A Review of the 40th Northern Recorder Course 2005

Held at University College, Chester from Tuesday 29th March to Tuesday 5th April 2005

This was the first time that I had attended the Northern Recorder Course. To be frank I had always hesitated about going, as I had heard that it was expensive, basically an early music course (not really my thing), and somewhat elitist. However the timing of the 2005 course was just right, because I had nothing else on that week, and inexplicably - my wife was keen to see the back of me for a few days. Also I had sent a few probing emails to Justine (one of the two organisers of the course), and I liked the tone of the emails I had received in reply, patient and polite, but firm in their rebuttal of my misconceptions!

I'm very glad indeed that I went. I found, and let me choose my cliché carefully, something for everyone. "Something for everyone" is a phrase which is used a great deal, and can mean "something for everyone who wants a particular type of experience". That was not the case at Chester, and in the course of the week one could experience activities as diverse as a mediaeval band, improvising a singing-into-the-recorder piece sitting on a large staircase, 17th century Italian polyphony, a Renaissance Tango, a new concerto by Dennis Bamforth, an ocarina World Première, Handel minuets, and an ensemble with the unlikely combination of garklein, sopranino, great bass and contrabass. In other words there was a solid stream of traditional recorder activities and a large variety of more exploratory "off the wall" activities. This is well illustrated by the programme for the last night students' concert, which lists an amazing assortment of music.

With such a variety it wouldn't be surprising to find participants going their own way socially, and mealtimes being a rather joyless affair, with groups of like-minded participants forming cliques, discussing the minutiae of their own interests. You may recognise this sort of thing from other courses - sit at the "wrong" table, and spend a rather uncomfortable half an hour or so. In fact this was not the case at all at Chester. There was a good course spirit, and real interest about what everyone else had been up to. Late in the evening, in the bar, people who were early music specialists (who probably even own low-pitch recorders) could be observed chatting in a friendly way to people who were spending much of the week singing into their recorders - a veritable melting pot!

I've resisted making a list of the tutors, and running through what they all did. Suffice it to say that the tutors and their styles were as different as the music they were leading us through. They were all good, and from what I saw some were truly excellent. I've also resisted describing the facilities, accommodation and meals (all good - well, maybe not the toad-in-the-hole!). Let me finish, however, with a purely personal choice of three highlights of the week. First the orchestra, where Grace Barton stepped in at the very last minute and did a wonderful job (despite having a baton that was half her height), and where the contra section was a joy to play in. Second the recorder recital given by Alexandra Opsahl, where I really felt too tired to go, but had my arm twisted, and heard some stunning modern music (lots of 16th century as well). Third Justine and David Spence who managed the very hard trick of being both efficient and informal, all done with great good humour, despite having their new baby along for the ride.

After reading this, you won't be surprised if I tell you that I have already put next year's course in my diary. My wife says that that's perfectly OK as well. I'm now getting rather suspicious, so I think I might suggest that she comes too!

Steve Marshall