Team who make Ripon International Festival a hit

Ripon International Festival's artistic director Susan Goldsborough
Ripon International Festival's artistic director Susan Goldsborough

From being a glider pilot to steering Ripon International Festival, director Susan Goldsborough has kept this annual arts extravaganza on a successful course without fuss for 17 years now. But, as GRAHAM CHALMERS discovers, Ripon International Festival is very far from being a one-woman show.

No matter their nature, all arts festivals reflect not only their line-up and location but the personality of their creator.

Ripon International Festival - Janusz Piotrowicz rehearsing the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

Ripon International Festival - Janusz Piotrowicz rehearsing the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

The character of Ripon International Festival is such that it doesn’t have to shout to be heard - but heard it is.

This triumph of quality over publicity is partly the result of the patient way director Susan Goldsborough has tended its growth since she launched it with artistic director Janusz Piotrowicz 17 years ago.

In this era of aggressive marketing, Ripon International Festival has progressed without fanfare over the past two decades from ten days to nearly three weeks, with two, sometimes three, symphony concerts a year.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a small market town supposedly living in the shadow of its bigger sister Harrogate.

Over the years the festival, which this year runs from September 6-24, has presented many remarkable actors, musicicans and poets.

It might surprise you to learn that the venerable Sir Derek Jacobi once appeared, as did Miss Marple star Geraldine McEwan, Liverpool poet Adrian Henri (in his last-ever performance) and that ex-poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion is coming this time.

And there have been plenty of memorable concerts, too, including Mahler’s First with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Shostakovich’s Tenth with Opera North, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique with the Hallé and the St Nikolai Choir of Moscow.

It’s helped that the festival’s founders had a clear vision from they very start.

Launched in 1998, the emphasis was on the highest quality from the kick-off. No wonder it was an immediate success.

Susan Goldsborough said: “In those days there were few performances during the summer in Ripon. The festival seems to have been the catalyst for an explosion of musical activity since then.”

Not that Susan had ever organised an arts festival before then, though she had been a glider pilot!

“I had some organising ability through working in my late husband’s small business in Ripon and acting as airfield duty pilot at the Yorkshire Gliding Club, where I also trained as a glider pilot, gliding instructor and tug pilot.”

Married to Barrie Goldsbrough, a record-breaking glider pilot who had been short-listed for the British team just before he died of a heart attack whilst flying in a competition, Susan’s approach to being in charge combines modesty with composure.

Happy to describe herself as a “just a back-room sort of person who wishes she was cleverer at raising funds,” Susan lays much of Ripon’s success at the door of the Friends of Ripon International Festival and a loyal team of unpaid helpers.

She said: “We have a wonderful team of volunteers who organise fund-raising events and run events during the festival and who are absolutely indispensable.”

These days the festival attracts audiences from all over the country.

Although Ripon Cathedral remains its focal point, it takes performances out to ancient historic village churches and other buildings, adding another dimension to the audience’s experience.

This year, for example, the Escher String Quartet from New York will be playing at Aldborough Church.

An enthusiast of classical music from an early age, along with great literature and poetry, Susan worked worked as a classical music promoter during the eighties and nineties.

Nothing may have happened beyond that without Janusz Piotrowicz.

This distinguished conductor has been there from the beginning, ensuring the musical content is always of national standard.

Susan said; “Without doubt the festival’s greatest asset is Janusz Piotrowicz. He’s enabled top orchestras to take part in epic programmes. He pioneered the two-symphony idea, such as Beethoven 5 and Tchaikovsky 5, in Ripon long before anyone else outside of London.

“He commits even the most complex scores to memory and searches out all the music’s possibilities.

“His formidable intellect and uncompromising standards born of the European tradition, brings a cauldron of energy, and the most delicate tenderness to performances.”

This year’s Ripon international Festival looks like it’s going to be a vintage year.

The 2014 line-up offers an intoxicating programme of high–octane contrasts from French baroque with Ensemble Fantasticus from Amsterdam to monumental Rachmaninov with the Hallé conducted by Janusz Piotrowicz; and from 30’s jazz with Pete Long and his Goodmen to American alt-bluegrass with The Coal Porters.

Susan, herself, has a personal favourite in this year’s programme. She said: “I’m really looking forward to the fabulous, monumental Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, by the Halle Orchestra. The composer poured all his deepest feelings into it and I always love hearing it.”

Other standout acts include he South African baritone, Njabulo Madlala, winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Prize, whose “creamy baritone” has enthralled audience around the world, sings opera arias, lieder and songs from broadway.

Serious but not po-faced, the festival isn’t afraid to show a populist touch at times - from puppetry to Zulu dancers .

Susan said: “We’ve also got musical mayhem and side-splitting humour with the famous Classic Buskers who play Italian music at improbable speeds on a vast array of unlikely instruments!”

Sponsors are vital, too, among them Ripon Select Foods whose quiet support Susan describes as “heartwarming.”

As successful as Ripon International Festival is, organisers are reluctant to rest on their laurels, especially in this era of government austerity.

Susan said: “The tasks ahead are challenging: we have to increase the level of sponsorship, and our fund-raising activities in the face of public funding cuts.”

It’s easy to suspect that below that tranquil surface lies the odd worry or two.

But, if she ever does feel the strain, Susan has a readymade bolthole to escape to - her own home.

She said: “I live near Ripon and have a large garden which is half wilderness.

“It’s a haven for birds and hedgehogs and entices me to steal away from the computer from time to time to work amongst the trees and restore some sanity!”