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Plea for performers as north-east arts festival bosses fear pandemic could turn event into a ‘damp squib’

Martha Forbes (left), Carys Taylor (middle) and Rebecca West (right) who were awarded bursaries at the 2020 festival by North East Scotland Performing Arts.
Martha Forbes (left), Carys Taylor (middle) and Rebecca West (right) who were awarded bursaries at the 2020 festival by North East Scotland Performing Arts.

There are fears that the pandemic could could finally put paid to a long-running music festival – even after it moved online to survive last summer.

The North East Scotland Performing Arts (Nespa) group has been holding its annual competitive gathering almost every year since 1909, with only a few exceptions during the First and Second World Wars.

But concerns have now been raised that the 98th edition of the celebration of music, drama and more may not go ahead as planned due to the lingering side-effects of the Covid crisis.

Organisers blame a lack of entries this year on a drop in music and drama tuition, and on schools being unable to let youngsters out of the classroom to perform from their homes for the online event.

This comes after the event went virtual for the very first time to ensure the show went on last June.

More than 600 people took part in the event by submitting pre-recorded videos of their performances, which were then watched live and adjudicated over video conferencing online.

Around half of the performers were vocalists, but the Nespa festival also hosted musicians, storytellers and photographers.

Success as ‘virtual’ Aberdeen music festival is first in UK

But despite the success of last year’s event, festival director Janette Hall explained there are concerns over low entry levels so far in 2021.

Currently, there are just more than 200 people who have signed up for this year’s festival, and Ms Hall said the organisation will need far more participants applying for the event to go forward as planned.

She explained that a number of schools and parents have expressed concern about allowing children to take time away from their studies to watch their performance adjudications live, over concerns for their education following a year of Covid.

Ms Hall said: “Last March we didn’t know whether to cancel, but we decided instead to push forward with a virtual festival, and it was great, it was just like a real festival, especially because people were attending live.

“We didn’t know how well it would do, but it gave people something to focus on, and the interactions between the adjuducators and the participants worked really well, it was such a success.

“This year we’re wanting to do it again, but we’ve come across two main problems.

“Firstly, a lot of music and drama tuition has been either stopped or done only online, so there’s been a drop in tuition available, and no tuition at all for some children.

“Secondly, we’re hearing a lot from schools that they can’t afford to let children out of school to attend the festival live online.

“The feedback we’re getting is that children wouldn’t be allowed to watch it on their phones, or use IT at the schools to watch, and there’s worries about social distancing.

“So schools are saying no, and parents are anxious.

“We could do it all pre-recorded, but we really want to do it live because it works so well, and we want to show we’re moving forwards, not backwards.”

In previous years, the festival typically attracted more than 1,000 participants.

Ms Hall said she hopes more people sign up to take part in the 2021 bash, due to take place from June 7 to 11.

Included in those who have entered so far this year are participants from all across Scotland, and even London, as the online event is not just restricted to north-east performers.

Ms Hall added: “The festival has such a long history, so it would be such a shame if it’s going to be a damp squib this year compared to last year’s success.”

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