Rhinegold Agent provocateur: Meurig Bowen, director of the Cheltenham Music Festival and July’s guest editor in Classical Music magazine

Meurig Bowen

Facing the headwinds

9:00, 3rd July 2017

Britain’s rich and diverse music festival scene is the envy of the world, and  its existence is something of a miracle in a shifting cultural climate.  In an age hungering after entertainment that aspires to be popular, easy-access, egalitarian, year-round and 24/7, does the traditional classical music festival stand a chance? Our guest editor Meurig Bowen sends out a rallying cry to those who have the continued survival and stewardship of Britain’s classical music festival scene at heart

In terms of their concentration per square kilometre, the United Kingdom probably has more classical music festivals than anywhere else in the world. From Orkney and East Neuk to St Endellion, St David’s or King’s Lynn, these islands’ co-ordinates sparkle with out-of-the-way jewels of music-making. If only for days or at the most weeks at a time, lights shine elsewhere than on the nation’s grand, self-important metropolises. Remarkable things happen in sometimes unremarkable places; or they happen in places that are remarkable but rarely visited. Out of the way churches, castles or derelict factories become temporary concert venues. Imagination can run riot, communities can surprise themselves and civic pride can be twitched by the enlivening impetus of something special on their doorstep.

Given that festivals, with only a few glorious exceptions, find themselves fairly low down in the Arts Council’s funding food-chain (more on that later), such a vigorous and varied festival-scape should be seen as verging on miraculous. It should certainly be celebrated as a testament to the hard work and bloody-minded survival instinct of many festival workers around the land – many of them indefatigable volunteers propping up an otherwise unsustainable business plan.

By their very nature, festivals are ‘pop-up’ events. And because there is no body of salaried musicians or a venue’s bricks and mortar acting as de facto requirement for any festival to exist year on year, you could say that festivals don’t really need to exist at all. When Richard Morrison proclaimed in BBC Music Magazine a few years ago that most festivals ‘lack any compelling raison d’être, vision, adventure or distinguishing marks’, I no doubt joined many others in festival-land in a slient chorus of indignant protest. However, sharp-penned, provocative journalists like Morrison have an annoying tendency to be right… or at least wise enough for their scrutiny to keep us keen. I have borne his potentially chilling assertion in my mind ever since, perennially aware that unless I manage to programme a festival that has such ‘vision, adventure or distinguishing marks’, then there is regrettably little need for my festival to exist. That aspiration goes for all of us I think, whether our festival is brand new or venerable. Complacency is probably the artistic planner’s worst enemy. Audiences and sponsors, beyond a small core with tribal loyalty, vote with their feet and their wallets. Up and down the road, there are plenty more festivals for them to head to instead.

If that is the biggest of all questions for festivals – how do we ensure that we need to exist at all? – then there are plenty of other associated, inter-connecting preoccupations. They revolve (for me at least) around money, audiences, education, new music and cultural change. Since the last of these is the most sprawling, I’ll dive in there first.

The Cheltenham Music Festival archive is not as extensive as one would like for an institution now in its mid-seventies; Gloucestershire’s freak floods saw to that in July 2007. But there is still plenty to rummage through and reflect upon, from that first piece of print in spring 1945 announcing the ‘First Annual Cheltenham Music Festival’ (my italics – what confidence in war-ravaged Britain).

ST2Recently, during one of my delvings, I came across something that took my breath away. It was a supplement to the ‘colour supplement’ of the Sunday Times in 1988 – a time so tangibly recent for me (the look of it, the design of the masthead so instantly familiar), but also now so long ago. Here was a publication that devoted 24 impressively full pages to what we would now refrain from calling ‘high culture’. With extensive editorial and ticket offers for most major summer festivals at that time (Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, Bath, The BBC Proms, Brighton, Glyndebourne etc), as well as ample coverage of upcoming dance and theatre offerings, this was a gloriously unabashed and extensive celebration of Britain’s highbrow summer calendar.

Those were the days: The Sunday Times’ celebration of British Arts Festivals in 1988
Those were the days: The Sunday Times’ celebration of British Arts Festivals in 1988

You’ll know where I’m going with this one – fast forward three decades, scan one of those ‘Cultural 100 Hotlist’ or ‘Top 50 Music Festival’ guides in the slabs of weekend broadsheet, and you’ll wonder whether the cultural world described back in the Sunday Times of 1988 was a parallel universe or Shangri-La. The world of gigs, tv, comedy and outdoor festivals has triumphantly elbowed its way in to the 21st-century definition of ‘culture’ (and why not?), and the music festival round-ups tell a bulging tale of glamping, boutique and family-friendly events, with only the most modest, marginalising tip-of-the iceberg reference to the UK’s classical festivals scene. In this startling editorial volte-face, a previously paternalistic, this-is-what-is-good-for-you position has stood aside for something more free-wheeling and free-market, where media coverage tends to reflect popular taste rather than shape it. It is admirably egalitarian and non-patronising, but it hasn’t in any way helped classical music – with its unfortunate deficit of mainstream sex appeal and ‘cool’ – in its bid for column inches.

