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Evocative tribute to a Lakes inspired composer

Susan Hedworth sits at the piano in her cottage at Ovington, Northumberland, and memories of her brother come flooding back

Sue Hedworth, from Ovington who is putting on a concert of her brother's music
Sue Hedworth, from Ovington who is putting on a concert of her brother's music

Susan Hedworth sits at the piano in her cottage at Ovington, Northumberland, and memories of her brother come flooding back.

It was here, on his regular summer trips from Holland, that Michael Smith would sit and compose the music that was so dear to him.

“He was a great dreamer,” says his sister fondly.

“Most of his music was co mposed here in my cottage.

“He was a professional viola player so he had full-time commitments in Holland, but he came back here often.

“He used to camp and walk the fells in the Lake District every summer. He loved the Lake District. But he would use my cottage to compose.”

Michael’s great unfinished labour of love was setting William Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem, The Prelude, to music.

Wordsworth was 29 when he started writing the poem and it was still unfinished when he died, aged 80, in 1850.

For Michael it was a case of one great lover of the Lakes paying homage to another as, with memories of his fell walking still fresh in his mind, he sat down at the piano to capture the man and the landscape in music.

He had spent over 10 years on the project and, if completed, it would have taken 10 hours to perform in its entirety.

Michael, who died in 2009, will be remembered in a series of professional concerts organised – and paid for – by his sister.

It might have tickled him to find himself in good company, with works by Frederic Delius, Frank Bridge and Edward Elgar also lined up for concerts which glory in the title English Romantic Music of the Twentieth Century.

Audiences in Ambleside, Newcastle and Hexham will hear Michael’s Bitter Suite (for violin, viola and cello), Rondo (for viola) and Watendlath (piano).

The latter, explains Susan, is “an elegiac evocation of Rogue Herries’ home in Borrowdale”.

Herries was the fictional creation of the author Hugh Walpole who based a series of novels on him, all set in Borrowdale.

“It is hoped,” says Susan, “that this concert will introduce English audiences to a 20th Century composer writing in the best of the English romantic tradition.”

Michael Smith spoke to The Journal in 2009, shortly before a concert in Ryton where part of his Prelude-inspired oratorio was performed by the local choral society and an ensemble conducted by David Murray.

He had attended a rehearsal and been “very impressed”. Although he added: “I suppose I am a bit nervous. It is a Christmas concert on Saturday and they’ve put the Hallelujah Chorus in front of me and that is a hard act to follow.”

The concert was deemed a great success. Michael flew back home to Holland and died shortly afterwards at the age of 68.

It was a sad end for the former Newcastle Royal Grammar School pupil whose career in music was clearly still full of promise. But at least he got to hear 30 minutes of his greatest undertaking performed in front of an audience, which applauded warmly.

Now it has fallen to Susan and others who loved him to champion his music and keep his memory alive.

Susan says she would love to hear a full orchestra perform her brother’s work, although he composed mostly for string ensembles. A good recording wouldn’t go amiss either.

None of this may happen but Susan has taken steps to get all her brother’s beautifully hand-written music properly archived and has organised these concerts.

The Borrowdale Ensemble has been put together by violinist Loeki Poncin, who was Michael’s partner and a fellow member of the Felix Quartet.

The viola soloist will be Stephen Shakeshaft, a founder principal of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the cello soloist will be Rachel Sanders-Hewett, a member of the London-based Arbory String Quartet.

David Murray, well known and respected in the North East, will be on piano.

Susan, former head of English at a Newcastle school, has her own creative life as a playwright.

She has already made Dorothy Wordsworth the subject of a dramatic study – showing Michael wasn’t the only Wordsworth fan in the family – and is working on a play about the Newcastle-born composer Charles Avison.

But for now her energies are focused on her brother’s legacy and the three concerts which she hopes will attract a sizeable turnout.

They are at St Mary’s Church, Ambleside, on July 15 (tel. 015394 31176), the Lit & Phil, Newcastle, on July 16 (0191 2320192) and the Queen’s Hall, Hexham, on July 17 (01434 652477), all at 7.30pm.

 

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