The National Centre for Early Music opened its doors in April 2000 and has been a national advocate of early music in England ever since.
Director Delma Tomlin was appointed an MBE for services to the arts in Yorkshire, and in 2022 she will become the first ever female Governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers.
Her unyielding commitment to arts and culture in York saw her being nominated for Honorary Freeman of the City in December 2020.
How has the pandemic affected your venue?
It’s affected us dramatically, of course it did. We were due to be streaming live on the 21st of March 2020 (Early Music Day) anyway, and so by the most curious chance we were able to still reach out to all our audiences, almost the day that we got this information about the lockdown. And we gained an enormous amount of new audiences actually by doing that.
Obviously, we’ve lost all our commercial income, and we’ve lost most of our ticketing, and we’re shut. We moved into a different space straight away, and that made all the difference to how we have dealt with this past year. We were so thrilled to have people join us from literally all over the world on Early Music Day, and people were so enraptured by the music which really helped us to think about the positives of how we were going to deal with this thing. None of us thought it was going to go on, and on and on, as it has done. So although it has remained extremely difficult for everyone to deal with, we have found a way through.
Whilst we did furlough some of the members of the team to start off with, now everybody’s back and we’re all working really hard. And because we’re based at the National Centre for Early Music, which is a church venue, we also realised quite quickly that we can’t just not be there. Like any mediaeval building in the city, it needs looking after – the grass still grows, the birds still arrive, rubbish arrives. So now we have a rota system, so one person is in every day, but we’re obviously very carefully socially distanced. That helps us enormously because we have somewhere to head for. It’s given us a focus.
In what ways have you adapted?
Certainly the digital bit has been phenomenal. This summer’s festival, which would normally be the festival which people come literally from all over the world to attend, had to be completely reprogrammed, because many of the artists were themselves coming from outside of England. Clearly, it just wasn’t going to work. But we made that decision relatively late and completely reprogrammed the whole thing and sent it out digitally, and filmed that.
We learned an awful lot at that moment in July, how our audience want to join us but they want the audio quality that they would get from a commercial recording, or Radio Three. So over the summer we spent quite a bit of time talking with the Arts Council, and we’ve acquired considerably higher quality microphones, and cameras. By the time we got to Christmas we had become a much more professional unit. And that’s an expensive thing to do. But the quality has to be that high, it has to be comparable to what people would expect if they were sitting in the hall and listening.
It’s a constant relearning, readapting, rescheduling, rechanging, re-everything as we go along. But on the odd occasion when we get some really live music going it’s fantastic.
What have been the most difficult and most uplifting experiences from the past 12 months?
The most difficult is not knowing what’s going on, the endless rescheduling, the telling musicians one thing and changing it, and not knowing about the visa things – Brexit in the middle of this lot, from our point of view is a nightmare. Just a nightmare, because we work so much in Europe.
The uplifting bit has been people’s – musicians particularly – delight at being invited to come to the NCEM even though we’ve got a digital audience and being able to perform, because that’s what we do.
What have you learned from the pandemic? Will you do anything differently going forward?
The summer festival – the York Early Music Festival – has always used the most beautiful venues in the city, and tried to put the acoustically appropriate space for the age of the music. The experience is a mix of the building, and the music and the performers. Obviously, a lot of those venues are very small. So into the future, the fact that we’ve now developed this worldwide digital audience hopefully will mean that we will do both. We’ll run hybrid events into the future, so people will be with us and they can be in Australia and listen at the same time.
One thing we did do from the very beginning was say we have to have some income from this. So we invented our own paywall and asked people to pay to join us and people have been willing to do that.
What’s next for the National Centre for Early Music?
We are planning a festival in March, which is based around the Early Music Days. So a celebration of the year later, and that’s going to be called ‘Awakening’. That same mixture of vocal and instrumental groups, who will be coming up to the NCEM, socially distanced, but together, but it will be broadcast at the end of March. And that’s very much to say we’re still here. There’s a lot of glorious music, and just a little bit more sense of hopefulness. Part of the reason for doing that, is because I think it’s really important for the city of York to have things which it can share about the fact that we’re all still here, there’s life still, we haven’t stopped. It’s just taking this rather unfortunate long pause. Then April time, we’re planning to work again with Chris Sherrington for another of our ‘Songs Under Skies’.
How will York’s cultural scene have been changed by what’s happened?
Getting audiences back into the theatre, the NCEM, venues like that, is going to be a challenge to us all. People are going to feel very nervous for quite some time about joining together in groups. It will happen in due time, but it is going to take time. We’re all going to have to work very hard to bring those audiences back. Ultimately, of course, we’ll bounce back because we are an extraordinarily rich city, and we’ve got great ideas and we’ll be fine. But I don’t think it’s going to be an immediate thing.
What have been your cultural highlights in York?
The Mystery Plays inevitably, from my point of view, because when they were in the Minster in the year 2000, I was chief executive then. The fact that the plays continue to reappear on stages across the city in different guises at different times, it’s fantastic. They’re bringing the Passion Play back into the centre of York on wagons at the end of May. It’s just that continuing tradition, people locally getting involved in the plays, and the music around that I’ve always loved that.
What do you think York’s cultural scene is missing – or what would you change?
An enormous amount of money, obviously. In one sense, it’s the most perfect place to work because we know each other, and we cooperate, and we act as a partnership. The downside is that none of us are very large. We don’t have access to vast quantities of additional stuff, so that cooperation isn’t as easy as it might be.
What are your hopes and fears for the York’s cultural scene in the future?
The hope is that as soon as we possibly can, we’re back and I can see people and enjoy theatre, and the art gallery, and music because I need it in the same way as everybody else. The fear is inevitably the length of time it will take to rebuild audiences, and that resourcing will continue for a long time. From the NCEM’s perspective, because we do work so closely in Europe, there are a whole series of issues around visas, money not sorted out properly, whether people can travel. Early music is a European art form – Bach, Beethoven, they’re not English.