Thursday 31 December 2015

Sophia Rahman and friends on special festivals


David Nice writes: At the risk of overloading this special-guest polyphony of festival movers and shakers with one introduction too many, let me just begin by saying that everything you read below sums up a major revelation reinforced for me in 2015, which I should have come to much earlier. Small festivals are the future of chamber music in the UK. When top musicians return to their roots, or settle in a beautiful place, and bring their equally celebrated friends with them, you can hear the best music-making in the world with the sense of being a privileged audience member in the most out-of-the-way towns and villages.

My own trail this year - also referenced in the Arts Desk Classical Best of 2015 - led me from Crail in Fife via Pärnu in Estonia to the Southrepps and Music@Malling Festivals, courtesy of three remarkable musicians encountered along the way – violinist Benjamin Baker, cellist/conductor Jonathan Bloxham and pianist Sophia Rahman. I originally approached Sophia (pictured up top with children in amongst the orchestra at West Malling by Shani Hancock) to collect a series of views from friends and colleagues on what makes these friendly festivals so special for another site. I’m delighted to say that Sophia was happy to carry on with her hard work when I suggested that the blog might be the best place for the feature to appear. So here we go, with wishes for much more of the same in 2016.

Sophia Rahman (pictured by Kaupo Kikkas) writes: The idea of starting a festival if there's not one in your locality seems to be a recurring one among my friends and musical colleagues. As the stories below illustrate, many such 'start-ups' come to mean a great deal to the local community, not only for the quality and depth of the cultural experience offered, but for the chance to highlight to all-comers a whole range of local amenities -  from historic venues with perfect acoustics to interesting walks and delightful eateries - that contribute to the average festival attendee's overall concert-going experience.
The forging of community links seems to be of central importance to any musician-founder's concept. The more intimate platform that a small festival often provides can offer an opportunity for world-class performers to rekindle a joy of direct  contact with their audience, something that can sometimes be obscured in the more formal context of larger, more established venues. In a more intimate context the artist can perhaps refresh or reassess their view of the purpose and value of their art within society.

Family and schools' concerts, reaching out to potential audiences and players of the future, are a recurrent theme. I recently overheard one youngster saying to his father on leaving a Music@Malling schools' concert at Ashford  'Daddy, I really want to play the violin'. If each concert manages to enthuse youngsters in this way, a central purpose of the festival is fulfilled, and perhaps the future of classical music is a little more assured. 

At that same concert it was thrilling to see the multi-talented Matthew Sharp (pictured above at this year's Nordic-themed final concert by Shani Hancock, getting us all to shout 'Yggdrasil') tell the story of the Erlkönig in English to an audience of gripped primary school kids. When he reached the final sentence 'and the boy was dead' there were clearly-audible gasps from the wide-eyed crowd. Then without any further ado, Matthew sang Schubert's setting of Goethe's German text (in an arrangement for voice and string quartet, formed of Chamber Domaine members led by Thomas Kemp). The children were hooked. Sing Schubert Lieder without any build-up to a bunch of ten-year-olds and you might not get such rapt attention. With this kind of thoughtful and imaginative presentation, however, they appeared entranced.

On the administrative side, it can be humbling to witness just how much sacrifice and hard work go into producing one of these events, with scant prospect of reward in financial or career terms. Liaising with venue administrators; programming; booking artists, pianos, harpsichords (not to mention triangles, boomwhackers and other unusual percussion instruments according to need); balancing the books; managing strong characters of all kinds (be they locals, incomers or artists); organising accommodation and catering for musicians; publicising the events; building an audience; listening to the unsolicited opinions of audience members when you might desperately need to squeeze in a few minutes' practice before the next gig....these are just a handful of the issues that a festival founder might encounter.

So why do musicians with successful careers, fulfilling family and busy social lives embark on such an arduous path with all the organisational challenges it throws up in addition to the musical ones for which they were actually trained?

I asked a selection of friends who have founded their own festivals.

Music@Malling by Thomas Kemp, violinist/conductor, Music Director of Chamber Domaine and founder of  Music@Malling

Music@Malling was founded in 2011. I realised that there was nothing like this in the area, particularly engaging young people and families in the arts (pictured below: dancers from English National Ballet working on a schools' project in the church; photo by Neyire Ashworth, clarinettist on the venture), and it seemed virtually impossible that anyone else was going to do anything about it. The area also has some very historic buildings. I wanted the festival to have an informal appeal to reach the widest possible audience. 

