Bury St Edmunds Festival preview

Adam Gretton Festival season is not all about loud rock music, mosh pits, sleeping under canvass and not washing for a whole weekend. Adam Gretton previews three weeks of art, music, comedy and theatre at the Bury St Edmunds Festival.

Adam Gretton

For more than 20 years it has been serving up an eclectic mix of orchestral concerts, opera, jazz, folk, open-air party nights, drama and laughter across a Suffolk town.

And Bury St Edmunds is set to offer an even more diverse programme of events this spring as it prepares to welcome thousands of visitors from across the region.

Organisers have hailed this year's festivities as the most exciting line-up in its 23 year history, which will see more than 60 performances over 17 days in May.

The ever-popular three week festival is proof that playhouses and concert halls are not the only places to sample music and theatrical productions, with 18 venues including churches, pubs, farms, airfields, shopping centres and other open spaces hosting events between Friday, May 9, and Sunday, May 25.

Since the Bury St Edmunds Festival was started by St Edmundsbury Borough Council in the early 1980s - with some weekend high brow literary evenings and organ recitals - its bookings and appeal has increased to attract in the region of 20,000 people each year, with another 5,000 or 6,000 attending free events.

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Nick Wells, festival manager, said 2008 was going to be another exciting programme of internationally renowned musicians along with some great dance, theatre, films, workshops and walks.

“I am really pleased with the line-up this year and I feel that it is the best we have put on. The brochure looks really fresh and I am really pleased with the content. One of the exciting things about a festival is the different venues.

“The more venues we have the better - especially when we can use really odd places. I am really chuffed that we are doing something in a cow shed on a farm.

“Putting a festival together is like cooking a casserole. There are various staple ingredients you use, like the jazz and symphony orchestras and then you add something extra,” he said.

The staple ingredients this year will begin with a traditional beating retreat by the Queen's Colour Squadron and the band of the RAF Regiment on May 9 on Angel Hill to mark the start of the festival.

Other popular ingredients of the classical musical casserole will be the Russian State Symphony Orchestra on May 11; European Union Chamber Orchestra with cellist Natalie Clein on May 20; the “rock stars of renaissance music” the Tallis Scholars on May 14; and Grimethorpe Colliery Band on May 10, which will all perform at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

More quirky additions to this year's pot include Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen who will be performing at Hall Farm, Nowton, along with recorded sounds from the farmyard.

Exciting fusions see the Brodsky Quartet alongside Tunde Jegede performing his new work, on kora, on May 12; the Gilad Atzmon Quartet explore Charlie Parker's music with the Sigamos String Quartet on May 15; Acoustic Triangle and the Sacconi Quartet launch a grand tour of inspiring buildings from St Edmundsbury Cathedral on May 16; pianist Lucy Parham tells Liszt's love story with actors Martin Jarvis and Joanna David on May 18; and the Jonathan Lunn Dance Company is also joined by a well known actor on May 14.

Other highlights also include hot jazz with South African band Mbawula on May 12, Australian favourites Craig Schneider Trio (May 19), the award-winning David Newton Trio (May 22) and Alan Beechey's Bright Stars of Jazz (May 23).

Hundreds of young people will also be getting involved by beating out junk funk with Weapons of Sound, singing African songs with the Bury Township Choir, writing music for the Tallis Scholars, dancing with the Jonathan Lunn Dance Company or learning about parkour (free-running).

Mr Wells added that he was “delighted” that the Theatre Royal was back, hosting festival events including jazz, classical music, opera, and dance after being closed for two years for a £5.3m restoration project.

The BBC's Never Mind the Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell will also be doing stand-up at the Georgian playhouse on May 25 and Lucy Porter brings her Love In to the Corn Exchange on May 11.

And by the time the festival comes to a close with Abba, Beatles, and Rat Rack tribute acts on the weekend of May 24 and 25, Mr Wells will be busy booking acts and seeking sponsorship for 2009.

“Commercial is not quite the right word, but the festival has become broader and attracts more people than it did 20 years ago. The range of stuff coming in has changed and grown for the better. We are not competitive with the Norwich Festival, but we have a friendly rivalry. We talk to each other if we think we are going to book the same acts or do anything stupid.

“The core audience is local, with about 70pc coming from a 10 mile radius, but we get people travelling from miles around to come to the festival. We have even been featured in the New York Times!”

Lynsey Alexander, portfolio holder for arts and culture at St Edmundsbury Borough Council, added: “Our Festival continues to be an annual cultural highlight, regularly featuring performers of international standing and renown as well as home grown talent. Whether you live in the borough or whether you are going to be visiting, I hope you enjoy immersing yourself in the delights of the Festival as much as I am going to.”

t For more information, visit the Bury St Edmunds Festival website at www.buryfestival.co.uk or call the brochure hotline on 01284 757099.

t Tickets for all festival events are on general sale now. Book through the Festival Box Office, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 01284 769505, or online at www.theatreroyal.org