The Arts in Lockdown

By Rodney Slatford Chairman, The Yorke Trust

The media has recently been full of the valiant efforts by the music and theatre professions to keep performance alive during lockdown. This ranges from leaving seats vacant in auditoria to self-sterilising door handles! But few of us could have foreseen six months ago that we’d be into a second period of confinement, albeit one a little less stringent than the first. As a retired performer my heart goes out to those young people who aren’t eligible for government financial support. And many of those who are eligible are being advised to change profession. For those who have dedicated their life to a career on stage or on the concert platform, such advice is both devastating and cruel. Yet there is little light at the end of the tunnel. For one group of young musicians, however, the second lockdown presented a unique opportunity they would otherwise not have had.

Playing in any musical ensemble is a huge challenge that requires physical and mental skills closely akin to those of a surgeon. In addition, being part of a string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello) calls for finely-honed teamwork and highly advanced aural skills that can only be developed with hours and hours of practice. The quartet repertoire, as exemplified by those by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, includes some of the world’s greatest masterpieces that can only be tackled by ensembles who have played them dozens of times. The Echéa quartet has only recently left the starting blocks. They’re fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, where their junior fellowship was cut short earlier this year because of the pandemic. As part of their aims and objectives to help promising young performers, Simon Rowland-Jones and Barry Cheeseman, founders of the North Norfolk Music Festival, engaged the young quartet for a concert in November and had booked the Yorke Trust premises in South Creake for two long weekends to enable them to study and to be coached. Simon sent me a link so I could see their potential for myself and I was suitably impressed.

Hardly had the quartet set foot in the village when a panic email landed on my desk. A second lockdown was rumoured, meaning that the ensemble would be unable to meet for a month - a major set-back for their development as there was nowhere in London they would be allowed to work. Added to this, one of their members lives in Vienna! Could they lock down in Norfolk for the whole month? Fortunately, the Trust was able to accede to their request as all other bookings had been cancelled and the premises were free. They gave a preview concert early in their residency with an audience of about six people in the Trust’s newly re-decorated Old Chapel. And a very rewarding experience it was as they play with good musical instincts coupled with the vitality of youth. And rather than abandon their NNMF engagement altogether, they recorded a performance that was made available to NNMF Friends, proceeds from which helped pay for their stay.

‘It's an ill wind…’, as the expression goes. It came to mind that one of the greatest string quartets of all time, the Amadeus, had its genesis when three of its members were interned together on the Isle of Man after being forced out of Vienna by Hitler’s 1938 Anschluss. The quartet vowed to disband should any one of them die which, on the death of the viola player Peter Schidlof in 1987, they duly did. Their legacy includes over 200 recordings, which in itself is an awe-inspiring achievement. Internment of the Echéa in South Creake? Well, not quite. But one can only wish them every possible success in today’s rapidly changing coronavirus world.

The Yorke Trust will invite the Echéa quartet for one of a series of Benefit Concerts in the Old Chapel, South Creake, designed to help support and promote young musicians in these challenging times whilst also enriching the cultural life of the area. Details will be posted on the Yorke Trust website when national restrictions have been eased. www.yorketrust.org