Scarily, when I looked up classical music lovers in West Malling, Kent, on Facebook in 2011, there were just nine!  We have built an audience from scratch with a lot of local support and help. There was extremely patchy provision for music in schools and the music service was not engaging with the vast majority of kids (this wasn't the case when I was at West Malling Primary School in the 70’s).

Difficulties are trying to run it and juggle everything else including family. Frustration at spending long hours fundraising - dealing with jargonese -  and tackling general apathy towards classical music and the arts when you know the benefits. This is, however, completely outweighed by all the positives.

Joys are seeing people getting involved and enjoying the events. Building a growing audience from scratch. The schools concerts. Knowing that my commitment to the festival has made a difference albeit on a local/regional scale - something that you don’t always get from being a musician.

Benefits are huge - good for the town and its profile. It's great that local shops and business sponsor the festival and support its activities. There's a wide range of people attending an array of events. It's gratifying to know that we have built something positive during a major recession.

Finance is always a worry and I am not a trustafarian, though I am an optimist. It is hard to make concerts pay and so it is always a balancing act where the odds are stacked against you (a little bit), but funding has helped this. It is a risky business and if something went badly wrong, I would have to take responsibility for it. It has really helped to have a good board and I realised this from the outset, but it’s an uphill struggle for musicians who want to set something up like this, stick their head over the parapet and pay performers a reasonable fee. You have to lead by example - old school, but it works.

The main purpose is to develop something that inspires others to do the same and make our arts scene less metropolitan-based. It is also really gratifying to have events like this taking place in the town where you grew up knowing that without my input and vision this would never have happened. Also, if something is successful - as Music@Malling has been - people gradually come forward to help and support. It takes a long time to build something like this - and persistence.

We have had major composers visit the festival, including Mark Anthony Turnage in 2011 – and he completely got it!

The Jigsaw Players, Wimbledon by Emmanuella Reiter, violist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Emmanuella founded theJigsaw Players in 2008 for several reasons, having recently arrived from Boston (where she had been Kim Kashkashian's teaching assistant).

I didn't know anyone in London so I thought that making music would be a good place to meet people. I was stuck at home in summer 2006, too poor to even take the train into town, so my friend Hannah, who was visiting from Boston, and I decided to organise a recital. This was at the end of July. We started calling local churches, and Christ Church West Wimbledon's pastor Richard Lane said yes please, but they only had an upright piano.
We only gave ourselves one week to organise the concert. We made some flyers, offered it as a free concert and about forty people came, which I thought was really good. After a bit of research I realised that the only classical music concert series in Wimbledon at that time was the Florestan Trio's at King's so I guessed there was a market for it.

We did a "preview" concert in March 2008 and started Jigsaw in September 2008 (ensemble above photographed by Kaupo Kikkas). It's called Jigsaw because the idea is that we put a host of diverse musical talents together and by the concert it should fit like a puzzle....I know, cheesy as hell! There was one concert a month for the first season, each with a theme. Audiences started growing very quickly and by the first Christmas concert we had over 150 people. 

We managed to secure some sponsorship from local businesses such as spas and restaurants. I was (pleasantly!) surprised at the response. We gave a fundraising concert for season two and also got funding from a private organisation and Merton Council. We did a lot of education work, going into local libraries, mostly in less-affluent parts of the borough, and we started building up our core supporters.

As a result, I was able to start asking more artists to play and could actually guarantee a fee. Then the private foundation who had promised us a second year of funding reneged on the deal due to its own financial difficulties. We suffered a setback to the tune of £10,000, which represented a huge amount to a small series like Jigsaw, so we were right back to relying on the generosity of individuals and our fundraising concerts.

Many distinguished musicians have been highly supportive over the years. Kim Kashkashian and Jean-Yves Thibaudet are patrons, and Vladimir Jurowski, my chief conductor at the LPO, took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to come to one of our fundraisers at the Light House Restaurant in Wimbledon and to make a speech in our support, where he talked of the value of chamber music.

The difficulties of organising the series were legion. I did have some help from one volunteer but that was on an irregular basis. Publicity was what took most of my time and is what I found to be the hardest part, constantly having to remember to contact people, newspapers, magazines and online sites.

When I got pregnant and had less and less time to advertise, it adversely reflected on public numbers, which was very sad. Nevertheless, we did manage to build an amazing core public which was incredibly faithful, including three devoted followers who have made it to every single concert since Jigsaw started, and we had some remarkable concerts. 

I think the highlight was in December 2010 when we played Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio (pictured above) the day there'd been a huge snow storm. I didn't know if we should cancel but tons of people called to ask if it was going ahead or not and when I asked if they would come they said yes. So people brought blankets and the church was lit with candles, which was so atmospheric.

