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It Was Such sweet music…

Seventy years of music history at Dartington ended last autumn […or did it? See addendum at the bottom of this article] when the International Summer School performed its last concert.  This year, the baton will indeed be raised somewhere else. Many are distraught that the festival they loved has gone. Many more are puzzled about why.

We did try hard to stay. It’s been 70 years

The financial troubles of the Trust are well known, and that is at the heart of the answer. I spoke to the former chairman of the summer school foundation – now the chief exec of the new body running the festival – Richard Heason.

Richard Heason

He explained what happened. His links with Dartington go back to 1991. “There is obviously a huge emotional attachment to Dartington’” he told me. “I love it. I met my wife there. We got married there in the garden.”

So when he heard the summer school was in danger,  he had to try and save it. “We did try hard to stay. It’s been 70 years. When it became clear there were financial problems at the Trust, a change of chair and then in early June it was announced  Buchler Phillips ( restructuring experts), were involved, we engaged with the team that was in place.”  This team is led by the interim CEO, Robert Fedder. “We looked at ways we might be able to  help,” Richard continued. “I had many meetings with Dartington. We offered to provide a six figure sum , a grant , for 2024 .”

It appears the people running the summer school – employed by the  Trust – were asked to accept new contracts. They refused. The Trust’s press release said at the time: “Artistic director Sara Mohr-Pietsch had “decided to step down from her role after a successful  four-year tenure, as have the rest of the summer school team”.

that magic can still happen.

So with no staff left to plan the 2024 summer school – and no new staff employed to carry on – Richard and his foundation team had to decide where to turn; “We wrote again to Dartington Trust with two courses of action– we could deliver a summer school ourselves if we could agree on venue hire fees, or we would find another  venue. “ Richard says the response was unworkable. There were no guarantees of spaces available because the new business model is to get long term tenants. As the music school takes a huge amount of space, there simply wasn’t room for them.

Follow the money…

The second blow was money. The new hire charges were , he said, “prohibitively high.” Time for Plan B. Richard said:” I came up with eight likely scenarios which I put to the foundation trustees – these ranged from business as usual to us giving up and winding up the foundation.. “But we wanted to protect the summer school at almost  any cost. It’s not about the place – although Dartington is wonderful – it’s actually about the people. It’s a unique melting pot of talent coming together, playing together.  And if we can create that somewhere else, that magic can still happen.”

Greshams School © Nigel Thompson – Creative Commons

The foundation – the charity which has funded the summer school for many years – began to hunt for new locations. Nineteen places responded with interest, eight had availability, and three site visits were held. Eventually by the end of October a new home was announced – Gresham’s School in Norfolk. Somewhere Richard had never been before then. Planning is well underway for the 2024 summer school in its new – and very grand – venue. Musicians are signing up and Richard is optimistic it’s going to be wonderful.

Not the Dartington Summer School

And it is not called Dartington. It has a new name for its new home – the Music Summer School and Festival. “We are very happy with Gresham’s. The facilities are absolutely fantastic. We were lucky to find it and they want to have it.”

Norfolk’s gain is, of course, not just a huge loss to Dartington Trust – financially and reputationally – but also to Totnes and beyond. The foundation supported bursaries, events like Party in The Town, and an eco system of music and musicians unique in the south west. In fact over ten years the foundation has given over half a million pounds to support the  summer school.

Are Dartington bothered?

So, I asked, did the Trust simply not care if the music died at Dartington? “I don’t think it would be fair to say they didn’t care. Clearly they have huge challenges. What we would say is Dartington won’t succeed on its own. They need to reach out, to create new partnerships.” And will the summer school ever return to the Great Hall, the lawns and music rooms? Well, Richard told  me they would be very happy to engage with Dartington to look at other creative projects. But for now, they are confident Gresham’s will work. “We would be open to conversations but at the  moment it is clear that the Trust needs to work out what is business plan is and in the short term at least what we can do doesn’t fit their business model.”

Go to mssf.org.uk to see the line up for  summer 2024.

 

[Addendum from Stephen Benzikie of Dartington Estate – Dated 10th January 2024]

  • A summer school will continue at Dartington. It will remain the Dartington International Summer School – a Dartington trademark –  regardless of what the Foundation may be called
  • the summer school has been a core Dartington activity for many years and remains so. The festival in Norfolk is a new event with certain members of the previous team. It is not the same event ‘moved’ to Norfolk. Anything claiming to be a relocated Dartington event is absolutely not an official, Dartington-branded activity, whatever the name of the participating foundation might suggest to observers.

 

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Cathy Wearing
Cathy Wearing
2 months ago

What Dartington Trust have now proposed is so far removed from the summer school that it cannot really be called a summer school. What was unique about the summer school was the blend of first rate professional musicians with amateurs and the range of activities – there is nowhere else like it – and a week’s “ChoralFest” is a disappointing replacement. If the summer school is a core activity, nothing the Trust has done or said has made that clear.

Jane Parsons
Jane Parsons
3 months ago

Was Dartington asked for a comment and given a right to respond to this? I’m sure, as usual, there are two or more sides to this complicated coinage.

Peter Shearn
Admin
3 months ago
Reply to  Jane Parsons

We have been requesting an interview with Interim CEO Robert Fedder for several weeks. At the last try, we recieved the addendum now added to the end of this article. Hopefully we will be able to report all sides of this story in full very soon.

Jane Parsons
Jane Parsons
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter Shearn

That’s good news. There are so many rumours and so much gossip about the future of Dartington and the trustees’ plans, and so little comment or information from the trustees, the “brand” is badly dented in my view. I understand their reticence, for business reasons and because so much vitriol is directed at them. But I hope for their sake, and for the future of Dartington, that some real openness will start to be forthcoming.

Peter Marsh
Peter Marsh
3 months ago

Very good article. Richard Heason emerges from this account quite well, Dartington Trust less so. Will be most interesting to get the trust’s viewpoint, I hope soon

Fiona Green
Fiona Green
3 months ago

Appalling & easy to see why, when you read between the lines, they were forced to leave.
Incredibly sad

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