Rhinegold Photo credit: Brian Sweeney
André De Ridder

Michael White

Preview: Spitalfields Festival

9:44, 16th November 2018

This year’s Spitalfields Festival will pair Handel with The Smiths, and Purcell with Joy Division. Not one to stick to convention, curator André De Ridder has played with context and connectivity to develop a genre-defying programme. He speaks to Michael White

Last year, without fanfare or forewarning, the Spitalfields Festival reinvented itself. It became a winter festival when previously the focus had been summer with a winter add-on. Its repertoire opened out, with a shift in emphasis from ancient to modern. And these changes coincided with the arrival of a new artistic director – or ‘curator’ as Spitalfields has it, signalling the fact that it’s a short-term appointment – who had run festivals before but of a different kind.

His name was André de Ridder, German-born but educated in Vienna and London (with no relationship to the celebrated singer Anton). And if he was known to British audiences it was as a conductor of contemporary music who crossed over (a term he doesn’t like) into the non-classical worlds of rock, pop and film. At the top of his UK worklist were engagements with the London Sinfonietta, the BBC Symphony, and the stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant at English National Opera. But he also worked on projects with Max Richter, Damon Albarn, Johnny Greenwood, Brian Eno… And in mainland Europe he was known for founding Stargaze, an officially ‘uncategorisable’ ensemble that collaborates across the boundaries of classical, rock, folk and electronic musics and fronts its own festival in Berlin.

All this and more was the background he brought to Spitalfields, rocketing the programme into new directions. And it proved successful. One of his projects – an extraordinary event called Schumann Street that had hundreds of people going from door to door around Spitalfields’ Georgian terraces as they collected a re-imagined performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe done with everything from rap routines to bluegrass banjo – deservedly won a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. And after that, it was no surprise to hear that he’d been re-engaged to curate the 2018 festival: the only issue being how to follow such a dazzling debut.

‘Not by copying what we did before’ was his emphatic answer, given to me when we met to talk through this year’s programme, which runs 1-9 December.

‘People who experienced Schumann Street and liked it said to me why don’t you do the same thing with a Schubert cycle? And maybe, in the future, that will happen. But it’s not good to rest on your laurels and repeat. So I’ve created a new music-theatre piece this year that will hopefully have similar impact but work in a different way.’

Called Unknown, Remembered and billed as ‘an immersive hybrid of opera, theatre and art installation’, it’s another promenade event that will run at East London’s Studio 9294 and connect (a key word in de Ridder’s thinking) Handel’s operatic scena La Lucrezia with settings of lyrics from a Joy Division album and a site-specific film by Turner-nominated artist Haroon Mirza.

‘Making connections – between old and new, between performance and location – is important to me’, says de Ridder, ‘because it creates a context. And this is what festivals are about. You don’t just commission a new piece and there it is. You create an environment, you relate it to where it’s being done – which in the case of Spitalfields is somewhere special.

‘I love this area. I’ve got history with it in that, back in 2001 when I was still studying at the Royal Academy and had just set up Stargaze, Judith Weir was running the festival and invited us here for what was our first professional date in London. So that was significant. And it drew me to this remarkable neighbourhood with its fascinating spaces.

‘Location-spotting has become a large part of creating the festival, and we’re always on the look-out: a number of the venues we’re using this time round we’ve never used before – including a grand library on the Mile End Road [for a concert of Thomas Tallis and Nico Muhly] and the York Hall in Bethnal Green, which is the traditional home of British boxing [though in this case it will be a knockout between Anna Meredith, Stravinsky and experimental BASCA-winner Shiva Feshareki].’

So determined has this search for new locations become that not much of the Spitalfields Festival actually happens in Spitalfields anymore; and it’s clear that the whole enterprise has moved on from its original intentions back in the 1970s when Richard Hickox and a group of architectural enthusiasts set it up to support (and preserve from threatened demolition) Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields.

As Christ Church is now handsomely restored and out of danger, it’s ‘job done’ on that front. So the church’s absence as a venue this year may not be surprising: too conventional perhaps for what’s become a seriously edgy fixture. But that said, de Ridder’s interests aren’t blind to standard repertoire. The essence of the Schumann Street idea was Schumann after all. And though it gave you the composer in a way you wouldn’t have experienced him before, it honoured the original material.

Everything should be joined up in a way that could only happen here in this place at this time

‘My idea with Stargaze,’ says de Ridder, ‘has always been to present things in different contexts but leave them be: I’m not out to deconstruct everything. And that’s kind of how it is with Spitalfields. One of this year’s evenings draws parallels between Purcell and the The Smiths. But the way it plays out is that you start with Mary Bevan and a continuo group delivering Purcell songs as written. Then you get a vocal consort, The Coveryard, singing a capella arrangements of The Smiths with the modern equivalent of baroque continuo – keyboard, percussion and guitar – and some reworkings of Purcell alongside. It’s not a mash-up. Just an exploration of potential common grounds.’

Baroque is actually home territory for de Ridder who studied violin at the same time as conducting and was playing Handel cantatas long before he fell into the ambit of Max Richter. What’s more, his conducting schedule outside Britain isn’t quite as radical as you might think. This summer he was doing The Magic Flute in Colorado. Last month it was Bluebeard’s Castle for the still-new Irish National Opera, Dublin. And next spring he has Nixon in China at Stuttgart.

But alongside all that he also directs a contemporary music festival in Helsinki where he’s been able to realise a personal ambition on terms that haven’t been so readily available at Spitalfields. And it’s to do, again, with connectivity.

‘It seems to me important that no festival is just a collection of concerts, but that everything should be joined up in a way that could only happen here in this place at this time. And out of it should come some kind of legacy that gives birth to new ideas – ideally from different kinds of musicians and artists coming together and building relationships.

‘In my absolute ideal they’d all stay for the duration of the festival, going to each other’s performances, meeting, talking and developing projects for the future, to build something that will carry on.

‘In London that’s not easy. And Spitalfields doesn’t allow for so much building because the curatorship is only meant to last for one year. That I was asked to stay on for a second wasn’t the plan, and I’m sure there will be someone else in charge for 2019.

‘But in Helsinki I’m contracted for three biennial seasons, so it’s been possible to build something and that’s very satisfying. Not that Spitalfields is otherwise. It has a special vision of what a festival can be in the 21st century, and developing that over the past two years has been great. What happens next who knows? I just want 2018 to work. And I hope it will.’


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