I met some fascinating people and I have formed strong friendships with so many of the musicians, whose support of Jigsaw has been incredible. Other positives were starting a jazz branch to the series, and last year we did a flamenco evening at the Light House restaurant which was a great success. I really hope to continue next year even if it's the odd concert as opposed to a regular series. 

Corbridge Chamber Music Festival by Robert Plane, principal clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and festival co-founder

The first Corbridge Chamber Music Festival took place in 1999, founded by myself and the Gould Piano Trio while Lucy [Gould] and I were living in Corbridge after we got married, during my time as Northern Sinfonia principal clarinet. It’s a beautiful village on the banks of the River Tyne, near Hadrian’s Wall, and it struck us that it had the perfect ingredients for a Summer Festival. It was close enough to Newcastle to draw upon the audience base already there, and it had a fantastic village spirit that was likely to support a local event. Most importantly St. Andrew’s Church in the Market Place at the heart of the village offered wonderful acoustics for chamber music. 

The first festival was a real eye-opener: only two concerts, but we did everything ourselves, sold tickets on the door, drinks in the interval, not to mention in the concert. But it was well-received and we realised we had something we could build on, with a little help from a team of volunteers. Then I was offered the post of principal clarinet with BBCNOW and Lucy and I moved to Cardiff, sad to leave Corbridge but looking forward to new challenges. We thought we’d give the festival one more year, organising from afar. But that year lots more people came and the festival, now with an extra concert, was a huge success. We knew then it was here to stay. Last August we put on our 17th festival and, confident in the future, are laying plans for a celebration of our 20th festival in 2018, including a commission of a work for clarinet and piano trio by Huw Watkins.

The festival now runs over three days early in August and incorporates up to seven events with concerts at all times of day. Events for families have always been a crucial element and we have included chamber performances of Peter and the Wolf, Babar the Elephant and our own musical representation of Russian witch Baba Yaga over the years, as well as participatory concerts for young musicians of all ages and masterclasses. 

Perhaps the most fun element for us has been the opportunity to invite friends and colleagues to join us. In the early years this tended to involve guest ensembles (Emperor, Brodsky and Vellinger Quartets, Plane Dukes Rahman Trio, Leopold String Trio). More recently inviting guest individuals has meant that the members of the Gould Trio can be involved in a greater variety of chamber music outside of the piano trio repertoire they play throughout the season.

Our festival is very much a family affair. Penny Neary, Alice Neary’s mother, masterminds our Friends of the Festival scheme, produces the publicity material and programme, Kathleen Plane sells tickets on the door and we draw upon Martin Neary’s expertise as choral director to plan and direct the Festival Service in which the festival musicians perform. We have a team of wonderful volunteers locally, erecting the stage, arranging flowers and so on.It’s a huge amount of work for us all and as performers we’re very much involved in the organisation of everything, making calls to local business to advertise in our programme, maintaining the website, arranging local publicity, writing programme notes, trying to attract sponsorship. We receive no Arts Council or local council funding. We have had business and personal sponsorship but rely largely on ticket sales to fund our performers, piano hire, etc. etc. Despite our exhaustion at the end of every festival it has always been worth it.

It’s crucial for us to programme core repertoire to attract a large enough audience to balance the books, alongside challenging works for audience and performers alike. Composer Sally Beamish’s residency with us was hugely successful on both fronts and groundbreaking for us as a festival. Since then James MacMillan has appeared to hear his works as well as choose his favourite chamber music in a ‘Desert Island Discs’ Live concert. The church has also evolved as a performing space alongside the festival, installing specialist lighting, buying collapsible staging and removing a row of pews to enable a larger performance space. As a result cultural activities happen independently in the church throughout the year under the umbrella of the FIESTA organisation. Together we have transformed the cultural life of the village.

We enjoy the support of regular visitors from all over the UK who enjoy the mix of music and outdoor activity, wonderful walking and cycling, village shopping, excellent dining and drinking. This year some visitors from Oregon happened to pop into the church while we were rehearsing and ended up changing their holiday plans to stay for the rest of the festival. And as a result of their musical connections in their home city of Portland Oregon we now plan to play for them on our tour to the USA in 2017.

Ulverston International Music Festival by Anthony Hewitt, founder/director and pianist

Anthony is a pianist who may be known to readers for an equally-daunting project, as the Olympianist, when he cycled from Land's End to John O' Groats for charity (followed by a piano in a punningly-entitled BeethoVAN), and in an extraordinary feat of endurance, gave a concert at every stop along the way.  

