Prepare to be dazzled by early music’s rising stars


Keble College Early Music Festival returns for its second year from 25th February to 1st March to present seven exciting concerts. The line-up consists of a mix of free concerts given by college-based musicians and professional recitals given by world-renowned artists from the early music scene, mostly based in the atmospheric surroundings of Keble College Chapel.

By focussing on the performance of the music rather than its historical context, this festival hopes to bring a fresh perspective to a genre that is often negatively received. For some, the label ‘early music’ is an instant turn off. Yet the blanket term incorporates music from a diverse range of styles, countries and centuries, played by many different instruments, meaning that there is something to appeal to everyone.
James Hardie, the festival’s founder and third-year music student and organ scholar at Keble, makes a strong case for fellow students to give this music a chance. By securing Mahan Esfahani, Early Music’s hottest ticket as the festival’s patron, Hardie clearly demonstrates that this genre is not stuck in the past.

The dynamic harpsichordist has already revolutionised the genre during his short career so far, and his involvement brings a wealth of interest to the festival. The concert series is dedicated to showcasing the enthusiasm of young artists involved in early music, giving vitality to a style that is often associated with older generations. Hardie believes that there is a gap in the Oxford musical scene for a festival that focuses purely on the performance of music from this era. Emphasis is placed on engaging, live performances rather than academic stuffiness. This is in keeping with his belief that “you have to grab people with the music first” before introducing them to the historical context. This explains the lack of pre-performance talks and accompanying masterclasses in the festival’s line-up, as Hardie explains there is already ample opportunity for these types of events in Oxford.

Oxford is the natural setting for a festival that focuses on the performance of early music, as the connections between the city and the professional artists performing in the festival prove. Esfahani was a former artist in residence at New College and is now a patron of Keble College, while many of the members of The Marion Consort were choral scholars at Oxford. The chance for current Oxford choral scholars to witness the success of former students will surely be a source of inspiration for them to pursue careers in this area. Yet the music provided by Keble’s chapel choir is already of professional standard, and audiences have two opportunities to hear the choir in action during the festival.

When pressed to select two highlights of the festival for newcomers to early music, it is no surprise that Hardie was quick to choose Esfahani’s recital. The harpsichord recital, featuring music by Gibbons, Bach, Couperin and Scarlatti, will be undoubtedly lively and demonstrate why he was named the winner of the Gramophone Award for Best Baroque Instrumental Album 2014 and awarded the Diapason d’Or.

The other highlight shows early music’s earthier side: madrigal group Ye Fyne Dogges will be performing a selection of bawdy songs in Keble College Bar. The relaxed setting of this free concert will encourage musicians and audience members to enjoy the music with a pint in hand. Madrigals are not widely performed except by dedicated groups, meaning that the music’s appeal of blurring distinctions between high and low art remains relatively unknown. Hardie assures me that the concert will be “shockingly disgusting and quite funny,” and that it will be a great opening into the world of early music.

With such a range of engaging concerts on offer, Keble College Early Music Festival is bound to be a resounding success. Although Hardie might not be in Oxford next year to oversee the 2016 festival, hopefully Keble College will ensure that the festival continues to flourish.

PHOTO/ Marco Borggreve PR


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