Sun May 22). “I remember seeing the South Bank Show years ago and they featured The Penguin Caf� Orchestra. The one thing I remembered was a piece of music they put together when Simon Jeffes phoned someone up and he somehow got an engaged tone and a ring tone at the sametime. He thought this was an interesting sound, he recorded it and used it as the basis for a piece of music.

“They make very distinctive music. It’s really creative and interesting and yet very accessible. I am very excited that they are coming to Bury. People won’t necessarily recognise the name but they will recognise the music. I played part of their CD at the launch and had people coming up to me afterwards saying: ‘Oh they’re the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.”

He said that he was delighted to be able to re-book Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble as they very rarely play the same venue twice.

“They have played the festival before and I never thought they would come again. They produced an album called Officium which sold millions of copies. Now they have brought out a new album called Officium Novum and they are bringing material from the album to the cathedral. They produce a beautiful sound.”

This year there is a strong film strand to the festival with screenings taking place at the Abbeygate Picturehouse in Hatter Street.

The cinema is showing a music-themed film for each day of the festival. The screenings start with Benda Bilili (PG), the true story of a group of disabled Congolese musicians riding around on Mad Max-style tricycles entertaining people on the streets of Kinshasa.

Then there’s also screenings of Buena Vista Social Club (U), Let’s Get Lost (15) Bruce Weber’s portrait of the last days of Chet Baker, When The Road Bends (PG) a look at the musical world of the Roma, Brassed Off (15) the story of a colliery band with Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite and Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (PG) a look at the career of the poet/songwriter, framed by a tribute concert and the Sydney Opera House.

The Theatre Royal in Bury is supplying some unusual theatrical fare including The Man With The Flower In His Mouth, the Pirandello short play, which will be performed in the intimate setting of the Greene Room Bar (Tues May 24) and Monteverdi’s Flying Circus (Fri May 27) which is inspired by the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Armed with a new script by Kit Hesketh Harvey the Armonico Consort presents Monteverdi’s three surviving operas in one evening.

On the jazz side the Bury Festival is inviting the composer Richard Rodney Bennett back to celebrate his 75th birthday and to perform with his sometime collaborator and vocalist Claire Martin. (Fri May 27). The evening is entitled A Couple of Swells and will a brand new tribute to the work of Irving Berlin with Richard having written some brand new arrangements for such classics as Let’s Face The Music and Dance and Cheek to Cheek.

Also on the jazz front Songs For Modern Lovers (Tues May 24) has Laura Zakiari being inspired by Frank Sinatra’s classic Capital album Songs For Swinging Lovers. She has rearranged the original tracks and has complemented them with jazz arrangements of contemporary love songs from a diverse range of artists including Sam Brown, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.

“We’ve also got the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon with Strings (Thurs May 26) – actually, there’s quite a few things involving strings this year.

“There’s quite an informal string theme going. There’s the Brodsky Quartet (Wed May 25) and Cabaret Concerto (Mon May 23) which promises to be something special.

“The first half is songs by Jacques Brel and Maurice Ravel plus Debussy’s irresistible string quartet then in the second half we have Death’s Cabaret – A Love Story, a night where entertainment means life or death and the forbidden pleasures of the cabaret makes passionate love to classical music. It was written for the outstanding cellist Matthew Sharp with the Sacconi Quartet by composer Stephen Deazley and award-winning writer Martin Riley. It’s quite a theatrical work, so it should be something to see and to hear.”

This year’s event comes to a close with the traditional Beating Retreat on Angel Hill prior to Evelyn Glennie’s closing night concert at The Apex at 7.30pm. This year’s Beating Retreat will be sounded by the Band of the RAF Regiment. Nick said: “This is the second year we have ended the festival. I was always slightly uncomfortable with the idea that we used to launch the festival with a retreat. We were going backwards before we had gone forwards. It all seemed a bit negative somehow. But I was nervous about making any changes because it had become part of Bury Festival tradition that the festival started with Beating Retreat on Angel Hill.

“I was ready to change it early on but I went out there, experienced the occasion and the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It was a great opener to the Festival but last year I took the bull by the horns and moved it and it proved to be a great closing event as well.

“It was equally popular at the end of the Festival, where it sits more comfortably, and we weren’t bombarded with complaints either. In fact one of my predecessors, Paul Gudgeon, spoke to me last year and said: ‘Genius! That’s a really good idea, I would never have thought of doing that!’ So praise indeed.”

He said that he’s delighted that Evelyn Glennie has finally accepted an invitation to perform at the Festival. “I have been chasing her since 1749 – or at least that’s the way it seems.

“This is my 11th festival and I phoned her agent during my first year in the job. I said: ‘Can I have a date for next year’s festival?’ and was told her diary was full, so I then: ‘what about the year after?’ No, that was full and was helpfully informed they might be able to squeeze me in, in three years time.’ That came and went and to be honest I didn’t really bother after that. Then I asked again about a year ago and she could do it, so this time, it was has been relatively plain sailing.”

Evelyn Glennie is unique in that she is the first person to successfully create a career as a solo percussionist. She also composes and arranges works.

He said that for him festivals lend themselves to doing things differently. “That’s the joy of doing a festival. It means you can offer something that audiences don’t see every day. Take Man With A Flower In His Mouth at the Theatre Royal for example. Most theatre is performed on stage with people sitting in seats in the auditorium. Here we have something happening in the theatre bar. It gives the event a different feel.”

n The Bury St Edmunds Festival runs from May 19-29. More details can be found online www.buryfestival.co.uk

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