With his Ulverston hat on, Anthony and I once had a conversation when we agreed that a local festival was only as good as what the artistic director was prepared to do for it, including anything from booking stars to buying the loo rolls.

I founded the Ulverston International Music Festival in Cumbria in 2004. We are a small festival that punches above its weight in offering an array of talent and diversity of styles to give many of the larger festivals nationwide a run for their money. This is possible in part because of the camaraderie and goodwill that exists between performers. My initial aim was, after all, to bring my friends to play chamber music in a beautiful part of the world of which I was very proud, and conversely to proudly show to that same part of the world the incredible talent of some of my friends and colleagues. 

As a child I had an insatiable appetite to hear other pianists, and despite its blissful rural isolation, the region had come up trumps with some fine concert series and festivals including Grizedale Theatre-in-the-Forest, Rosehill Theatre, and Lake District Summer Music, all of whom had presented the big names of the day, no less than the likes of Shura Cherkassky as well as Leeds International Piano Competition winners. These visits, however, were relatively few and far between, and the vast majority of top-tier performers were not within the reach of regional presenters.

I was known locally to many through my numerous childhood performances; the 'local lad' made good who was uprooted from his countryside utopia, a practice room overlooking a field of sheep and cows, to a practice room overlooking the M25 (albeit in lovely leafy Surrey- Sophia interjecting here to say that Anthony and I were contemporaries  the Yehudi Menuhin School) My ‘green belt’ location, however, meant I was within easy reach of hearing all the great artists of the day in London's concert halls, and the memory of this was instrumental in wanting to organise my own concerts. I strayed even further afield to the USA (accepted at the age of 17 for studies at the Curtis Institute with Leon Fleisher and Claude Frank) and, being influenced by many different cultures and modes of thought, I perhaps balked at first at returning to the nest. The results have been very gratifying, not only in having started a festival in my hometown and the appreciation that has come with it, but in re-connecting with my roots and meeting so many wonderful people.

In the late 90s the cultural oasis on my doorstep that was Grizedale Theatre-in-the-Forest dried up and I saw an opportunity to fill the gap in provision. I'd also been inspired by a handful of proactive friends and colleagues who had set up their own festivals, often resulting in very special collaborations and performances of energy and spontaneity. In an ever-crowded world where more and more performers are elbowing for stage time, being creative and taking the bull by the horns is fundamental to one's survival as a performing artist. This rings particularly true in an artist's early 30s when the days of cushioning by a conservatoire and being embraced as a young artist are over.

The economic bubble was soon to burst, but before that the millennium was a useful peg for arts organisations to hang their funding coats on, and there was a boost in capital investment in venues. The National Lottery played its part with a resurgence of funds available via Arts Council Lottery grants, so conditions were ripe. These were the days before cuts, so I decided to take the plunge.

They say it's not what you know, but who you know. Of course it's both. I naturally approached all of this with trepidation and after making a few phone calls for advice and writing my first Arts Council application, I put together what in retrospect looks like a very basic and unsophisticated publicity package. Still, it did what it said on the tin. The festival in a way started as an extension of family, and to this day retains that personal element. My father was a local pharmacist and had a large network of patients and friends , so I had a head-start in enlisting financial support and encouraging the locals to attend concerts.

At the inaugural festival we had only four concerts; one piano, one voice and one clarinet recital plus a chamber music evening. We sold 150 tickets off the back of a lone article in the local rag. Part of our early success can be attributed to the novelty factor. There were, however, bumper years to come, until the inevitable brick wall of the financial crisis. We nevertheless forged ahead with plans to offer wall-to-wall music, from coffee concerts to late night events.

Yet with expansion comes the exponential rise in the number of seats to sell. So audience development is crucial; we now have two dozen concerts over the course of the year (including a winter series) and have branched out well beyond the "three B's" to incorporate jazz, folk, tango, comedy, the spoken word, and new commissions. Come next June, we'll have performed all the Beethoven symphonies bar the Ninth, and our 2016 opening night plays host to English Touring Opera's production of Don Giovanni.

This is all incredibly exciting and we are very proud of having built such a diverse programme within just ten years. There are pitfalls of course; a ballooning programme means more pressure on the organisation to deliver on every front, and leads to greater costs which mean more fund-raising. This can be a Catch-22 situation. There's also a balance to be found between developing your audience and programme and not losing sight of your identity; I've often been surprised that concerts one might consider to have a popular appeal can be overshadowed at the box office by those featuring Schoenberg and Dohnanyi. It seems people return to their proverbial meat and potatoes and I often wonder if our audience essentially see us as a classical music festival because because that was our original message.

