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Sweet Sounds in Sherborne, Dorset's Summer Music School

PUBLISHED: 12:20 17 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:34 20 February 2013

Sweet Sounds in Sherborne, Dorset's Summer Music School

Sweet Sounds in Sherborne, Dorset's Summer Music School

Sherborne Summer School of Music's international reputation attracts musicians from across the county and around the world, as Jeremy Miles discovers

Sweet Sounds in Sherborne


Sherborne Summer School of Musics international reputation attracts musicians from across the county and around the world, as Jeremy Miles discovers


Surveying the cheerful scene as dozens of musicians enjoy a morning coffee amid the clatter and chatter of Sherborne School refectory, Malcolm Binney smiles broadly. Players of strings, woodwind, piano, percussion and brass swap stories with choristers, composers and conductors, catching up with old friends and exchanging information about their lessons. This happy, creative atmosphere is a testament to a success story that Malcolm Binney has been inextricably involved with for his entire adult life.
It is nearly 60 years since the famous Canford Summer School of Music was established and 45 years since, as a precocious young student, Malcolm suggested he might just be able to run it better than the people in charge. He was only 20 at the time, a violinist and student conductor, with confidence, ambition and just enough naivety not to realise how badly his proposal might be received.
In fact, it worked a treat. Malcolm, now a respected conductor and composer, and long-established as director of the Summer School of Music, climbed into the driving seat almost straight away. Relating this tale today, he seems almost embarrassed by his audacity. I was so precocious, he says, shaking his head in disbelief. The Director of Music at the time took a pragmatic approach to this talented upstart questioning his abilities. In fact, he seemed positively relieved that someone else was going to take on the donkey work... just so long as he kept his title.
We are chatting during the second week of the 2010 Music School. I ask Malcolm if the students know about this intriguing aspect to his history. Probably not, he says. They know that Ive been a steward, (it was how he paid his way in the early days) and that I know what the business is about, but I doubt that many know that Ive actually organised it since I was 20.
By 2005 the Canford Summer School of Music had outgrown its first home at Canford School, Wimborne, and moved across Dorset to historic Sherborne, but retained its original name until now that is. As of this summer it will finally bear the Sherborne name. It will continue to run over three weeks, with a programme of 23 courses covering everything from orchestral music to jazz, and there will be more than 40 public concerts.
The breadth and quality of the work carried out at the summer school quickly became clear during my visit. Many of the lecturers involved are international names. The annual school is organised by Malcolm and administrator Maggie Barton Wilby, with a small, loyal team of highly efficient assistants for back-up. Between them they manage to not only deliver three weeks of cutting-edge tuition but also arrange everything from food and accommodation to help with transport for the teachers, visiting musicians and hundreds of students from all over the world.
Although both have been involved in the event for decades, Malcolm and Maggie formally took over the annual School of Music some 24 years ago after buying it from its American owners who had inherited the event as part of a series of business takeovers. The Americans had no concept of what it was. They barely knew it existed, explained Maggie. So when we asked if we could buy it they were glad to get shot of it.
From that moment they had total control and Canford began to thrive. Throughout its subsequent development there have been many changes but some things have stayed constant. There is Malcolm Binney of course, and also the man who taught him conducting during that first summer visit back in 1964 international conductor George Hurst, now 85. He has been teaching a masterclass at the school for an astonishing 52 years and it has worldwide recognition.
I meet one of his students, Esther Yoon, who has jetted in from Manhattan specially for some one-to-one tuition. Newly appointed as Assistant Conductor with the Greenwich Village Orchestra, Esther tells me that the guidance and advice offered by George and his team has been invaluable. It is a new way of approaching music as a conductor, a unique experience of the kind that you hardly ever get the chance to experience nowadays. I feel privileged to have a chance to learn in this way.
However, talking to George, it is clear that his prestigious course attended over the years by such illustrious students as Simon Rattle, Andrew Davis and John Elliot Gardener almost never got off the ground. When he originally approached the sponsors back in 1959 and suggested a conducting course, they werent keen. Theyd tried it before and it was a disaster, says George. Undeterred, he said he would go 50-50 on any loss. Fortunately for the penniless young conductor the gamble paid off.
Although the summer school attracts musicians of the very highest calibre it is also open to instrumentalists, conductors and composers, who relish the chance to hone their talents amongst world-class company. It certainly isnt for slouches. I fall into conversation with String Orchestra conductor David Curtis, who has been putting his students through a particularly daunting Michael Tippett score, Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.
Its an extraordinary work, he tells me, incredibly complex and beautifully crafted. I like to stretch people a bit. Thats why they come here, to be challenged and learn new ideas and new music.
Its not all top-end though, and for some Sherborne School is principally a beautiful, peaceful and historic place to spend a week making music. With roots going back to the 8th century, it was refounded in 1550 by King Edward VI and is overlooked by the north Dorset market towns famous abbey, which is also one of the concert venues used by the summer school. We do get some very high-powered musicians coming here but many people just want to sing, says Malcolm. We have five choirs here over three weeks and they have an absolute ball; they also get to sing some huge choral works.
Many friendships have been forged at the summer school as well as a few long-term relationships. I meet newlywed choristers Mike and Martha Chamberlain, who first met at Canford in 2001. Romance blossomed and eventually, despite a 25-year age gap and the fact that they lived in Norfolk and Lancashire respectively, they finally tied the knot last year.
For Mike, 74, and 49-year-old Martha, the summer school will always have a place in their hearts. It has a very special atmosphere, explained Martha. We meet lots of people here every year and its wonderful. It doesnt matter who you are or what you are. Things like age and background are completely irrelevant. Its just about music.


Get Involved
Sherborne Summer School of Music runs from 31 July until 21 August. Each course has a limit on numbers, so the sooner you enrol the better. For further details and information about the various courses, registration, enrolment and their 40 concerts go to sherbornesummerschool.co.uk or call 01342 893963

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