• Miles Hedley

LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EARLY MUSIC Online, with concerts filmed in Blackheath

Updated: Nov 3


There’s so much to love about the annual London International Festival of Early Music – amazing musicians, an astonishing array of rare instruments and the craftspeople who still make them, the chance to hear often unfamiliar compositions dating back centuries and the sheer joy to be found in sharing an artform that has mesmerised our species since the dawn of humankind.

I especially love the fact that despite the festival’s title you can also hear music written by contemporary composers for ancient instruments. And this year’s highlight in that category has to be the world premiere by viol ensemble Fretwork of a piece by Led Zeppelin legend and genre-hopping musical powerhouse John Paul Jones.

The Covid pandemic means the premiere will not be performed in front of an audience because this year’s festival is an online-only affair and we will have to wait until 2021 for a chance to experience the live thrill of a programme at its traditional home in Blackheath Halls and nearby churches.


Which is a shame because JPJ (above) has a lifelong link to this part of south-east London – he was born not far away in Sidcup and as a teenager he went to school just a few hundred yards from the Halls before finding fame as a virtuoso bassist, keyboard player, composer, arranger and producer.

And over the course of a musical career spanning nearly 60 years he has been associated with artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, Seasick Steve, Dave Grohl, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Anssi Karttunen as well as creating a body of solo work that includes rock, classical, opera and early music and, of course, his superstar stint with Led Zep.

His new work, to be screened on Marquee TV and the LIFEM website at 7pm on November 5, is called The Tudor Pull and was inspired by an ancient River Thames pageant re-enacted each year between Hampton Court and the Tower of London. JPJ said: “I wanted to invoke the excitement of the event as well as have a sense of the ever-changing moods and pace of the river.”

He added: “I’ve been an admirer of Fretwork for some time and I was thrilled at the commission to write a piece for them to premiere at the festival.”

Just as thrilled are Fretwork (above) themselves. The ensemble’s Richard Boothby said:”We’re really pleased to have this wonderful new piece from JPJ. He evokes the event with great flair and colour. It’s an honour to be playing music by a composer with such an illustrious career. Who isn’t a fan of Led Zeppelin?”

The premiere is one of several concerts which have been filmed at Blackheath’s church of St Michael and All Angels.

They include appearances by two more 2020 headliners - prizewinning harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (below) and recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus.


Esfahani, an Iranian American, has wowed audiences across the globe as a guest soloist with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and by playing solo recitals. He has also recorded a series of acclaimed albums.

Debus (below), from Germany, has also won a string of international awards as one of the world’s leading recorder players and as well as being in demand as a performer she is also a revered teacher of the instrument.

Alongside the international headliners, the 2020 festival will feature the biennial Early Music Young Ensemble competition - to be judged by violinist and orchestra director Margaret Faultless, soprano Lucy Crowe and LIFEM’s inaugural artistic director Gill Graham – and a performers’ platform for young musicians from around the world to showcase their talents.


There will also be a fascinating online selection of demonstrations, talks and workshops throughout the festival, which this year runs from November 5 to 11 – twice as long as the live event would have been.

Go to www.lifem.org for further details about the programme and artists. Concerts are available to watch through the website and on the digital arts platform Marquee TV.


Picture Credits: Dustin Rabin (JPJ), Nick White (Fretwork), Kaja Smith (Esfahani), Kaupo Kikkas (Debus).



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