Conductor and festival director Tom Hammond thinks we should all bother with music. In this guest post, he explains why and previews this year’s Hertfordshire Festival of Music.
I’m writing this a month before the opening of the 2021 Hertfordshire Festival of Music (HFoM), with the sweaty brow of the accidental concert promoter desperately hoping to see more tickets flying off the shelves. Postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Festival is particularly special because for many people it will be the first time they will have enjoyed live music in over a year. For me, my co-artistic director, James Francis Brown, and indeed the whole Festival team, the challenge this year is presenting live music in a COVID-secure environment to ensure the comfort, safety and enjoyment of our audiences, performers and staff. There is the additional challenge of social distancing which means that venues cannot operate at full capacity and we can only offer a limited number of tickets for each performance. We are fortunate to receive the support of Arts Council England and a number of charitable trusts and foundations, county, district and town councils, while a growing Friends Scheme allows individuals to play an important role in furthering the Festival’s scope and potential.
Of course, we are not the only music festival or concert promoter trying to square the circle of socially-distanced events and the consequent reduction in ticket revenue, but there are always solutions if you look for them, and to accommodate as many people as possible, within the limitations of social distancing, many of our concerts will be repeated. This has also allowed us a certain amount of flexibility with regard to concert start times, so people may choose to attend an early evening concert and then go on to dinner, or come and enjoy some post-dinner music with us!
We’ve programmed some fabulous music and musicians in this our fifth year: Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir CBE is our Featured Living Composer and her music will be performed by Albion Quartet, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and Chloē Hanslip and Danny Driver. Inventor of the string quartet Joseph Haydn, who has a special connection with Hertfordshire, is celebrated in Albion Quartet’s opening concert, and we’re also featuring music by Pärt, Walton, Sibelius, Bartok, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and James Francis Brown. Pianist Florian Mitrea will also give the world premiere of a work by Alan Mills.
It’s not just classical music traditionally presented (although there’s plenty of that, and no apologies for it!). We’re delighted to welcome back the exuberant ZRI, who will mash classical music with gypsy and klezmer styles in a performance at McMullen’s Brewery in Hertford. Recorder ensemble Fontanella present a themed programme based around the year 1670, a period in musical history which is strangely parallel to our own times. The concert is also a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Friends Meeting House in Hertford, which has been in continuous use since it was founded.
Alongside the music, we have education and outreach projects – masterclasses with Chloe Hanslip at Queenswood School, and Music in Mind with members of Orchestra of the Swan, bringing music to people with dementia in selected care homes throughout the county. The irrepressible “virtuoso of the arts” Matthew Sharp weaves bewitching words and magical music in an enthralling afternoon of storytelling for younger children and their families, and there’s even an opportunity to explore historic Hertford on a guided walk.
Basically shed-loads of stuff – and really good stuff!
Since the Festival began – the initial germ of the idea coming to me back in 2015 – we’ve welcomed around 3000 people to concerts in Hertford and Hertfordshire, given education and performance opportunities to around 500 younger people (schoolchildren as well as conservatoire-level students) and raised something like £150,000 in external funds and Box Office revenue. Raising that sort of money for music is incredibly hard work as anyone who’s ever tried will know, taking hours of your life that could be spent doing vastly more enjoyable things….
The money that we’ve raised has gone directly into the music economy via paying our artists – about £75,000 on musician’s fees alone, and we pay at a decent rate – plus all the other elements of the musical food chain, including commissions, hire of copyright materials, piano tuners, keyboard hire, sound and lighting equipment, etc., etc. The pandemic hit musicians and the musical food chain hard, and it feels especially important to be breathing life back into the industry through our activities this June.
Where that money certainly isn’t going is into my back pocket, nor that of my co-Artistic Director. We’ve also got a very hard-working board of trustees, because we’re now properly formalised as a charity, plus our FOH team who also do it for the love of music.
Why on earth would anyone do this?!
I have asked myself that question many times, not least as so many areas of running a Festival are things for which I’ve had absolutely no training, experience nor aptitude and I’m already pretty busy with my main work as a conductor and producer. But, when I read my social media newsfeeds, or see classical music mentioned in the national press, it’s too often report after report about cuts in music education and how music is being marginalised. Or how to make it ‘relevant’. Or how it’s seen as for only posh people…. You don’t need me to go on because it’s jaw-clenchingly boring to do so, and moaning is too easy and the time could be better spent doing something about it.
What I and my colleagues at HFoM are trying to do, albeit in a nascent way which needs constant refinement, is simply to present amazing music in appropriate spaces that heighten the audience experience, plus open out opportunities for young people, and try to buck the above trend. As a colleague of mine once said to me, we are attempting to act as incubators of this amazing art form and when the day finally comes and politicians actually read the gazillions of studies that show how music helps people in so many ways and fund it again, someone can buy us all a pint.
Until then, if anyone fancies coming along and helping us continue beyond this year, we have tickets to sell! Hertford is only 20 miles from by central London, easily accessible by road and rail, and has a good selection of shops and eateries with attractive countryside nearby. It will be light well into the evening, hopefully sunny and warm too. Why not come and join us?
Hertfordshire Festival of Music runs from 4-10 June 2021. This year’s Principal Artist is violinist Chloë Hanslip, who will be giving masterclasses and performances during the festival. Full programme of events
Tom Hammond is co-Artistic Director of Hertfordshire Festival of Music, and a conductor and record producer.