Much like artist-led independent CD labels where performers and managers are more at liberty to choose their own repertoire irrespective of any commercial gain, a smaller festival can also be the perfect vehicle to try out a new programme strand, theme, or cross-genre concert. Larger organisations sometimes work within the framework of a long-term strategy and, however successful that may be, as a smaller organisation where the programme is sometimes decided quite late in the day, flexibility can work in your favour. Many performers are not willing to commit a long time in advance without large remuneration. If, however, they’re approached in the months leading up to the event, gaps in the diary can be filled with ‘dry runs’ that can work to the benefit of both performer and promoter.

I've always retained sole artistic control and I'm sure that this continuity has worked to our advantage (I sometimes wonder if anyone else would want to take over such a large venture and if this will be a life-long commitment!). Although I take heed of my peers and follow tips on artists, I do insist on hearing a group live before engaging them. I do read all the emails that come via our website asking to be included in the festival, as well as the audience feedback forms which can proffer some very insightful suggestions on music and artists. 

One very important aspect of a small regional festival is the inclusion of the local population in concerts. Parachuting in top stars is of course a headline-grabber, but if it's not counterbalanced with involvement from local amateur musicians - we have for a number of years incorporated a festival chorus - then it's not a festival in the traditional sense of involving people at grass-roots level and creating the sense of partial ownership by the many rather than exclusive ownership by a few.

Naturally we reach out to the next generation with a programme of workshops, family concerts and master classes. One of the most fascinating and successful projects was a composition project where primary school children were asked to write a variation on themes in a piece written for the Olympics. The results were astonishing - some of the best special effects in music I have ever heard.  Furthermore, casting aside certain preconceptions, our family concerts have been lauded by some of our more 'senior' punters. If we can bridge the gap between a six-year old and a 76-year-old, then we must be doing something right, and the future looks promising.

A note on performing and organising simultaneously: don't try it at home. In our first year I was giving directions to an artist lost in London whilst trying to squeeze in some rehearsal for my evening recital. I've also had to deal with gushing taps and 1am calls to emergency plumbers at artists' accommodation. In 2015 I broke my shoulder and had to withdraw from all performances. My disappointment was soon replaced with the joy of enjoying the fruits of my labour as a member of the audience unexpectedly relieved of playing and organisational duties.

Arcadia by Sophia Rahman and Eleanor Alberga

The husband-and-wife partnership of violinist Thomas Bowes and composer/pianist Eleanor Alberga, whose name may be familiar to readers from the première of her piece Arise, Athena at this year's Last Night of the Proms, founded the Arcadia Festival together after moving to the village of Downton in Herefordshire nearly a decade ago.

They found themselves living in a former home of Richard Payne Knight, complete with unusual original ceiling decoration and looking out on to the landscape of 'cultivated neglect' he would have appreciated daily.

Having been involved with the running of the delightfully quirky and utterly exceptional Langvad Chamber Music Jamboree in Northern Jutland, Denmark - Tom as Artistic Director since 2003 and Eleanor as composer-in-residence on several occasions - this stellar creative couple decided to start Arcadia, employing one of the central tenets of Langvad, which is that the artists should live, work, play and even improvise together for the duration of the festival. There's no sign of the oft-repeated pattern of larger festivals here, where a big star is flown in and out within a minimal time-frame. Both Langvad and Arcadia are set up so that artists are allowed enough time and space for something unusual to develop. The results can be compelling, and by design, very far from what Tom and Eleanor would term a 'standard music business event'.

Arcadia, like the other festivals featured in this article, is very much something for the local community, as Eleanor points out:

‘It's hard work organising Arcadia but worth every bead of sweat for the end result.  So far we have not relied on any public funding and the community have been fantastic with attending the concerts (which supports us), giving small donations, the committee and others giving their time and energy. The feedback has been glorious; audiences come again and again and are very excited and moved by the performances.’

This duo pride themselves on the fact that their festival in this lovely corner of Herefordshire is 'just a little difficult to find', readily acknowledging that they are a 'marketer's nightmare'. This eschewing of glitz in no way detracts from the quality of the cultural experiences on offer, nor does it imply that the artists are of lesser quality or (even starriness) than those at more prominent festivals. It is simply that invited artists are for this brief sojourn encouraged to explore and forge connections with each other and the audience in a context for which our hectic modern approach to scheduling rarely allows.

