Private Passions’ - a conversation with John Stark,

founder of Hay Music 


With little or no exposure to serious music either at home or at his Cambridge school, John was more interested, as both a schoolboy and later at university, in cricket and this led to an extraordinary musical encounter during his time at university. With his college cricket team on their annual tour to Sussex, when rain prevented play, a few of them decided to explore the area around Lewes and came across a rather grand house with an unusual large tower, set in magnificent gardens. While wandering around the grounds they heard music emerging invisibly from the distant lawns. They wandered over and were astonished to see a man sitting in the ha-ha playing a French horn. They were then approached by a man who asked who they were and why they were there. Having heard that they were from a college cricket tour and discovering that the founder of their college was Sir Walter Mildmay, he explained that he had built this opera house for his soprano wife Audrey Mildmay, a descendent of their founder, and that they were now his, John Christie’s, welcome guests at Glyndebourne! After lunch in the Green Room where they recognised the horn player in the ha-ha as Dennis Brain and were introduced to many singers and musicians, they were taken to watch a rehearsal of La Cenerentola which was taking place in the theatre, after which he invited them to be his guest at the evening performance. Their embarrassment at not being appropriately dressed was waved away by his invitation to watch this, and any other performances during their washed out cricket tour, from his own box. This serendipitous introduction to opera was just one of many chance encounters with music – and notable musicians – often through friends – which shaped John’s knowledge and love of music.

It was again by chance that his record collection started when a coffee bar, in which classical music was played as background music, closed and he was offered all their LPs. Amongst these was the Mendelssohn Octet. John recalled that, half a century later, it was the standing ovation when the Fitzwilliam Quartet with Marcia Crayford, Moray Welsh and Suzie Meszaros played the octet at the first chamber music festival that convinced him that there was a future for chamber music in Hay.

After Cambridge John moved to London for his clinical training at Barts where some of his contemporaries introduced him to a new world of classical music. The recently opened Festival Hall on the South Bank was nearby with an enormous range of music at prices affordable to students on small grants. He explained that many of his later preferences in music and musicians had been shaped by what he heard in the RFH at that time, and this was reflected in the music he played for us which included Rosalyn Tureck’s Bach, Artur Rubinstein’s Chopin, Fischer Deiskau’s Schubert, Segovia’s solo guitar, the youthful enthusiasm of the Barenboim, du Pre and Zuckermann trio and the series of Beethoven string quartet recitals by the Hungarian and the Budapest quartets.

He was in London, moving up the medical training ladder, for most of the next 17 years with more opportunities, but less time, for music. In the early 60’s he first came across another trainee at Barts whose name was already well known from newspaper accounts of his role in persuading the government to remedy injustices to junior doctors and who now announced that he was starting a new medical journal! Undeterred by John’s warning that this foolhardy venture was certain to fail, he went ahead and the journal still thrives today. When, 50 years later, after a concert, a gentleman offered his house and piano for recitals it took a moment for John to recognise the same Michael Hession who has done so much since for Hay Music.

In 1972 John returned to Cambridge as consultant physician at Addenbrooke’s and Papworth hospitals, the latter famous in the 1980s for its pioneering heart and, later, lung transplant surgery. John modestly glossed over his distinguished career in medicine but did tell us how, as friends and neighbours, he got to know Stephen Hawking and his family, and how later, as his condition deteriorated, Stephen briefly became a patient.

In the early 70s Cambridge had no large venue for concerts, and funds were being raised for a new hall by a series of celebrity concerts in Kings College chapel at one of which John first heard Rostropovich play Bach cello suites. His love of this music and admiration for Rostropovich has persisted and he recalled when, on a chance family visit to Aldeburgh, they happened to look into the parish church where the instantly recognisable cellist instantly stopped playing and apologised for disturbing the peace of their visit. After reassuring him, they spent the rest of the afternoon listening to his rehearsal. He then invited them “as reward for our tolerance” to come as his guests to that evening’s recital of Bach suites!

On another, this time planned, visit to Aldeburgh to hear Benny Goodman, a lifelong favourite jazz clarinettist, play the Brahms Clarinet quintet with the Amadeus, an extra event was announced. Benny Goodman would be on stage that evening, improvising with a scratch group of musicians, so John heard his hero playing jazz.

The interest in art John had developed in London was put to practical use when John and some colleagues acquired about 3000 limited edition prints by leading artists of the time and spent many Sunday mornings mounting them on the bare walls of corridors and wards in the brand new Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Although John and Gwen had known each other in their teens in Cambridge, their lives went in different directions. When he retired, however, and after their respective marriages had broken down, John and Gwen became reunited and John moved first to Llanigon where Gwen was living at the time before they made a home together in Hay. It was here that John felt the lack of easy access to classical music and decided to do something about it and the rest, as they say, is history.

Faced with choosing special landmarks from 100 Hay Music concerts John selected just two pieces to reflect the enthusiasm and generosity of so many people, venues and musicians who had made the venture not only possible but successful. The Shostakovich piano quintet was a reminder not only of the Fitzwilliam Quartet who had introduced John and many others to Shostakovich’s chamber music but of the delights of recitals at Dorstone with its Bosendorfer, music room, gardens and hospitality …..reminiscent in this and other ways of John Christie’s Glyndebourne all those years before.

In his last ‘landmark’ John remembered what was, for him, a new experience of hearing live music at home, when groups rehearsed in their house. One occasion brought together many pleasures when as the Fitz and Moray Welsh were playing Schubert’s string quintet in one room John was watching cricket (sound muted!) in the next room. He remembers thinking at the time “if there is a heaven it must be just like this”.

The Music:

Rossini: La Cenerentola, Quintet from Act 1 “Signor, una parola”: Abbado, Teresa Berganza, Luigi Alva LSO

Mendelssohn: String Octet Op 20: Vienna Octet

Verdi: Requiem: Dies Irae: Giulini, Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda, Ghiaurov, Philharmonia

Bach: Goldberg Variations: Theme: Rosalyn Tureck

Schubert: Schwanengesang: Die Taubenpost: Wolfgang Holzmair, Imogen Cooper

Beethoven: String Quartet Op 59/1 (Razumovsky): Takacs Quartet

Chopin: Nocturne Op 32/1: Artur Rubinstein

Albeniz: Asturias (arr guitar): Segovia

Beethoven: Piano Trio Op 70/1 (The Ghost): 1st mvt:  Zuckerman, Du Pré, Barenboim

Bach: Cello Suite No 3 in C major: Prelude: Rostropovitch

Goodman: Body and Soul: Benny Goodman

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet Op 57: 3rd mvt Scherzo: Beethoven Quartet, D. Shostakovitch

Schubert: String Quintet in C major: 2nd mvt: Fitzwilliam Quartet, van Kampen

Members of the audience enjoying a glass of wine in the garden at Dorstone House after ‘Private Passions’

Members of the audience enjoying a glass of wine in the garden at Dorstone House after ‘Private Passions’