Larks ascending in the Lakes

The lark will ascend from a number of locations around the Lake District this summer in a rather special celebration. Mag North meets the man helping to make it happen.
May 30, 2022

This is 150 years since the birth of the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, and to mark the occasion his most iconic work, The Lark Ascending, will be played across the South Lakes in a series of al-fresco pop-up performances.

It’s one of the many highlights of this year’s Lake District Summer Music Festival, operating fully for the first time under its new artistic director Stephen Threlfall. For many years Director of Music at Chetham’s School in Manchester, Threlfall is an accomplished cellist who has played with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (of which the latter two as assistant principal.)

He’s also a man of immense vision and enthusiasm, which have been applied in abundance to the programme for this year’s exciting festival which, of course, just happens to have the best locations anywhere in the world.

There’s more Vaughan Williams, including a festival finale, with the Sinfonia Antartica featuring the Royal Northern Sinfonia and a newly created LDSM chorus. And Antarctica has inspired the festival themes of Exploration, Conservation and Landscape, which will see the climber and writer Stephen Venables take to the stage alongside a string quartet. In a programme called Cathedrals of the Earth featuring the up-and-coming Heartwood String Quartet playing Mishima by Philip Glass, Venables will talk about conquering Everest and other peaks, to a backdrop of images by his friend – Britain’s foremost mountain painter –Julian Cooper.

We did say vision!

Stephen Threlfall and Stephen Venables

Threlfall wants to broaden the appeal of the festival which began back in 1985, while maintaining the enthusiasm and support of the core audience. At the festival’s heart is a formula to unite an international music festival, along with truly world-class training, with the inspiring backdrop of the Lake District. “It’s very important, however, to open the doors, to be more accessible and provide events that people feel excited about, or curious about attending,” says Threlfall.

So there’s everything from Hildegard of Bingen to Count Basie, with Bach over at John Ruskin’s gorgeous home at Brantwood, and the London Tango Quintet in Kendal Town Hall. There are concerts in churches and schools, with a festival walk that ends in time for a performance at St Oswald’s in Grasmere, with a reward of packet of Grasmere Gingerbread thrown in.

And a magical moment for children and their families is promised when artist James Mayhew brings to life his stories inspired by classical music, Once Upon a Tune, at a Mag North favourite venue, the Windermere Jetty Museum.

“Some of the smaller events are deliberately focused on families but with a core connection to music and, as you’ll see for this year, art and landscape,” says Threlfall. “I’m also keen to bring more events where people can get to know more about the music and the musicians and more plans for this in years to come. But what I hope it will achieve is that once you bring people closer and connect them to the experience of music making, removing some of the stigma that still surrounds classical music, people will feel part of the festival’s musical community.”

A Mancunian who now shares a Lakeland bolt-hole, a little lodge on holiday park near Holker Hall, with his pianist wife Kathleen Uren, Threlfall studied cello at the Royal Northern College of Music and joined the BBC Philharmonic in his final term there. “I loved my time in orchestral life, unlike some who may grow disenchanted. I always felt very privileged to be performing such wonderful works with fellow musicians, seeing parts of the world I would perhaps not otherwise have done, and rubbing shoulders with an array of brilliant soloists and conductors."

He spent five years in Kent after leaving the BBC Phil, to become Director of Music at Benenden School where he also ran the local music society and youth orchestra, and eventually created his first festival. “One of my passions has always been playing chamber music, and that’s how I met my wife, through the formation of the Arensky Piano Trio. The breadth of musical experience and the many friendships that you make through working in the profession have always been important to me. When considering the role of Artistic Director of LDSM, there was the instant excitement of the possibility of bringing wonderful music and wonderful musicians to this renowned festival."

James Mayhew- scheherazade

Threlfall turns the conversation regularly to his other passion, to engage young people more to connect with the joy and benefits of music. At Chetham’s he instigated workshops, which turned into major outreach projects, to share resources with youngsters across the country; he also established a self-funded outreach department at the school.

And he’s been talking to schools and key music providers, such as the Cumbria Music Hub and Westmorland Youth Orchestra, looking for ways to collaborate with them and support them. “Currently I’m involved in a project with a couple of primary schools which will lead to a performance of a work, created by the children based around the bird life of Barrow and South Walney. It was lovely to do a workshop with them recently, explaining how sound is created, letting them get closer to the cello, hearing some live music and encouraging them to be creators and composers."

"But the provision for music in schools still remains woeful, especially when Music becomes an endangered part of the school curriculum. Everyone has a voice and everyone should have an opportunity to experience and explore music."

Threlfall is an enthusiast as well as a visionary, happy to talk music – or life – with anyone willing to engage. “I love the interface with people, especially when they are open and receptive, and share a passion and purpose for music.”

The festival performers will be warmly welcomed - and looked after. “Obviously I call upon my years of experience as a performer, conductor, organiser, project creator, to try and ensure that all artists are comfortable and have a special time with us. Having only experienced one festival so far I take my hat off to the excellent LDSM support team for all the care they gave to artists and audience alike.”

In his spare time Threlfall cycles and swims, and would ideally love to cycle to each venue in the festival: “I think that might be a bit risky on certain days, but the fact of being able to sail past the lines of traffic still appeals."

And the burning question to put to any musician: what is HIS own favourite piece of music? “Always a very tricky one. I have to go back to is Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. (The symphony was unfinished; Cooke’s performing version has become the most widely played and recorded of the final masterpiece.) What ever anyone thinks about this completion, the concept, harmonies and the achingly beautiful intensity of this amazing work stands out for me.”

The Lark Ascending will be played on Thursday August 4 at:

The Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere (10.45am)

Rydal Mount Gardens (12 noon)

Barrow Dock Museum (2pm)

Sizergh Castle (3.30pm)

For the full summer music festival programme