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Wimbledon Music Festival: Re-defining the best

img  Tobias Fischer

Last year's International Wimbledon Music Festival was unanimously considered a success. Are you seeing this year's edition rather as a continuation or a subtle evolution of the formula?
Without doubt it was the consistently high quality of the musical performances that earned this accolade. With the wealth of music available in London there seemed no reason to start a festival unless it aimed at excellence. Bringing an array of distinguished international artists for a concentrated two weeks of superlative music making seems to have fulfilled a desire to begin to put the cultural life of Wimbledon on a par with its sport.
This year’s edition is essentially a continuation of last year’s formula, with an equally distinguished list of international performers, some invited back by popular demand. Within the mix we wanted to include a local element and the excellent Academy Choir, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has been invited to perform Haydn’s ‘The Creation’. It has been given the extra international dimension by assembling a superb baroque orchestra from members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and engaging a trio of international soloists.
This entailed extending to a third weekend, and with concerts filling the weekdays between the Festival has expanded from 13 to 18 events, running from 13-28th November. Evolution is planned, with better and new forms of presentation; the commissioning of works, hopefully in partnerships with other international festivals; introducing works for percussion, and ballet… and in the longer term acting as catalyst in the quest to build a new Performing Arts Centre to replace the splendid old Town Hall sacrificed for retail development.

You've stressed the importance of Wimbledon as the location for the festival. In which way is there a social component to the festival as well?

Trading on ‘Wimbledon’ as an international brand name, the Festival is beginning to establish a presence far wider than as just one of a series of coalescing suburban villages in south west London.A beautiful village set by an extensive common, within easy travel of the heart of the city, Wimbledon village is definitely a high net worth environment, in contrast to much of the rest of the Borough of Merton. The Festival has definitely benefited from – indeed made possible by – generous donations from a growing list of Friends.
Without a major concert venue the Festival is making a virtue of necessity by holding concerts in a number of different venues, expanding to venues across S W London, to include Merton Park, Wandsworth, Putney and Richmond and so increasing its presence in the wider community. Most venues are churches, some fortunately with fine acoustics; one of the schools boasts an excellent Steinway D; and there is a gem of a historic house with a Georgian Music Room constructed for the Prince of Wales in the 1770s. This later has a very limited capacity, so with wine and food this is a sought after but expensive ticket item. Otherwise prices are kept as low as possible so no one is excluded, and nearly half the concerts are offered free for students.

One of the highlights of the festival is its informal air. How are you actively encouraging meetings between the audience and the musicians and in how far has feedback shown that both sides are profiting from this?
The informality just seemed to develop naturally. The audience warmed to the occasion of a festival, returning for several concerts in a short space of time, and friendships were developed or renewed. Artists were very much encouraged to address the audience to develop a bond, and make the proceedings less formal. They were encouraged to mingle during the interval, and did so according to their various temperaments and demands of the programme. They were encouraged to move out of the green rooms swiftly after the concert to meet the audience, and as Festival Director I made sure that people who might be shy of approaching the performers were introduced to them. There was also some signing of CDs. I think the artists profited most by playing to happy, receptive audiences.

Your motto could be summarised as „only the best“. Just a little more concretely, though, what are your quality criteria for „the best“?

Establishing a new festival, one presenting an image of excellence, it was important we felt to have names, which if not actually household names - how many classical musicians are? - would be recognized as being excellent within the musical community. It has been common last year, as well as this, for people to remark ‘How did you get such an extraordinary list of performers together?’, and ‘You must be very well connected’. Starting out I didn’t have a big budget, but artists and agents alike responded to the high quality aspirations of the Wimbledon Music Festival and have been incredibly supportive.
My criteria for ‘the best’? Certainly not name alone. I do not invite anyone that I have not heard in the flesh, and whilst I can admire a transcendental technique I am above all looking to be moved by their music making.

