Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview – Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season has something for everyone

Opera and classical music rub shoulders with literature, history, comedy and jazz.

Nevill Holt Festival

Nevill Holt Festival (Photo: Robert Workman)

Although it has quite a history, Leicestershire’s Nevill Holt Festival always feels new because it constantly seems to be at the next stage of its remarkable development. Between 2003 and 2012 it hosted Grange Park Opera, with that festival providing one production each year, before it launched its first independent season in 2013. Then 2018 brought great excitement as it opened its new 400 seat opera house, installed inside a 17th century stable block courtyard, and commenced orchestral partnerships with the Britten Sinfonia and Royal Northern Sinfonia.

The festival used to be known as Nevill Holt Opera, but this year it has changed its name to reflect the full range of its events. The main opera on offer is The Magic Flute (from 1 June), and the production looks to be in very safe hands. This is because it is directed by Melly Still, who was responsible for Rusalka and The Wreckers at Glyndebourne, while Finnegan Downie Dear, the 2020 winner of the Bamberger Symphoniker’s International Mahler Competition, conducts the Britten Sinfonia. 

Nevill Holt’s opera house was designed by award winning architects Witherford Watson Mann in conjunction with theatre designers Sound Space Vision, and is still the only opera house ever to have been nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize. The interior is intimate, aesthetically pleasing and acoustically excellent, while the historic exterior remains completely unaltered. This means that moving from the idyllic country setting outside to the mystical realm of Mozart’s final opera should be an experience in its own right.  

The Magic Flute is the main opera in the season, but the sheer variety of other events at the festival means there should be something for everyone. On 7 June the Britten Sinfonia presents Max Richter’s take on The Four Seasons, which comprises a mesmerising mix of Vivaldi and his own sound world. The orchestra has a strong association with the piece, having presented the concert premiere in 2012, and the first performance at the BBC Proms last year. On this occasion, exclusively for the Nevill Holt Festival, the music will be accompanied by photographs of the natural world by photographer and conservationist David Yarrow. The event will also premiere two works, Solitude by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and Passacaglia by Sergey Akhunov, which represents a 21st century take on an 18th century composition for violin, viola and strings. Earlier in the evening Yarrow will discuss his career in photography.

There are several piano recitals across the festival, and on 13 June Benjamin Grosvenor covers everything from the most intimate Brahms Intermezzi to Chopin’s dramatic last Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. On the morning of 16 June Jeneba Kanneh-Mason performs a programme ranging from Scarlatti to Prokofiev, and showcases a rarely heard work by the pioneering African American composer William Grant Still. Then on 20 June Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, who have been playing as a duo since 2019, will present four handed performances of some of Stravinsky and Schubert’s finest works. 

Nevill Holt Festival

Nevill Holt Festival (Photo: Robert Workman)

On many of the days there are multiple events so it may be worth attending several. For example, 13 June is ‘Music and Art’ day, which includes a talk by Allen Jones, and one on Eduardo Paolozzi by Daniel F. Hermann. 14 June is ‘Literature and Music’ day, and features events with Emma Dabiri and the Reverend Richard Coles. The day also sees soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Joseph Middleton join forces for an evening of songs by Noël Coward and his contemporaries entitled A Most Marvellous Party. This event is repeated on 16 June, on a day that features Andy Goldsworthy in conversation with Andrew Marr. It also sees mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Imogen Cooper perform songs by Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Carl Loewe and Henri Duparc, before concluding with Poulenc’s richly evocative Banalités. 

15 June is ‘History & Music’ day and sees, among many other events, Michael Morpurgo read an abridged version of his most famous book War Horse. He will be accompanied by Ben Murray with music and songs from the National Theatre production. Professor Alice Roberts looks at how ancient bones hold the key to understanding the impact of violence and disease in medieval society, as her new book Crypt weaves together history, archaeology and genetics. Later in the evening Shadwell Opera presents The Devil’s Den by Isabella Gellis, which will be directed by Jack Furness and conducted by Finnegan Downie Dear. A tale of superstition and sacrifice rooted in English folklore, The Devil’s Den is a folk ritual infused with the flavours and customs of South West England. 

23 June is ‘Comedy’ day, and includes the award winning Austentious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel, as seen in the West End and heard on BBC Radio 4. Performing in period costume with live musical accompaniment, the all-star Austentatious cast will improvise an hilarious new Jane Austen novel, inspired entirely by a title from the audience. On the same day comedian Mark Watson presents his show Search, and Jason Byrne offers his own entitled No Show. There is also Comedy 4 Kids, which is just one of several events tailored for children as the morning of 9 June features Madame Chandelier’s Opera Party for Kids. 

On 21 June, The Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra play their renowned club set, which includes everything from the fare of 1930s British dance band leader Henry Hall to the latest sounds from New York. Everyone can expect nods to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie along the way, while in the second set Liane Carroll will sing a selection of masterpieces from the Great American Songbook. At midday the following day The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars take to the stage to celebrate The Ronnie Scott’s Story, evocatively reimagining tales of the club’s past visitors, from politicians to the musicians who have performed there.

Both days also feature many other jazz acts, before award winning artists Cécile McLorin Salvant and Dan Tepfer close the festival on 26 June, performing a programme of French chansons made famous by the likes of Édith Piaf and Josephine Baker.  

While it is only The Magic Flute that has a 90 minute interval, in which people can bring their own picnic or book from a range of dining options, visitors on any occasion will find there is much to see. The venue boasts a stunning view across the Welland Valley, and beautiful gardens that contain a notable collection of 20th and 21st century British sculpture by Anthony Gormley, Sean Henry, Allen Jones, Marc Quinn, Conrad Shawcross and Rachel Whiteread. This year there will also be exhibitions of works by Anthony Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi, celebrating 100 years since the birth of both artists. As a result, arriving early is to be recommended and the gardens will open on most days at 15.00, or earlier if the performances that day require. Visitors should also make sure they visit the onsite Chapel, which is the venue for some of the smaller events and any of the larger events’ preliminary talks.

• Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 summer season will run from 1 to 26 June. For further details of all events and tickets visit its website.  

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Preview – Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season has something for everyone