One of the delights of Arcadia is the informal concert at the Sun Inn. Tom recalls a favourite moment when the internationally-renowned conductor and violinist Joseph Swensen led the pub audience in a rendition of an old English folk song. That's something that's unlikely to happen at many of your more standard festivals.

Rauma Festivo and Grankulla Musikfest by Jan Söderblom

From mention above of the Langvad Chamber Music Jamboree in Denmark, now we turn to Finland for a view from Jan Söderblom, chief conductor of the Pori Sinfonietta, concertmaster of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Rauma Festivo and from 2017 Grankulla Musikfest, located close to Helsinki.

This question of 'why chamber music?' I find to be an interesting and important one.

The Finnish chamber music festival tends to highlight a contrast between summer and winter in Finnish musical life. Chamber music here has become an important forum for doing stuff you might feel doesn't happen in the winter. The formal winter season tends to be planned far ahead by large philharmonic-type institutions with greater economic means at their disposal. By way of contrast, the summer chamber 'laboratories' offer a chance for musicians who may have differing artistic visions from each other to come together in an intimate setting and through play, experimentation and juggling to find a way to reach audience members on a one-to-one basis.

This playfulness feeds through to the winter season and creates a symbiotic relationship, as the (teeth-cleaning) Egyptian plover bird might have with a crocodile. The larger animal refrains from eating the smaller one as it recognises that the bird fulfils a more valuable need. The Finnish institutions which dictate the pattern of the formal winter season likewise recognise the benefits of an injection of playful and experimental summer creativity to their organisation.

Fifteen years or so ago I was Helsinki-based and living a musical winter life that was very much centred around the Finlandia Hall. There were plenty of slow-moving musical dinosaurs around and the occasional electric shock when an artist came up with something original and surprising wasn't really enough to dispel the heavy atmosphere. Ensembles such as Avanti and Korvat Auki (Ears Open) had begun to form a counterpoint to this slow-flowing Volga, but aside from such innovations, it has been the summer chamber music festivals which have been instrumental in redressing the artistic balance of Finland's cultural life.

Musicians see such festivals as, if not exactly a retreat, perhaps holding the significance of a pilgrimage, a chance to renew the vein of creativity, be that through play, camping, fasting, communal activities... For the audiences too, such events represent a chance to get 'closer to the kitchen', or perhaps to eat together, artists and audience as part of one community around the camp fire.In such ways, the summer festival has become a vital part of Finnish cultural life.

Killaloe Chamber Music Festival by Joachim Roewer, principal violist of the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Artistic Director

Joachim was born in the former East Germany and came to this lovely part of Ireland to join the ICO having played in the Orchesterakademie of the Berlin Philharmonic.

I came here looking for a different place to do music. The Irish are such a musical people and here in Killaloe there's such a good sense of community. Before I started the chamber music festival there was already a traditional music festival here, a water-themed festival (Killaloe is on the river Shannon), a festival commemorating Brian Ború (who was born and situated his castle here), and the Pink Ribbon walk in aid of cancer research which people travel miles to participate in. I and John Horgan, passionate music-lover and the catalyst for this venture, felt that in Ireland chamber music was undervalued, often perceived as something niche, or even strange, and together we saw the inception of the festival as a perfect opportunity to bring chamber music to a wider audience.

The first major challenge  was to convince people to come. Many of our concerts are held in St. Flannan's Cathedral, a magnificent 12th century venue across whose threshold many local people wouldn't normally venture. If we were to put on a one-off concert of chamber music there, it's likely that attendance would be very sparse indeed. The fact, however, that it's a three-day themed festival with a friendly, community atmosphere has led many to pluck up the courage to try what we have to offer.They often start by sampling a 'lighter' concert, perhaps one of our late-night ones, and once they've ascertained that it's 'safe' to attend, they tend to return for more adventurous fare. 

The addition of a second venue through the involvement of national Rugby Union hero and Killaloe native Keith Wood, who has miraculously built a venue in his house, has served to make the festival even more locally-accessible. People have a natural curiosity when it comes to visiting the famous Keith Wood's house and this undoubtedly helps to attract an audience. 

Once the audience is in place, a direct purity of connection between the musicians and the public seems to exist, frequently putting me in mind of why I came to Ireland in the first place. There's a visceral excitement that goes with playing for people who are so 'with' you.

