A Worcestershire philanthropist who is commissioning a range of musical projects talks to Christopher Morley.
Anywhere you go in the West Midlands and beyond there is a very good chance you’ll bump into Ernie Kay, a spry octogenarian with a dizzying array of interests: walking, theatre, sport (especially cricket – this Lancastrian is a member of Worcester County Cricket Club), and music.
Tonight he wears his musical hat as he listens to the premiere at Malvern Concert Club of The Song of the Severn by Worcester-based composer Ian Venables, commissioned by the club with the aide of funds from the Kay Trust.
Ernie recently retired from the committee of this MCC (not to be confused with the identical major cricket acronym), and was immediately appointed vice-president of this society founded by Elgar well over a century ago.
He tells me at his Malvern home how music came to fit into his busy life.
“We used to listen to the Buxton Spa Orchestra during family holidays from Salford,” he remembers. “Later, in my mid-teens, I discovered Sir John Barbirolli’s Halle Orchestra, and after moving to London with an Open Scholarship to the London School of Economics I began going to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, right from the very first week of its opening.”
Ernie in fact became professionally involved with the RFH later in his career. He had become involved in computer work for the Greater London Council as early as 1962 and in the early 1980s he was instrumental in putting in the Festival Hall’s first computerised box office. “That opened a few doors,” he chuckles.
His move with his first wife, Kathy, to a restored 15th-century farmhouse near Presteigne led to a more hands-on kind of musical involvement, doing administration work for the newly-born Presteigne Festival, helping with the Knighton Concert Society, and chairing Mid-Border Arts.
Alongside their musical interests, Ernie and Kathy were also actively involved in walking projects along the Welsh border and eventually became co-authors of the official guides to the Offa’s Dyke Path (still in print).
Sadly Kathy died and Ernie came to live in Malvern when he married again to Margaret Fotheringham.
“I was near Presteigne and Margaret was in Lincoln. We decided to start somewhere new to both and each drew up lists of possible places.
“Malvern came high on both and we had a good look during the 1996 Three Choirs. I bought my present house by the end of the festival.
“I quickly got involved in Malvern Concert Club and the Elgar Society and then Margaret took a post marketing the newly-extended Elgar Birthplace Museum in Lower Broadheath.
“After Margaret’s untimely death in 2003 I continued my work, to which I added activity on archives at the birthplace, and managing the excursions programme for the Worcestershire Archaeological Society.”
Ernie does not drive, but crops up everywhere. How does he manage?
His response is openly pragmatic.
“The blessed Malvern Theatres are only a six-minute walk away, and Birmingham is accessible by train, though clock watching is often needed,” he says.
“But I have a lot of good friends who kindly offer, or can be cajoled into taking me to many concerts, theatres and festivals. I do Buxton every year by rail, staying there for a week. Margaret and I started this in 1996 and I’ve been every year since.
“Apart from Worcester for cricket, the rest of sport is now a matter for TV – and to think I used to cycle to watch Manchester United. 1/6 to get in, 2d for programme and 1d to park my bike!”
Ernie explains how he commissions.
“Having no family, Kathy and I set up a trust fund managed by Charities Aid Foundation from part of our estates. This was first used in the 1990s to seed-corn the building of the Offa’s Dyke Centre in Knighton.
“The fund was then added to from Margaret’s estate and two years ago I decided to use some of this to further some of all our interests while I was still around.
“I decided to make donations to various bodies covering our range of interests. The money to be used for projects of a lasting value that are good but not ‘essential’ and would not otherwise be likely to happen. They were to be in memory of Kathy and Margaret. The sums varied but were all quite small and have or are mostly being used already with some very pleasing results.
“Where possible I have asked that the money be used on a seed-corn basis, so for instance Malvern Theatres was able to bring forward the installation of digital projectors for relays and films. Malvern Concert Club has been able to commission Ian Venables, and also, for September, a Quartet from Alec Roth, and there was a Young Musicians award last year for Chandos Orchestra.
“Other items in the music fields are a short clarinet quartet commission jointly for Bromsgrove and Droitwich Music Clubs, two grants for new works for Jennie McGregor-Smith’s Tardebigge concerts and one for composition prizes for this year’s English Song Festival at Ludlow, plus small grants to Gloucester and Worcester Clubs for special performances. A couple of other projects are now being discussed, but the aim in all these has been to make a little go a long way.
“I’ve been on my own now for 10 years, and as a non-driver it’s a lonely life. So these activities help to keep me afloat and sort of sane.”
* Roderick Williams, Tom Poster and the Carducci String Quartet premiere Ian Venables’ The Song of the Severn at the Forum Theatre, Malvern tonight (Thursday, 7.30pm). 01684 892277.