The Bury Festival celebrates its silver jubilee

The Bury St Edmunds Festival has always been an event with glorious ideas. It dreams a dream, thinks big and low and behold that dream comes true. Over the past 25 years it has turned from a small weekend celebration of words and music into one of the region’s leading cultural events attracting international artistes and the sort of performers you would normally only see on London’s South Bank.

It’s the sheer breadth and the quality of the work on offer which raises the Bury Festival above the ordinary. This year, to mark its 25th anniversary, Festival director Nick Wells has pulled out the stops to provide a dizzying array of events which should leave East Anglia’s culture lovers breathless.

“This year I have decided to mix things up a bit, change some things around, just to keep things fresh. The 25th anniversary is an opportunity to take stock, look at what we do and decide where we want to go next,” said Nick Wells.

“I don’t see it as an opportunity to look back and be nostalgic for things we’ve done in the past but rather to use it as a staging point for going ahead into the next 25. I think this year may well be regarded as a year of transition as the festival continues to develop and grow.”

Certainly, the festival could never be accused of growing stale. This year theatre has a much higher profile, as does film and for the first time they are staging a festival within a festival in conjunction with Greene King and the East Anglian Daily Times. There will also be a Charity Ball which launches the whole festival, again sponsored by Greene King and the EADT.

Although Nick, who is celebrating his own tenth anniversary with the festival this year, is not nostalgic for the Festival’s illustrious past there is an air of celebration in the programme this year. Star names like Lesley Garrett, comedy great Al Murray - The Pub Landlord, a star-filled farce Wife Begins At 40 with Vicki Michelle, Adrian Edmondson and his band The Bad Shepherds, cult poet John Hegley, jazz stars Stan Tracy and Clare Teal and a specially commissioned music, art and light event called Resonances at Ickworth House give this year’s festival a profile which proclaims that this is one of the cornerstones of our cultural calendar.

“One of the first things people will notice that we’re not starting the festival with the traditional Beating Retreat on the Angel Hill. They will also notice that our annual open-air concert and fireworks in The Abbey Gardens is not on the last night. I’ve decided to swap them around. I was driving into work one morning, thinking about how I could mix things up a little and it suddenly struck me how ridiculous it was to start an event with a retreat – even a ceremonial one. Then, it occurred to me that we ended the event with a celebration. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to swap them over? So that’s what I did.”

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This year’s even gets underway on May 14 and runs until May 30. Nick said that he has already had good feedback from Festival regulars saying that moving the open-air gig to the first night will give the start of the festival a real buzz. “I just love idea of fireworks on the opening night,” laughs Nick.

Over the opening weekend the festival will be hosting the first Real Food and Beer Festival celebrating the best of local produce will be hosted by Bury St Edmunds-based brewers Greene King. Meanwhile, at Rougham Airfield the skies will be filled with colourful aerobatics as they stage the annual Kite Festival complete with an appearance by the World Kite Champion.

Nick said that one of the driving principles behind the festival was that it was a real community event. It wasn’t something that was staged and the people of Bury were commanded to attend, it was important that it was a real community event. “It’s important that the town own it and feel part of it. It is their festival. That’s why we try and include a broad range of events and try to include as many different locations as possible. That’s why we do walks and talks, why go out to ickworth and Rougham, why we stage concerts in shopping centres. It’s all about getting people involved and getting the whole town excited about what is happening.

“That’s why the event has grown and continues to grow, because people really do, genuinely get a lot out of it. It has a sense of community and that I think lies at the heart of our success.”

He said that he plans to develop the community aspect this year with the formation of a Festival jazz orchestra, plus adult and youth choirs and a mass African drumming ensemble to perform world music with South African band Mbawula, while local musicians can showcase their talents by busking around the town.

“It’s not just going to see professionals, it’s about local people getting out there and displaying the talent we have on our own doorstep.”