Many artists find that participating in some of the bigger festivals can be a somewhat lonely experience; you can be thrown into groups where there's very limited time to get to know each other as musicians or people, let alone time to get to know your audience. By keeping the Killaloe festival small - just three main concerts plus a late-night, emerging artists and children's event (last picture) - I try to ensure that there's time and space for a small nucleus of artists to get to know each other and their audience. I encourage the performers to speak a few words to the audience before they play and as many words as they like after the concert when artists and audience members alike repair to the festival club, a space made available to us by the ever-hospitable and community-minded Keith Wood.

It helps that so many established and truly excellent musicians live locally due to the proximity of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, based in Limerick (Joachim's wife, violinist Katherine Hunka - pictured above with double-bass player Malachy Robinson - is Director-Leader of the ICO and his sister-in-law, Diane Daly, is also a violin member). It's a wonderful feeling when local residents can play for locals, but I also like to ensure that home-grown talents who have travelled abroad to study have the opportunity to return to reconnect with their roots. At the last festival we had Rachel Kelly, a fine young Irish mezzo-soprano currently on the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for whom singing to a home crowd appeared to be just as much of a thrill as performing on the main stage at Covent Garden.

Locals get involved by supporting the concerts and a handful of intrepid souls by volunteering to be on the committee. We have no Arts Council funding, so three of our members spend the majority of their time with us working on sponsorship. I have sole artistic control, which affords me the great pleasure of dreaming up themes and booking artists. Last year's theme was 'dedications' which I hope gave the audience an opportunity to glimpse the web of personal circumstances that can surround a composition's birth.

One of the late-night concert highlights for me was bringing together Ireland's top three guitarists in their respective fields: Redmond O' Toole (classical), John Walsh (flamenco) and Hugh Buckley (jazz). Each was onstage while the others played their 20-minute set and then at the end they combined forces to play a piece that Hugh Buckley had written especially for the occasion. The artistic satisfaction that comes from putting together something like that doesn't come higher.


Sebastian said...

David please can I add a couple of very appealing mouthfuls into your stew / bouillabaisse / Smörgåsbord for 2016 (on reflection you are almost certainly aware of them?)

Viviane Hagner and her festival in Lower Silesia

A stellar Gilels centenary in Freiburg

David said...

Of course, Sebastian, I'm happy to hear of any such 'appealing mouthfuls' and no, I hadn't heard of them, other than the names involved. Isn't it a wonderful world where all this quality goes on with such devotion and love? But we don't hear about enough of it. For example I didn't even know of the Jigsaw Playeres' existence, and yet their festival is only a couple of miles from here. Outcome: website excellent, publicity minimal. The nationals don't help, with their refusal to cover much outside the major cities.

Mister Bob said...

As with all your other posts this year David, very interesting. Many years ago I heard the Lyndsays perform in a small church in Reeth as a part of the Swaledale Festival. And here I am still thinking about it!

Thank-you for your blog, I always look forward to a new post. Travel, music, and occasionally food, wonderful! Have a full and enriching 2016 David.

David said...

Thank you, Mister Bob - it's always encouraging to hear from readers whose existence one didn't know of (unless I do know you and didn't 'get' the moniker). Locations do matter, especially for chamber music - and maybe churches will be used increasingly more for such events, and even plays. Swaledale is lovely. Happy 2016 to you and everyone else.

Anonymous said...

David, you write of regional festivals for chamber music (etc) and I appreciate that opera in this context ( called usually country house opera) has differences. Also, grants from many sources may not be as large for chamber music as for opera. But the Editor of Opera, John Allison, writes in the January 2016 that the grants to out of London opera are unfortunately "syphoning off private funds" from ENO etc. How far is this true of the festivals such as you describe?

Mr Allison's view goes against the usual argument ( with which one can agree in many ways) that too many cultural funds are committed to London as opposed to other parts of the country. Also, his remarks on country house opera are petulant, though that does not necessarily set aside his main contention.

"Come June and July, wherever you turn there will be a muddy field overrun by dinner-jacketed patrons putting up with damp performances for the sake of a champagne picnic, and far more operas than anyone can reasonably take in" " ....the folly of building a mini La Scala on the estate of a newly inherited stately pile " [West Horsley Place]

Rather a pity to read this sort of thing in such a journal

David said...

I can't pontificate about grants and finances with any authority, but the main point about most of these festival founders, as these IMO very moving article attest, is how they've tapped into local funds and sponsors so certainly not at the expense of London. And the other thing to emphasise is the amount of unpaid work these young people all put in - the current climate means more for less for everyone, but the younger generation is prepared to put it in. Which makes me enormously optimistic for the musical future.

