In just over a week's time the curtain will be raised on this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, but how many of us understand and appreciate how this, one of the country's leading annual arts festivals, came to be?
Although the idea of sponsorship and fund raising may seem relatively modern to many of us, it was as early as 1772 that musical events were organised in Norwich to help raise money for the local hospital. Later plans to construct the original Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in Brunswick Road led to the creation of a triennial festival in 1824, mainly featuring mainly oratorios and other large scale choral works performed at St Andrews Hall and St Peter Mancroft Church. Works by notable composers such as Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten were all premiered here.
In 1989 the event merged with the Festival Norwich to create an annual celebration of a wider range of music and arts. This has now grown to become one of the big four UK international arts festivals, and despite having to now arrange its own finances and sponsorship it continues to deliver a comprehensive programme of prestigious events and artists to Norfolk audiences. At a time when the country wrestles with its own financial deficit, and austerity has become a topical but unpopular word, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival has to fight for every pound it receives by way of funding from Arts Council England and local authority grants. The generous support of private benefactors and corporate sponsors then becomes even more important.
Every year the Norfolk and Norwich Festival presents a wide range of national and international artists in a two week celebration of music, literature, drama and dance. Many large-scale events are performed out of doors and are free to the public, whilst others are held in a variety of established venues that include Norwich's Theatre Royal, the Norwich Arts Centre, and the original St Andrews Hall. Recent innovations have seen settings such as Holkham Hall used for site-specific productions, and this year an ambitious project at Felbrigg Hall, on the North Norfolk coast, has seen the acclaimed theatre company WildWorks conceive a new piece, Wolf's Child, which will transform the woodland surrounding the hall into a promenade set for an adult fairytale of love and betrayal.
As well as a dedicated team led by Artistic Director, William Galinsky, and Executive Director, Alex Darbyshire, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival depends on an army of volunteers to assist in the smooth delivery of literally hundreds of events over the two week period.
Last year I became a member of that volunteer team, and had an amazing two weeks. This year I am back, and once again I hope to capture some of that excitement and enthusiasm through this blog.
The festival brochures have been distributed, the ticket offices are open to take your calls. The banners and posters are in place around the city, and the volunteers have all had their induction training and received their rotas. We are all buzzing with anticipation.
It is now down to the people of Norfolk and beyond to come out and support the programme of events. The more people that attend, in particular the free productions, the stronger the case for continued funding of the festival, and the happier the sponsors will be. If your appetite is whetted sufficiently come along to some of the other shows. Try something new, or play safe with something that you know you will enjoy. Either way you will have a great evening out, and you can still catch up with Eastenders later thanks to BBC i-Player.
The main political parties are all keen to convince you of their pledges to guarantee the future of our National Health Service. Ironically, the original motives for establishing an arts festival in Norwich have now evolved into a challenge to be able to continue to fund the festival of excellence that we may have, in the past, taken for granted.
The Norfolk & Norwich Festival website, with details of all events, and links for booking tickets is here http://www.nnfestival.org.uk/