Locals and visitors wandering through the small Dartmoor town of Chagford in mid-September experienced something rather unexpected: the dulcet tones of exquisite young voices wafting out through the open windows of many of the houses.
This curiosity was a consequence of the visiting singers of the altogether glorious Whiddon Autumn Festival. All the young musicians are hosted by locals, and as they sing their daily vocal exercises, the sounds arrest and intoxicate local Chagfordians undertaking the mundane tasks of nipping out to buy a loaf of bread or a pint of milk.
Now in its third year, the festival is the brainchild of local-born musician and Oxford music graduate, Freddie Crowley. He describes its pre-pandemic genesis: “I was very involved with the choral music scene at Oxford, and thought it would be fun to bring a group of my favourite singers down to Dartmoor, stay for a weekend, put on a concert and hold some participatory events. So in 2018, seventeen singers gave a concert in Chagford Church. The church was packed, and I realised what a huge appetite there is in the area for high quality music, especially professional choral music which is rarely performed down here. We repeated the concert the following year, and were planning to come down again in 2020, but the pandemic hit and that had to be cancelled. During lockdown, I had some time on my hands, so I decided to organise a properly constituted festival, scale it up, and offer a wider choice of events.”
Freddie rebranded his singing group as the Corvus Consort, and invited some of the country’s finest young professional singers onboard.
They are rapidly gaining a reputation for adventurous programming, commissioning of new works from young composers, and innovative collaborations with different instruments.
The 2023 Whiddon Autumn Festival moved up a notch in its integration within the community. Friends who attended the ‘Come and Sing Workshop’ declared that it was ‘terrific fun’. One participant confessed: “I thought it would be way beyond my singing abilities, but it was just brilliant getting together and having fun with our voices.” There was also a children’s concert in Chagford’s remarkable bookshop, a composer-in-residence offering advice to budding music creators, a ‘music and coffee’ morning, a jazz night, a collaboration with local school-children, and a wholly nourishing candlelit compline in the ancient and magical Gidleigh Church.
I attended two concerts – a solo harp recital by Louise Thomson and a concert of music for harp and upper voices.
Louise Thomson is a fabulous harpist with a warm, friendly style of presentation. Her solo recital was a tour-de-force as she performed some of the most challenging and virtuosic music in the entire repertoire.
The concert for harp and women’s voices was utterly transcendent.
The combination is one of music’s most sublime sound-worlds, recognised by Benjamin Britten in his miniature masterpiece, The Ceremony of Carols originally composed for boys’ voices and harp and a mainstay of choral concerts up and down the country every December! However, the fascinating concert at the Whiddon Autumn Festival pretty much avoided the standard works in favour of a far more unusual programme, consisting almost entirely of works by female composers, four of whom are still living.
Director Freddie Crowley gave a short and entertaining pre-concert talk which added greatly to the enjoyment and understanding of the music.
The stand-out work for me was Lux Aeterna by composer, Olivia Sparkhall.
In this sublime, soul-stilling work, four of the singers stood some distance behind the other performers, half-hidden within the shadowy chancel of Moretonhampstead Church.
The shimmering antiphonal effect was ineffable, elemental, even verging on the mythic.
It’s wonderful to witness the ongoing development of this unique festival, and to observe artistic director Freddie becoming ever more sure-footed and experienced in his own musical journey.
The Whiddon Autumn Festival is a delectable cocktail of youthful vitality, ambitious programming, top-notch musical integrity, and a breezy, easy-going amiability.
Look out for the fourth edition in September 2024!