So, to hold in your hands that 1988 Sunday Times supplement is to handle some rather brutal evidence of subsequent cultural change. We can all think of other instances where the thing we in the classical music industry hold so dear has been toppled from its pedestal and risks ejection towards the margins. It is a distressing reality, but we have to push against such prevailing cultural headwinds, however exhausting that may be. We all owe it to the composers, past and present, and to every new generation of outstanding performers whose talent and commitment deserve the widest of platforms.

Street performer Rimski in Cheltenham, July 2016
Bringing a music festival out of its venues and on to the streets is always an interesting challenge. Street performer Rimski in Cheltenham, July 2016

It is superficially possible, though not necessarily helpful, to arrange this country’s music festival scene in opposing binary camps: outdoors and indoors; amplified and unamplified; commercial and funded; pop and highbrow; young and old; adored by the media, and not.

Just as there has been a proliferation and diversification of camping festivals, the arts festivals world has massively changed in recent decades too. There are many more of them, and they don’t all fit the mould of those given a nice plug in that Sunday Times supplement.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that venues make quite a lot of festivals now – think of the Southbank Centre, St John’s Smith Square and King’s Place. What they lack in site-specific pop-up-ness – the USP of so many festivals elsewhere – they ensure they have instead in thematic, curatorial cohesion.

The most different kind of thriving festival now – inconceivable back in ’88 – are the ones created by the cultural tour companies. Whether they take over a hotel in Devon for a weekend, or Venice’s hotels and palazzi for a week of Monteverdi-immersion, these ultra-bespoke, often unashamedly exclusive and extremely expensive all-in-one offerings have burgeoned in recent years. They differ from the opera trips to Verona or Salzburg that these same companies sell, because the likes of Martin Randall or Kirker Travel are here acting as artistic planners and promoters, not on-sellers of events put on by others.

Arvo Pärt taking the applause in Tewkesbury Abbey, Cheltenham Music Festival, July 2014 Photo: © Stillmovingmedia.co.uk
Arvo Pärt taking the applause in Tewkesbury Abbey, Cheltenham Music Festival, July 2014
Photo: © Stillmovingmedia.co.uk

There are hardly any new big players on the scene – though the admittedly marginal-classical Manchester International Festival makes up for that single-handed with its mega budget and scale of ambition. There are, however, lots of boutique, specialist festivals sprouting all the time. Many of them are artist-initiated and -led, and because of their size invariably have a chamber music focus. The Florestan Trio-founded festival in Peasmarsh, East Sussex, set the trend 20 or so years ago, and a quick mental trawl also summons up the Carducci Festival in Gloucestershire, Adrian Brendel’s Plush Festival in Dorset, Sholto Kynoch’s Oxford Lieder Festival, the Sacconi Quartet’s festival in Folkestone, Paul Lewis’s Midsummer Music in the Chilterns, the Corbridge festival c/o the Gould Piano Trio and Robert Plane, and Guy Johnston’s Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth’s Southwell Music Festival has grown quickly from a standing start to encompass an enticing spread of chamber and choral music. In the same short time, James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Music Festival has made great strides too.

All of these niche-genre festivals counter a tendency of other, larger and older festivals (eg Brighton, Salisbury, Lichfield, Norfolk & Norwich) to fold their classical content into a broader musical offering alongside their even wider cross-arts programme. The Bath Festival transitioned a while ago from classical-only to a classical-jazz-world mix, and from this year has effectively merged with its Literature sibling in to one big, new, well, ‘Bath Festival’. Elsewhere, taking full advantage of their desirable surroundings, smaller but beautifully programmed classical-only festivals have matured in recent years, for instance Two Moors, Chipping Campden, Ryedale, East Neuk and Lammermuir.

You can imagine, then, that amid this endlessly shifting, self-reinventing festivals scene – one which gives potential consumers ever greater choice – someone like me doesn’t have the luxury of standing still. Whether the aspiration is bigger, shinier, better or different, creative evolution is essential.

