A Review of the 42nd Northern Recorder Course 2007

For the last 10 years I have been going to the Northern Recorder Course (NRC) held at Chester University. This year it was held at Burton Manor a few miles away. So, how was the new venue? Why do so many of us keep coming back?

The change of venue proved to be a great success in almost every aspect. Burton Manor is a large Grade 2 listed building situated in extensive grounds away from any road noise. The dining room, playing rooms and shops were all within the main building so there was little movement between sessions. As an added bonus there was a lovely central Italian courtyard in which we could play on sunny afternoons. The main hall was much smaller than we are used to but it worked, giving a pleasant intimate atmosphere for the massed sessions.

The accommodation was good, the food excellent and we were blessed with fabulous weather, which enabled us to relax on the sun-drenched terrace during the breaks. Above all it was very civilised with some nice touches such as water being provided in all the playing rooms. Free tea and coffee was provided in the evening in the large, comfortable lounge where a bar was discreetly placed at one end, allowing drinkers and non-drinkers to socialise together after the final session in a most convivial atmosphere. A student bar it certainly wasn’t!

There are several week courses around and each has it own niche. The NRC is primarily ensemble-based catering for lower intermediate to advanced and provides a wide range of styles from early to very modern. Most participants come for the week, though some for just a few days and the total numbers were around 60. What distinguishes this course from others is the use of tutors. There are four main tutors and since they only do two years at a time, there will always be some new faces each year. There are also part time tutors who take one or two sessions a day and are participants for the rest of the time. This unusual approach ensures that each year there are new ideas, techniques and repertoire while keeping a steady core of main items. Furthermore it allows for a wide choice of both period and style of music and type of ensemble in each session. The new classes this year included a ‘Composing and Arranging’ class with John Hawkes, a ‘Guaranteed-Not-to-be-Difficult Jazz’ class with Steve Marshall, a ‘Music Hot Off the Press’ class with Rachel Barnes and a new composition by Andrew Melville. Sometimes in previous years I have found it very difficult to decide which choices to make as I wanted to play so many items that clashed.

The first session of the day is a technique class, which can be either graded or in a specific area of interest. This year these ranged from Elementary technique, Spanish Renaissance music, Renaissance reeds, Baroque technique to contemporary techniques as well as the Composing and Arranging already mentioned. I attended Alex Opsahl’s baroque ornamentation class and was impressed by her ability to teach a wide range of abilities, I learnt a lot.

The other morning and afternoon sessions offer a wide variety of options. These always include one to a part and ensembles as well as other options such as the popular multi-choir, sessions for renaissance instruments and the recorder orchestra.

The recorder orchestra is one of the highlights of the course and for most of us it is the best orchestra we ever play in. The reasons for this are that it includes most of the more able players who also tend to have considerable orchestral experience, which gives confidence to the less experienced players in a genre that is quite different to other types of ensemble. The orchestra is formally structured with section leaders and allocated desks and is the only class on the course where players are expected to be at all sessions. The conductor was Helen Hooker, who had a clear idea of what she wanted and worked us hard on the details. The orchestra played in the students’ concert and I felt proud of what was achieved in performance.

Most days end with a massed playing session in which everyone comes together. The main memories this year are the incredible sounds of Gabrielli played at 2 ft., 4 ft. and 8 ft. led by Margaret Westlake and the first performance of Steve Marshall’s ‘Spam in Atrium’ – a 41 part piece based on the famous motet by Tallis and in structure similar to Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ complete with pop art on the walls and gallery guide. It was a tremendous achievement for Steve to get us to play this long piece in such a short time.

There were two concerts. The first was a recital by Caroline Jones (recorders) and Charles Mathews (piano). In a concert that mixed old and new, I particularly enjoyed the recently composed River Dances by Martin Ellerby for which four sizes of recorder are used. This was the first concert in which Caroline and Charles have performed together and I look forward to hearing them again.

On the last night we had the Student Concert that included a mixture of small groups and class performances, ending with the orchestra. The highlights were the incredibly in-tune Renaissance Reeds technique class (tutored by Janice Ormerod) and the first performance of an arrangement of Polish Carols by Andrew Melville.

The course is ably organised by Justine and David Spence, who ensure it runs smoothly and in a relaxed manner. They actively canvas for opinions and ideas for how the course should be run. We have already heard of two exciting developments for next year. A chamber orchestra for eleven one-to a part players with specially commissioned works for this new medium from leading orchestral composers, and some one-to-one coaching in trio sonatas. That’s what I particularly like about this course, keep what works but try out new ideas.

As always, I look forward to next year’s course.

David Scruby

Review of the 2007 Northern Recorder Course by David Scruby