‘Saul, have you ever thought of a career in light music?’ asked Elgar Howarth, the composer and conductor but perhaps best known as the trumpet soloist on the Beatles ‘All You Need is Love’. ‘How dare you, I thought’, Ben tells me. ‘At the time I was in the Welsh National Youth orchestra and had aspirations to be “an angry composer”.’
Howarth was spot on, as anyone who has attended one of the captivating weekly classical concerts held on Saturday mornings organised by Ben in the Assembly Rooms, Faversham can testify. His energy and commitment to bringing classical music to a wide audience is infectious and to be applauded. Such is his enthusiasm that he recently started jazz concerts on Sunday afternoons. And if a performer cancels at the last minute, Ben springs into action with alacrity and improvises an emergency recital. ‘I am quite good at standing in front of a crowd and saying, “Don’t panic, it’s all going to be fine”.’
Music was part of Ben’s life from an early age: ‘I was one of those annoying kids who could play the piano aged six.’ Ben grew up in North Wales, a region steeped in music. ‘All the surrounding villages would have music competitions every weekend, there were also lots of organ recitals and there is an annual Eisteddfod (a musical festival). I first played with a local folk band when I was about ten. By the time I was 12 I was playing every weekend. Later, I and my friends would get bands together and play at local festivals such as Chester or Southport. My parents weren’t musical, but were very encouraging. On my dad’s side of the family, a few people helped to start the Grimethorpe Colliery Band in Yorkshire.’
It was while Ben was studying music at Durham University that he became inspired by the music department’s free lunchtime recitals held every Thursday. ‘I have always thought this is such a nice thing to do.’
Before moving to Faversham, he first put the idea into practice in Blackheath at a church where he was Director of Music.
The twice-weekly Faversham recitals (a weekly recital in Sittingbourne was started early this year) are held in the Italianate-style Assembly Rooms designed by Martin Bulmer in 1849 in Preston Street. The building, a really ‘good live space’, first came to Ben’s attention in 2010 when the Faversham Buildings Preservation Trust was formed to buy the rooms and restore them. Bill Croydon, the Chairman of the Trust was very supportive. ‘At that point they were unloved and unknown’. Ben began by asking friends to give recitals.
Ben and his wife Jo have innumerable musical connections which have played a key part in establishing the recitals. Ben teaches music therapy and musicianship skills, mostly keyboard, led at the Guildhall School of Music as well as conducting, playing the organ, guitar and the violin. He also runs the Faversham Youth Choir. Jo is a professional violinist, teaches music at Ethelbert Road Primary School and teaches at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. ‘Faversham is a musical town. The Choral Society http://www.favchoral.org is strong and the music at both the parish churches, St Mary of Charity and St Catherine are good quality’.
Ben then set about expanding his pool of performers, asking the external bookings manager at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance for musicians, followed by the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. About a year and a half ago Canterbury Christchurch University contacted Ben and now send performers once a term.
Apart from the musical prowess of the performers the charm of the concerts is that they are free and there isn’t an advance programme. ‘The secret is that the public don’t know who is coming. Even when you get three pianists in a row, which can happen, the amount of variety is still thrilling’, says Ben. ‘At first, people always used to say to me: “This is great but can we have something we know next time”. There came a point when that question stopped being asked. It’s a literacy thing. If you listen to Classic FM, you are given a good range but it is limited. There is an exciting breadth to classical music. I knew we had succeeded when, six months ago, a pianist came and played some Pierre Boulez, which was quite challenging, and then before the break a Schoenberg piano sonata. I was sitting at the back and thought this is when everybody stands up and walks out but they didn’t.’
Ben feels very strongly that the concerts should remain free: ‘There are people in this town who genuinely can’t pay anything and I don’t want to exclude them. To charge would change the whole ethos’ . He adds, ‘There is a great culture in Faversham where people look out for each other.’ He also welcomes children at the concerts observing, ‘If you get children to sit at the front so they can watch what is happening they are much more likely to stay for the whole performance.’
‘It makes my weekend’ or ‘my weekend has started’ are just a few of the comments Ben hears at the concerts. If you haven’t been to one do go along, you will not be disappointed.
10.45am every Saturday at the Assembly Rooms, Preston Street, Faversham.
4pm-6pm Jazz every 3rd Sunday also at the Assembly Rooms, Preston Street, Faversham
11am every Tuesday at St. Michael’s Church, Sittingbourne High Street
Text: Amicia. Photography: Lisa