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After hanging out in chic, scenic Helsinki last week, I was not expecting so much of my trip to Dorking. But as the commuter train out of Vauxhall became progressively less packed, I could see the hills and ravines of rural Surrey unfold – it was unexpectedly beautiful. Bound for the Leith Hill Festival, I vaguely knew that Ralph Vaughan Williams had lived for a long time in Dorking and had famously conducted yearly performances of the St Matthew Passion there. In fact the Leith Hill Festival was founded by his sister (Leith Hill Place was the family home) and RVW was musical director there for fifty years.

I didn’t expect though to see RVW’s wonderfully humanitarian musical vision in full working order. At Leith Hill Festival, local choirs (many of them having participated since the Festival’s foundation in 1905) compete against each other in singing small scale repertoire (some fun Matyas Seiber Hungarian folksongs have stayed in my head since my Dorking visit) and then join together for an evening performance of larger classics. I heard Haydn’s Harmoniemesse and a lovely performance of RVW’s Serenade to Music in an edition for 4 soloists, chorus and orchestra I was hearing for the first time, and much preferred to the aurally crowded 16-soloist version which is more usual. Music Director Brian Kay (retiring after a heroic 21 years at the helm) appeared ecstactic or possibly totally spaced out, with still more competitions to hear and a Verdi Requiem to conduct in the next two days.

It fell to me to present the singing prizes – not the usual weirdly bent metal trophies, but embroidered banners, the earliest of them sewn by the Vaughan Williams family at home all those years ago. Something about these homely objects, and the female creativity which made them and indeed brought about this genial festival, moved me very much. What a legacy this historic family left us – liberal, artistic, grounded and generous.

[Pictured, entrance to Dorking Halls, with a statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams]




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