Our first swallows will probably arrive with our first festival, the Ludlow English Song Weekend on 5th–7th April. Early in the season, weekend festivals work well, witness the Carducci Quartet’s weekend of chamber music at Highnam Court near Gloucester on 17th–19th May or the English Music Festival which takes place in Dorchester-on-Thames over the May bank holiday (24th–27th May, booking 15th March).
This year an unusually late Easter may find pilgrims already afoot ossibly deep in Betjeman country in North Cornwall where Easter Week brings the St Endellion Easter Festival of choral and chamber music (13th–21st April). Too chilly? Well, St Endellion has a summer festival of choral music and opera too (30th July–9th August, booking 10th June).
Larger jamborees begin in the fortnight of 11th–25th May with the Newbury Spring Festival and the Chipping Campden Festival whose highlights include Handel’s Israel in Egypt and Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with 2018 Leeds piano competition winner Eric Lu.
Early Music festivals also begin early. Visitors to the prestigious London Festival of Baroque Music (10th–18th May) include Jordi Savall with his Hesperion XXI and a distinguished baroque ensemble from Lyons celebrating one of 17th-century Venice’s most colourful composers, Barbara Strozzi. Further north there is the Beverley Early Music Festival (24th–26th May) and its bigger brother the York Early Music Festival (5th–13th July, booking 4th March) which this year features music associated with that innovator supreme Leonardo da Vinci (5th–13th July, booking 4th March).
In 1962 counter-tenor Alfred Deller founded Stour Music in his home village of Boughton Aluph in Kent, bringing such pioneers of the Early Music movement as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt to perform in the local pilgrim church. After 45 years in charge, son Mark Deller steps down with a celebratory programme of Early and English music. Guests include Trevor Pinnock, The Sixteen, and I Fagiolini with their staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (21st–30th June, booking 1st April).
Followers of new and experimental music are spoilt for choice. The imperturbably whacky Brighton Festival (4th–26th May) is curated this year by the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré whose epic celebration of the ancient art of the griots of West Africa will be re-enacted. The Vale of Glamorgan Festival of new and contemporary music marks its 50th anniversary with a retrospective of the work of composer–pianist Graham Fitkin, along with two fascinatingly planned chamber-music evenings by the gifted young Berlin-based Armida Quartet (18th–24th May). The Aldeburgh Festival, co-curated by Mark Padmore and Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, will stage the UK premiere of Larcher’s The Hunting Gun (7th–23rd June).
Later in the summer the modernist-minded Presteigne Festival on the Welsh border will be staging Stephen McNeff’s The Burning Boy, a Britten-style ‘miracle play for music theatre’ with a characteristically roistering libretto by the late Charles Causley (22nd–27th August, booking 30th April). Meanwhile, the more traditionally minded Gregynog Festival (22nd–30th June) will be extending to Aberystwyth where in 1919 festival founder Walford Davies launched initiatives that would change forever the face of Welsh music.
For travellers looking to go further afield as midsummer nears with long days and short nights, there’s Scotland’s Fife coast where this year the East Neuk Festival (26th–30th June) hosts two of the world’s finest string quartets. Or Orkney for the music-rich St Magnus Festival in venues ranging from a three-masted Norwegian barque to the medieval cathedral of St Magnus itself (21st–27th June, booking March).
Holiday destinations for opera-lovers tend to be abroad, to where Brexit may consign the Wexford Festival Opera in south-east Ireland, a much-loved place of pilgrimage for those in search of operatic rarities staged with understanding and style. This year’s festival (22 October-3 November, booking 13 April) has Vivaldi’s Dorilla in Tempe, a little known one-act opera by Rossini, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte among its attractions.
The annual opera, music and book festival in Buxton in Derbyshire is a similarly pleasing holiday destination. Its programme includes a pasticcio on the life of Georgiana, 5th Duchess of Devonshire using music by Linley, Mozart and Mozart’s good friend Stephen Storace (5th–21st July, booking 6th April). Coincidentally Storace’s comedy about a pair of mismatched newlyweds Gli sposi malcontenti (Vienna, 1785) is being staged (in English) by Bampton Classical Opera in the Deanery Garden, Bampton near Oxford (19th–20th July) and The Orangery, Westonbirt School (26th August).
For visitors to London, Opera Holland Park (4th June–9th August) has a largely Italian season in its canopied theatre in Kensington, with Cilea’s L’arlesiana as the rarity item.
Country house opera famously provides the perfect deluxe excursion, though stretched resources and an ever-expanding market are causing standards to wobble, even at Glyndebourne (18th May–25th August, booking 3rd March) where revivals of proven productions – try Handel’s Rinaldo or Dvořák’s Rusalka – can be the safer bet. Garsington Opera is arguably the most consistent of the festivals artistically. Their season includes new productions of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and, in his bicentenary year, Offenbach’s neglected but much admired Fantasio (29th May–26th July, booking 19th March).
Famed for its Wagner Longborough Festival Opera (5th June–3rd August, booking 4th March) launches a new Ring cycle with Das Rheingold, though Donizetti lovers (a formidable tribe) will be thrilled to see Anna Bolena on the programme.