Soon my carbon footprint will fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper. As the years pass, I feel that few events merite un detour, fewer still are vaut le voyage. Invitations to dinner an hour away now hit the dust, and long ago I said goodbye to three hour journeys to Glyndebourne, dressed in clothes never meant for long-haul.
I am grateful for the memories: my first-ever sight of cows gazing across a ha-ha and men in black tie sitting on the ground; my first Jank opera (The Cunning Little Vixen); Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with thrilling sets by David Hockney; Janet Baker singing Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Those were the days, the 1970s and 1980s – I nearly said ‘pre-Corporate Entertainment’ days, but I sound like the opening of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means: ‘Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.’ Still, I remember when the Glyndebourne audience included nice women in dowdy long dresses with men in too-tight evening wear, grandes dames in pre-war Balmain, accompanied by slim young men in velvet jackets. But, in fact, it’s not the revolution in prosperity that now puts me off Glyndebourne. It’s not even the journey there. It’s the long journey home.
I’m not sure when propinquity became as important to me as the name of the performer and the programme. I can still make it to Snape Maltings (1hr 20mins) for Peter Grimes, but probably not for a programme of late Shostakovich, as more and more I become the sedentary listener of Radio 3. I feel culturally good buying my Proms booklet at W.H. Smith, planning my summer listening, dog at feet, wine glass at hand, tuned into The Magic Flute. And then? The dog wants out, the telephone rings, I turn the volume down, forget to turn it back up. Here’s the problem; if I go for long stretches not hearing music performed live, I go out of tune just like the aged Bechstein in the drawing room. I lose the ability to concentrate; my ears shut down; I start thinking about the dog/war/haircuts/letters unwritten.
Happily, this is a story of salvation. A few years ago, I discovered Blackthorpe Barn’s ‘Summer Music’. From my barn to George Agnew’s barn is a mere 15 minutes. Both date back to the 1500s. In the same year we restored our barn, George rethatched his. We had a vague plan a vineyard restaurant; he had no plan. We had one concert in the vast emptiness and that was it. George had a one-off concert and he was hooked. He’s never looked back, despite nervous moments with the bank manager. Rejecting the bureaucratic tangle of Arts Council grants requires a tense shuffle of farm income (3,000 acres of arable and forestry) to subsidise his passion: two long weekends in July six concerts with the world-famous musicians performing in a medieval barn that seats 300 people. The tickets are a democratic £12.
This year, I fell in love with Yevgeny Sudbin, the brilliant young Russian pianist. I sat in a trance of Scarlatti and Chopin, even the Scriabin was beautiful. The Razumovsky Ensemble and the Royal String Quartet fine tuned my musical memory for another year.
Blackthorpe Barn’s ‘Summer Music’ brings a whole new meaning to ‘country music’. The Steinway (hired for £1,500 for the two weekends) gleams like a dark pool of water, wood pigeons coo lazily in the distance, and green grasshoppers keep time with the Bach cello suite. And if I may say so, everyone looks incredibly nice.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on July 27, 2006.