New-look Melrose Music Festival aims to tap into local community's can-do spirit

The new artistic director of the Melrose Music Festival plan to bring together local musicians and visiting artists, writes Ken Walton

As curbs on public arts funding continue to bite, up pops another ambitious attempt by a local community to defy the odds with a new music festival. Where East Neuk, Cumnock, Lammermuir and others have boldly trodden before and survived, the Borders town of Melrose is now looking to follow suit.

Will it succeed? Much of that is down to local resident, conductor Robert Marshall, best known in Scottish musical circles for his revitalising artistic directorship 20 years ago of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, and his subsequent development of the Glasgow Chamber Choir.

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Professionally though, he’s an influential lawyer, whose civil service career has taken him from procurator fiscal and court prosecutor to senior Scots lawyer in Whitehall to head of the UK Government’s litigation in Scotland, more recently returning north to lead parts of the Scottish Government’s counterterrorism, asylum, refugee and hate crime strategies, and now overseeing support for faith communities.

Leading Scottish composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan will be appearing at the launch event for the Melrose Music Festival in May PIC: Marc MarnieLeading Scottish composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan will be appearing at the launch event for the Melrose Music Festival in May PIC: Marc Marnie
Leading Scottish composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan will be appearing at the launch event for the Melrose Music Festival in May PIC: Marc Marnie

Not surprisingly, then, cool-headed strategy and evidential persuasiveness lie behind Marshall’s push, as newly-designated artistic director, to transform an existing Melrose perennial – a low-profile musical jamboree of local concerts mounted sporadically across multiple weekends in May and June – into something more ambitious and outgoing, that brings together local musicians and visiting artists, reaches into schools and community groups, and takes place over a more concentrated, targeted period.

“We’ve opted for two bookending weekends in September this year as a trial, which better suits our ambitions, not least being an easier time at which to engage with local schools,” says Marshall.

Details of September’s new-look festival will be confirmed at a preview launch event on 11 May, which features music by James MacMillan and Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. MacMillan, founder of the highly successful decade-old Cumnock Tryst Festival, has agreed to front the event, talking about his own experiences and the value of such initiatives within local communities.

Marshall himself will conduct the Borders Chamber Choir, which he set up last year, launching recently with an Easter performance of Bach’s St John Passion and featuring professional soloists and the local Borders Chamber Orchestra. “That was really overwhelming,” he recalls. Factors that threatened the project, not least the rescinding of promised local authority funding, were swept aside by the sheer determination to make it happen.

“We were told if we charged commercially for the event, we’d be lucky to get 160 people. In the end we got over double that and actually made a profit.” Marshall, adamant that realistic economies of scale and funding expectations dictate the rate of growth, is confident the same can-do spirit will make the new-look festival in September an event the community can proudly own, and one which will hopefully attract visitors from elsewhere.

Subsequent to the May preview, a new festival website will be launched to trumpet September’s programme, scheduled to include chamber music from piano/cello duo Ingrid Sawyers and Alexandra MacKenzie; jazz from Brian Kellock and friends; a choral opener by the Borders Chamber Choir featuring works by composers of the Scottish Renaissance, Kenneth Leighton and James MacMillan; and an orchestral programme by the Borders Chamber Orchestra, conducted by locally-born RSNO assistant conductor Derrick Morgan. The main venue will be the spacious Melrose Parish Church.

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Already, further development plans are afoot. Marshall has his eye on a future where a professional artistic director can take over the reins, and where community work will fuel local confidence in the festival. “We’re currently under discussion with the Borders School of Music to start a Youth Choir and youth event which we hope will eventually be something we can build on,” he says.

As for funding, he and his board are well aware of current constraints. “This year’s festival is in the same envelope as last year’s, so the board and I have gone on the basis we can take the same risk on events and income. We’re being quite cautious and realistic, but if we can deliver on quality with what we can afford, then I see a lot more that we can do to unlock new avenues of sustainable funding”. Let’s hope such optimism pays off.

The Melrose Festival preview event is at Melrose Parish Church on 11 May, for details see

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