What does Alfred Brendel's role as a patron involve?
Alfred Brendel’s name stands for excellence, and he was good enough to lend his name to support the aims of the International Wimbledon Music Festival. Despite being retired from concert giving he maintains a busy international life giving lectures. He is not actively involved in the running of the festival, but is keen to support its success and is appearing in an evening of his poetry ‘One Finger Too Many’, with the music being supplied by his son, the fine cellist Adrian Brendel.
The Festival is fortunate in having four other distinguished patrons, Lord Birkett former Arts supremo for the GLC; tenor Ian partridge now retired from the concert hall, and Raphael Wallfish and Rivka Golani both active world-class performers and teachers. Their advice and participation in the Festival has been most valuable.

At Wimbledon, there will be a „French theme“, „a Chopin theme“, concerts dealing with Martinu and more. What is the advantage of organising these small festivals-inside-the-festivals compared to traditional big, overarching themes?
The timing of the Wimbledon Music Festival, during the latter half of November, means it is really bringing the annual season of festivals to a conclusion. This year the bicentenaries of Schumann and Chopin have been extensively celebrated on the BBC and many concert halls and festivals, so whilst I wanted to include them, I didn’t want them as an overarching theme, nor as a series of individual concerts.
Pascal Rogé’s ‘Homage to Chopin’ seemed irresistible, and Raphael Wallfisch wanted to include both composers in his recital. Mark Padmore was invited to perform Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’, both because of the stature of the work and because it has played a significant part in my creative life as screenwriter and film director. As for the concept of the big, overarching theme, I think this is more the preserve of the major, long established festivals that have already built their reputations with an established audience widely drawn. Alternatively a festival built specifically around the personality of a composer, or to celebrate say Finnish, or English music. The French mini-festival evolved around Pascal Rogé’s French homage to Chopin, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien launching new repertoire, and - as an oboist myself - inviting London Winds to include three lovely works by Poulenc in their programme.
At the moment the focus of the International Wimbledon Music Festival is to bring superb artists to south west London, and to present mostly established masterworks as the Festival builds its audience. It’s a question of building trust so that eventually one can insert some surprises, and wander down less familiar, or overarching paths.

What makes Martinu so particularly fascinating for you?

I had the good fortune to make a dramatised film about Martinu for BBC TV in 1967, ‘Music of Exile’ which became a turning point in my career as a filmmaker. I was fascinated by the story of a boy born at the top of a church tower in Bohemia, weakened by diphtheria who had to be carried through the clock mechanism, through the belfry, and down 198 steps to take violin lessons… and who eventually led a life in exile in Paris, the New York, and finally Switzerland. The more I discovered of his music – the magical folk suite ‘The Bouquet of Flowers, the scream against the horror of Lidice and the protest against war in the Double Concerto, his jazz-like ‘Kitchen Review’, his dream opera ‘Julietta’, and the ‘Greek Passion, the extraordinary Fourth Piano concerto, the fantastic Sixth Symphony – the more I felt that here was a major composer bypassed by the fashions in twentieth-century music.
BBC Radio music department also had its [now recognised] blind-spots in the sixties, and Martinu, along with several other now recognized names, was considered a ‘non-composer’. Whilst ‘Music of Exile’ had top BBC TV billing and promotion, nothing would persuade BBC Radio to embrace him as ‘Composer of the Week’.
I have been delighted that Martinu has gradually become more and more recognised and performed, and with it I have enjoyed even more of his repertoire and wanted to introduce the Festival audience to this excellent composer with an immediately recognised style and vocabulary of his own.