As for country house opera, I find it hard to believe that it's syphoning funds away from London - again, surely all the money raised is from local benefactors. What's been grim to read is how a certain house has lived beyond its means by paying a ludicrous salary to a star visitor. I'd be interested to read John's piece as I don't think he's a speculator who writes without checking facts.

Susan Scheid said...

This post forms a solid basis for a terrific primer on "how to" develop a successful regional chamber festival. I'm curious, particularly, about efforts to build audience in relation to the ability to mount adventurous programming. (When I've looked for local chamber concerts/festivals in my area, my impression is that the programming is pretty unimaginative, particularly in the summer months, and I've suspected it's symptomatic of the age-old problem of drawing audience.) One example given here I thought particularly interesting was the one in which "James MacMillan has appeared to hear his works as well as choose his favourite chamber music in a ‘Desert Island Discs’ Live concert." Even without a "name" composer, I think that could be quite illuminating.

David said...

Solid, certainly, but also, from my perspective, quite an emotional read. J thought so and I hope readers will agree. I'm sure Neyire Ashworth, the clarinettist who took the photo of the dancers in West Malling, won't mind my quoting a sentence of what she wrote to Sophia: 'it's great to highlight what individual musicians are making happen in our communities, very moving actually'.

But you're right, there's such a pool of bright ideas which might inspire folk and point them in the right direction. The essential thing is connecting with the local community in presentation as well as the sheer excellence of the performances.

Waa very careful with New Year's Day choice of listening - you might be please to know that as I wanted a sense of space and big skies, I settled on Sibelius 7 but couldn't stop going on to Pohjola's Daughter, The Bard and Tapiola, which it struck me would make an excellent sequence in half a concert, played consecutively with no breaks for applaus.

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, yes, moving and incredibly inspiring. How interesting your choice of New Year's Day listening--coincidentally I'd gone back to the Sibelius tone poems in the last few days, too, though yesterday and today I started in on my latest CD purchases: Gardiner's St. Matthew Passion (which we thought we owned but can't find) and the Rattle/Berlin Phil 4-movement Bruckner 9th.

Anonymous said...

David, this is a fascinating and completely delightful article. As comprehensive as it is, I keep returning to the wonderful note in your introduction. "Privileged" is exactly the right word, when we have a chance to listen to live music in small venues - especially when it's great music, played by excellent musicians. What a fortunate time, when anyone can go and listen! I have thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to another year, filled with your own wonderful writing! -- Elizabeth

David said...

So genuinely pleased to hear from you again, Elizabeth - you've always been one of the most generous commenters, and it's always disconcerting when a friendly 'voice' vanishes for some time. That's the good side of things which you cite - anyone COULD go and hear this sort of music-making for next to nothing. But sadly too many people won't, and this is where the education projects come in useful, since with any luck the parents will then come to the concerts too.

Yet it doesn't happen often enough: at thewonderful youth festival I attended in Setubal, Portugal, for example, the 'grown-up' concert on the last night was all too poorly attended. More music education from schools is essential (or even any, these days); more government funding is needed. But in the face of a lack, I'm so proud that a younger generation can be so resourceful. The fact remains, though, that they need to be paid decent wages.

Laurent said...

What an interesting post, so many people getting involved in communities with music. It really is refreshing and shows that there is an interest out there from a public who might not go to big hall concerts. We have very similar problems here in Canada and it is nice to read that you can start from scratch and attract a following. Thank you for sharing these many stories of success.

David said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Laurent, which is a way of saying I think that's the 'right' and fair response, not that I can tell commenters what to write (but the recent sequence has warmed my heart like the piece itself). Such generosity needs to be met with a like response. And yes, it doesn't always work, and money is in short supply, but let's focus on what is here, a cluster of 'stories of success', as you say, and of different kinds of resourcefulness.

David Damant said...

One vital element in the teaching of music is that there is clear evidence that music speaks to certain basic elements in the brain, deeper than language. I wonder if popular music music has an effect as positive as classical? I do not know and maybe a distinction can be made between some popular music and some other

David said...

Neurological studies have been done, of course, and Mozart always comes out well. But even more important as a positive, I'd say, is the communal act of playing in an ensemble or even - and this interests me as a tutor of music appreciation - the communal act of active listening.

El sistema is rightly cited as a model for the former, and it can be re-enacted on any level to enormous social benefit. Even the very act of introducing children to music they'll rarely meet at school is vital - they can say it's 'uncool' at the time, but it will have served a purpose to let them know it exists and can always be returned to later in life. But I'm sounding preachy now. Just re-read Sophia's introduction for demonstration of some of the benefits in action.