 Something special: Cheltenham’s Pump Room provides a distinctive festival venue for classical concerts
Something special: Cheltenham’s Pump Room provides a distinctive festival venue for classical concerts

As every successive BBC Proms director has experienced, most of all, people have strong, sometimes strident opinions on what a festival should and shouldn’t be – and they can be bafflingly contrary too. Within days of each other recently, one local stakeholder was advising me I needed Classical Ibiza nights to attract the under 50s and offer something less elitist (ah, the ‘E’-word, so lazily misused yet again), while a blogger wrote that Cheltenham’s once-strong link with serious contemporary music was now ‘tenuous’. For him, my programmes aren’t apparently hardcore or niche enough – even though 100-plus works have been premiered there under my 10-year watch, and more than 50 living composers are represented in this year’s programme alone.

I am proud of the eclecticism in my Cheltenham programmes, but you run the danger with such diversity of not sufficiently serving the tastes of any particular audience sub-group (eg that blogger). By trying to offer ‘something for everyone’, a phrase I don’t particularly like, there can be not quite enough for anyone. In complete contrast, my near-neighbours at the Three Choirs Festival serve a particular kind of audience spectacularly well, year after year. Choral buffs converge from around the world. Generally speaking, these people know what they like, and they like what they know. Novelty has to tread carefully among the well-worn blockbusters in a diverse, complementary programme; but as a festival whose headline events do what it says on the proverbial tin, it works admirably well.

The total artistic spend in a festival like mine is probably no more than what I imagine some of the blingier European festivals might spend on limos, hotel suites and post-performance dinners. We are exceptionally good in this country at working creatively to a tight budget – necessity being the mother of invention, and all that. I think of it as shopping in Waitrose or Whole Foods on an Aldi budget.

Supermarket shopping is all about choosing what goes off the shelf and into the trolley. Similarly, a festival programme is an assembly of choices that, you pray, delivers the right balance of audience numbers, fundraising income and artistic credibility. Each festival weighs those different considerations uniquely, depending on core funding levels, venue capacities, audience and industry expectations, local demographics and artistic priorities.

CFThe commissioning and presentation of new music is an ongoing headbanger of a problem for me. With Cheltenham’s long history of presenting new work – from 1947-61, its cumbersome but helpfully specific name was actually ‘The Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music’ – I’ve always been determined to keep that flame burning as bright as possible. But with budget built on a relatively low percentage of ACE funding and high box-office/fundraising targets, it often feels like ‘an ability to perform magic tricks’ has been inserted into my job spec. Box office income from invariably smaller audiences will never make an all-contemporary event wash its face, and the presence of new music in an otherwise mainstream, dead-composer programme ensures, regrettably, reduced audience numbers (except, in my experience, with the music of Pärt, Whitacre or Reich). So you have to budget for the box office income gap as well as fundraise the additional rehearsal and commissioning costs you’re taking on up front. It is the ultimate double-whammy. Resourceful collaboration with performing partners (such as the RPS and Radio 3)is key here, as is hitting green lights from enough of the new music funding bodies. They number barely more than a handful or two, and applications far outnumber available funds. Their support is hugely prized and appreciated by all who are successful. Let’s not kid ourselves, however: this is an extremely precarious situation. It is amazing how much new work gets commissioned and performed in this country, given how close most of us are to not being able to do it at all.

Of equal concern, of course, is the question of audience retention and replenishment. Festivals by their very nature are well placed to be fleet of foot; to experiment each successive year with new formats, new venues and audience-widening collaborations. In Cheltenham, I have tried umpteen ways of bringing people across from the rest of the Cheltenham Festivals database (the town has hugely successful and admired Science, Literature and Jazz festivals too). As long as the quality of the music isn’t compromised, I’ll try pretty much anything to increase the numbers and age-range of people exposed to classical music. Wine-tasting concerts with Oz Clarke? Harry Enfield as Handel with the OAE? Cumberbatch reading WW1 poetry in a two-piano recital? Melvyn Tan wired up by scientists during a recital? We’ve done them all, and a lot more. Sometimes you hit the audience development (and PR) bullseye, and other times you don’t. But with so much mainstream indifference to – even disdain of – the conventional classical concert experience, keeping it all the same just isn’t an option.

Which brings me to young people, and the increasingly dire state of music provision in state schools. That’s the big one, actually so big that I can’t even begin to get into it here. Suffice to say that festivals around the country are making their own valiant and enterprising contributions to the classical music industry’s plucky counter-offensive. There aren’t enough Nicola Benedettis to go round, but we’re all doing our bit. Read on page 54 about a brand-new year-round project we’ve started in Gloucestershire. From fairly modest beginnings, we hope it could make in time a bigger difference. And, as we know from those annoying Tesco adverts, ‘Every little helps’.

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