John Sessions's performance as Mahler was created especially for the festival. How did the idea come about and what can you already reveal about this mouthwatering performance?
In the early seventies following my departure from BBC TV into the freelance world of Hollywood I was asked to make a major feature film about Mahler. This was to be based around the letter the composer received from the architect Walter Gropius demanding the composer should let him have his wife Alma! Mahler’s consultation with Freud walking the streets of Leiden, and the effect on his relationship with Alma, his health and his music… a film unfortunately never made because Ken Russell beat me to the post. The work involved in establishing the Wimbledon Festival ruled out the possibility of making a film to celebrate this year the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, or next years centenary of his death – so I thought the next best thing would be to invite John Sessions to present his - hopefully idiosyncratic - portrait of Mahler.
I was introduced to John by the owner of the excellent independent bookshop in Wimbledon village, a keen supporter of the Festival – and at first meeting with John I was sure I was on to gold. He is a born entertainer, with quite a mischievous spirit, yet great respect for his subject. Being a theatrical event I was able to place this in an excellent theatre in Richmond, enabling the extension of the Festival into a wider community of south west London.
I have rather avoided the question of what I can reveal… but I do know it will be mouthwatering!

What has the response to your friends-program been like so far?

I have always believed that the success of a festival depends on the Friends: their generosity helps make it happen but their moral support is equally valued. Nearly two hundred people have now joined as Friends and their support has been generous and overwhelming. Many wrote personal letters after last year’s festival: ‘‘The best thing to happen in Wimbledon for year’; Thank you for the great gift of the Festival,’ ‘A very bright light in a dark wet November’ being typical. One heartfelt response from a Friend who this year doubled his already generous donation read “If I were to expire today and could simply remember the wonders of the past 10 days I would certainly reckon I had arrived in heaven!”
We had a Friends’ Party early this year with some music by one of last year’s artists, but the main reason was to get their valued feedback. There will also be a Friends’ pre-festival party held in a local gallery which will be holding an exhibition of collages by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. This will be attended by the composer; who will also be attending and introducing a pre-festival screening of the film ‘Equus.’ Friends will be personally welcomed to the concerts, and will have reserved for them the best seats in the house – as they so thoroughly deserve!

You've entered a co-operation with the Australian Festival for Chamber Music. Townsville is not exactly round the corner, so what makes this a sensible collaboration and what does it entail exactly?

At the BBC I had the good fortune to pioneer the first ever international drama coproduction, with WNET, CBC, and Bayerischer Rundfunk, with a film on Wagner ‘The Siegfried Idyll’. The experience was excellent and lead on to other things. So I have always believed in partnerships with like-minded people, and geographic distance is no obstacle to the advantages. The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is a long established and significant chamber music festival organised on rather different lines to the Wimbledon Music Festival, but frequently sharing some of the same artists. Its Artistic Director is the distinguished Australian pianist Piers Lane who appeared in two concerts for us in Wimbledon last year. Piers lives in Putney, just a couple of miles from where I live, so we can get together to discuss many aspects of running a festival, co-commissioning works to be performed on two continents, how to engage a festival audience, and break down the barriers between performer and audience.

According to the „About Us“ on your website, the Wimbledon festival also has an educational aspect. In which way?
An important day in the musical calendar, St Cecilia’s Day, November 22nd falls midway through the Festival period – and the Festival period was deliberately chosen to coincide with this. The day has been set aside, with no official festival concert, to allow us to embrace schools and the wider community. With the help of Merton Music Foundation, another charity operating in schools, the Festival has sponsored the composition and recording of six songs, which will be rehearsed by children in 65 schools across the Borough, and an estimated 15,000 children will all give voice in a ‘Sing Aloud’ at the same time of day on Nov 22nd. The Festival is also sponsoring recorder workshops with the virtuoso Piers Adams, and the best groups will join him in an evening concert in honour of Saint Cecilia. A local independent school is donating its facilities. At a third venue in the most disadvantaged corner of the Borough, the Festival is hosting a mentored world music day. Members of Parliament and local councilors will be attending these events.
Tickets are also free for students to attend seven of the chamber music concerts giving young people the opportunity to experience classical music and being inspired by hearing some of the great artists of the day.
Homepage: Wimbledon Music Festival

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