Rhinegold Photo credit: Mark Pinder

Keith Clarke

Out of nothing: 20 years of the Samling Foundation

2:19, 9th March 2016

Faced with a great swathe of the country that had little to offer young singers, Samling set up shop 20 years ago fill the void with the help of some of the world’s great artists. Keith Clarke reports

If you drive from Manchester to Glasgow it will take you about four hours if the M6 is in a good mood, and you will not pass a single music conservatoire along the way – nothing offering performance-based opportunities for young singers, certainly. It was this which prompted Karon Wright and businessman Roger McKechnie to set up Samling, a music charity based in a community centre in Hexham, Northumberland.

It all began 20 years ago with a concert in a barn overlooking Lake Windermere, given by Katarina Karnéus, who had just won Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Karon Wright
Karon Wright

From the beginning, Karon Wright knew what she wanted to create, essentially an intensive residential masterclass programme for outstanding young professional singers and pianists, led by world-class artists, teachers and experts in a highly sympathetic environment. She got off to a good start, getting Sir Thomas Allen and Malcolm Martineau on board, and seems not to have put a foot wrong since. The website (www.samling.org.uk/) lists some 300 artists who have been through the programme and the roll call of leaders past and present bristles with names like Barbara Bonney, Angelika Kirchschlager, Felicity Palmer, Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles.

Alongside the national and international Samling Artist Programme is the Samling Academy, started four years ago to work with young singers in the north-east, using the same learning models. It conjures up visions of some impressive edifice, but there is no such thing. ‘We don’t have a building,’ says Wright. ‘It’s not about bricks and mortar. What we have invested in is people, and they are immensely loyal.’

Wright is a firm believer in the ‘If it ain’t broke’ principle, and essentially the masterclass programme has remained the same for its two decades.

‘It was such a good model right from the very beginning, because you can do an awful lot in a week.’ The first young singers were invited to take part – Lisa Milne and Toby Spence among them – then Samling introduced auditions. ‘What has changed is that we’re able now to throw the net very wide to try and find and identify the best young singers and the ones that are most ready for what we want to do with them. We look after people very well; we provide the best possible environment we can.’

Photo: Mark Pinder / www.meta4photos.com

With the two programmes firmly established, this year there is a new initiative, in Samling Futures. ‘We’re living in a part of the country where young people in schools (and state schools in particular) don’t have any access to classical music at all,’ says Wright, ‘and I’m firmly of the belief that in every school there are young people who could do this, they just haven’t been given the opportunity.

‘What we’re trying to do, incrementally, singer by singer almost, is to try and grow that cohort of young people. We have a taster day and we’ve written to every middle school and high school in the whole region, inviting heads of music to send along teenagers aged 14-18 to come along and see what it’s like if you come to the academy, see what it’s like to work with a choreographer from Covent Garden and with a first-class language coach, and to grow this culture here. So in a way I’m growing my own singers in the north-east now.’

For Wright, people need convincing of needs in music education which are taken for granted in other activities. ‘In sport it is recognised that you need money, resources, skills, coaches. That’s a given, people understand that in sport, but in classical music we always have to make the case, and it’s of vital importance that the resources are there to give these young people the chance to be the best.’

Kate Valentine as Donna Anna in Samling Opera's Don Giovanni (2007) Photo: Mark Pinder
Photo: Mark Pinder/www.meta4photos.com

Creating the opportunities inevitably comes at a cost – how is Samling funded? ‘With great difficulty! I’ve raised the money from the beginning, from trusts and foundations, philanthropy and through our own efforts. We don’t receive any statutory or regular funding, and there’s no endowment, so it is a struggle. But 20 years on we must be doing something right.’

In February Ann Murray worked with Samling for the first time, joining Olaf Bär and former Samling Academy artist Rowan Pierce in the residential week followed by public masterclasses and a concert at Sage Gateshead. After many concerts and events, including an annual showcase at Wigmore Hall, the 20th-anniversary celebrations culminate in a ‘Coming of Age’ Gala concert at Sage Gateshead on 17 February 2017, with Sir Thomas Allen joining the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Samling Artists and members of Samling Academy.

For the future Wright would like to consolidate partnerships with Newcastle and Durham universities and Sage Gateshead. ‘We’ve got a model that works with pre-conservatoire students in a region where there is no conservatoire. I hope to see in 20 years’ time that we are seen as the region in the UK that produces outstanding musicians and great artists. I think we’re doing that.’

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