The Saint Endellion Summer Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008. It began life when a musical priest, Roger Gaunt, was inspired to invite a group of college friends down to help him renovate St Endellion’s derelict rectory – actually one of the last surviving prebendal houses in England. Slowly it grew and evolved from a group of friends putting on small scale concerts and an annual play to include an orchestra and a chorus. And from the ranks of its enthusiastic participants emerged a young Cambridge graduate and organist called Richard Hickox who took over from Roger Gaunt as Artistic Director in the mid Seventies, when he also instituted a sister festival at Easter.
The summer festival now fields a symphony orchestra and a chorus of seventy-five and even die-hard supporters from the early days admit the artistic standard has risen immeasurably and, with it, the ambitions of the festival’s programming. Drama has long since ceased to play a central part but concert performances of opera have become a popular tradition. Endellion operas have included The Rake’s Progress, Orfeo ed Eurydice, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Paul Bunyan, The Magic Flute, Ariadne auf Naxos, Fidelio, Tales of Hoffman, The Midsummer Marriage, Gloriana, Tannhaüser and Peter Grimes.
The Easter festival has grown no less and is still chaired by its co-founder, Fran Hickox. With a slightly shorter rehearsal period, it has tended to focus on smaller scale orchestral works. Regularly falling within Holy Week, however, it has made a speciality of English language performances of the Bach Passions whose intensity in the church’s intimate setting can match anything experienced on the summer festival’s opera nights.
Both festivals offset their larger scale concerts with evenings of chamber music and have proved the meeting place for regular musical partnerships, most notably the Endellion String Quartet.
The festivals pride themselves on giving young talent an early platform, albeit not always doing the thing that will bring fame. A young Roger Norrington was a tenor soloist in Britten’s Cantata Misericordia here in the Gaunt years, for instance, and Philip Langridge, Aschenbach in 2009’s opera, Death in Venice, made his first visit as an orchestral violinist. James Gilchrist first appeared at the Festival playing the cello in the orchestra, and Festival regular Mark Padmore was once a member of the Festival chorus.
Another feature of the festivals is their close working relationship with the host parish, encapsulated in the way each festival is launched with a service of choral evensong. A quirk of these is that they’re frequently enhanced with a small string band. This was born of necessity, when the church’s organ, draped in a tarpaulin to prevent yet more rain getting in, had become too timeworn and weatherbeaten to be used, and festival members made string arrangements of familiar settings by Stanford and others. Once the novelty of the splendid new organ had worn off it was found that people missed the sound of strings and harp accompanying the liturgy and the tradition was revived for 2008’s 50th anniversary evensong, which was broadcast by the BBC and will be again in 2009.