When I ask what are Nick’s highlights of the festival in bursts into laughter. “Every year you ask me that and I never know what to say. It’s true to say everything because if I didn’t think it was good it wouldn’t be on the programme.”

A little bit of metaphorical arm-twisting later and comes up with a short-list which includes Britain’s best-loved soprano Lesley Garrett (May 18), a performance by Grimethorpe Colliery Band (May 15), a concert by Moscow State Symphony Orchestra with soloist Chloe Hanslip performing the Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto (May 16) and the Armonico Consort singing Monteverdi’s Vespers to mark the 400th anniversary of their composition (May 25).

“The event which I think will be really extra special is Resonances at Ickworth House which will have cellist Natalie Clein performing Bach suites and new music by Fyfe Dangerfield of The Guillemots (May 28). But it will be the soundscape setting by composer Simon Fisher Turner, the poetry readings and the rooms and artworks at Ickworth which will give the performance that other worldly atmosphere. It’s the sort of event which you can only experience at a festival because you couldn’t recreate that setting in a concert hall.”

He added that he was very intrigued by Adrian Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds punk/folk band (May 25). Music always plays a huge part in the festival and this year the festival will stage a world premiere of a new piece for piano and strings by Nathan Williamson at the Festival Eucharist (May 16), while the Dante Quartet and the Choral Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge will unveil new music by Roxana Panufnik (May 24). Leeds Piano Competition’s first female winner Sofya Gulyak will be performing classics by Bach, Schumann, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov at St Edmundsbury Cathedral (May 27).

Jazz always plays a major role in the festival line-up and this year is no exception. Zoe Schwarz will be providing some bluesy vocals (May 21), the Stan Tracey Octet is expected to draw crowds (May 23), as will the foot-tapping Laurie Chescoe’s Good Time Jazz (May 28) while renowned jazz singer Clare Teal (May 29) will demonstrate why she has been crowned Jazz Vocalist of the Year for an unprecedented three times.

Dance is well represented this year and festival-goers will be encouraged to participate in some events. Zimbabwe’s famous gumboot dancers Black Umfolosi 5 will be appearing at the Theatre Royal (May 19) combining their trademark, highly complex harmonies mixed with their famous gumboot dances. The Georgian playhouse will also be hosting a visit from Ballet Central (May 18) who will be presenting some of the stars of the future in a new programme which combines ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. Meanwhile, for those who want to strap on their dancing shoes then there will be plenty of audience participation at Monica Vasconcelos Vintage Brazil Samba Night at the Corn Exchange (May 27).

Film also gets a boost this year with a season of French films being screened at the new Picturehouse cinema in Hatter Street. They will be mixing classics like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday with an exclusive preview of Catherine Deneuve’s new film The Girl on the Train.

Nick said that the open-air gigs remain at the heart of the festival. Greene King, BBC Radio Suffolk and the EADT are all supporting the opening Madness and Queen tribute night in the Abbey Gardens (May 14) while the following Friday (May 21) The Dubliners will be bringing their infectious brand of Irish folk music to the Abbey grounds. Then on the following day (May 22) Bury World brings a chance for local people to sing, play and drum alongside Mbawula in the Abbey Gardens. The Festival ends with the Beating Retreat Ceremony on Angel Hill (May 30).

Nick said: “It’s a packed programme this year. Part of the fun of my job is finding little corners where I can shoehorn in an extra treat, add-on events just to give that little bit of extra breadth to the programme.

“The Bury St Edmunds Festival has a 25 year history of bringing the finest performers and freshest ideas to the historic market town at the heart of the Suffolk countryside. The 17-day Festival is one of the best-loved cultural events in East Anglia offering an exciting mix of contemporary and classical music, outdoor concerts, jazz, folk, film, poetry, comedy, walks, street theatre and more.”

The Bury St Edmunds Festival runs from May 14-30. The Festival brochure is available from libraries and tourism offices and can be viewed as an e-magazine at . Tickets for all Festival events can be booked at the Theatre Royal box office or online at or call 01284 769505.

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