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.

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I’m writing this less than two weeks before the opening of the 2019 Hertfordshire Festival of Music (HFoM), with the sweaty brow of the accidental concert promoter desperately hoping to see more tickets flying off the shelves.

We’ve programmed some fabulous music and musicians in this our fourth year: Fauré, Haydn, Schumann, Ravel, Mozart….with Steven Isserlis, Orchestra of the Swan, Anthony Marwood, Clare Hammond, the Carducci Quartet, to name only a few.

It’s not just classical music traditionally presented (although there’s some of that, and no apologies for it!) with two performances from the effervescent ZRI mashing Brahms with klezmer and gypsy styles plus their need live-to-film performance Adventures with Charlie Chaplin, an amazing jazz trio in a magical venue, and even a guided visit to Haydn’s summer holiday home when he was here in 1791. Plus three Featured Living Composers (Peter Fribbins, Alan Mills, James Francis Brown) and three major outreach projects involving more than 200 young people. 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 2,500 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. 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.

And 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 or 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 media, 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 put amazing music on 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 plenty of tickets left to sell. With only two exceptions, you can walk to all our performances in less than twenty minutes from train stations, all of which are well-served in and out of London. It will be light well into the evening, hopefully sunny and warm too. Tickets are not expensive, indeed some events are totally free, many offer £5 seats for anyone in full-time education, and they are in nice places with good pubs, restaurants and countryside nearby.

Hertfordshire Festival of Music runs from Thursday 13 to Sunday 23 June 2019. This year’s principal artist is cellist Steven Isserlis 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.

www.hertsmusicfest.org.uk

Meet the Artist interview with Tom Hammond

A big screen adaptation of writer Alan Bennett’s celebrated memoir, directed by long-standing Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner.

The film tells the true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and the singular Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who ‘temporarily’ parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. Their unique story is funny, poignant and life-affirming. What begins as a begrudged favor becomes a relationship that will change both their lives. Bennett’s play has echoes of the story of Anne Naysmith, former concert pianist, who lived in a car in Chiswick after falling on hard times and being evicted from her home.

British pianist Clare Hammond will appear as the younger version of Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Miss Shepherd. Clare performs in a number of flashback scenes recreating a Proms concert in the 1930s, and enacts Miss Shepherd’s experiences as a novice nun some years later.

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Clare’s recording of excerpts from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, is featured throughout the film. The slow movement of Chopin’s concerto and Clare’s performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major are included on the soundtrack alongside music specially composed for the film by George Fenton, due for release by Sony on the 6 November 2015.

Meet the Artist……Clare Hammond (interview)

Filmed on the street and in the house where Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived all those years, acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner reunites with Bennett (‘The Madness of King George’, ‘The History Boys’) to bring this touching, poignant, and life-affirming story to the screen. The film is due for release in the UK on 13 November 2015.

Official trailer

Pianist Clare Hammond (photo credit © Angela Dove)

The Monday Platform at Wigmore Hall, presented by the Park Lane Group, showcased the impressive and varied talents of the Lawson Trio and pianist Clare Hammond.

This was an enjoyable programme which combined the elegant and witty classicism of Haydn with the intimate lyricism of Schubert, the mercurial passions of Schumann, Bach’s Italianate arabesques, and the earthy nationalism of Ginastera. The mix of ensemble and solo piano works made for an extremely satisfying concert experience.

Read my full review here

Clare Hammond (image credit Julie Kim)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I was given piano lessons for my sixth birthday. My mother had always wanted to learn but had never had the chance so she was keen that I had the opportunity. I enjoyed the lessons, but didn’t consider making a career of music until I was 8 and was taken to an orchestral concert at the Royal Centre in Nottingham. I can’t remember which orchestra I heard now, unfortunately, but I was absolutely swept away by the music and decided then and there that I wanted to be a pianist. Of course, I had no idea then what this would entail, but the seed had been sown!

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

I think it’s important as a musician to be open to all sorts of influences so I couldn’t really point to any dominant strains in my playing. I try to listen to as many live performances and recordings as possible, and also to take what I can from observing theatre, dance and even sport. I enjoy teaching and learn a great deal both from explaining things in novel ways to my students and from the phrases they use to articulate their problems or thoughts to me.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I spend a great deal of time working by myself and have found, as a result, that the greatest challenge of my career is to maintain perspective. It’s very easy to be thrown off course temporarily by minor setbacks and I sometimes feel that there is so much to achieve, in such a short space of time, that it can be extremely daunting.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

I adore working with orchestras and ensembles as it’s such a pleasure to be able to react to somebody else’s sound. You are forced to collaborate in real time, which is both risky and incredibly exciting. It’s easier to track the emotional and psychological development of a work when you’re not solely responsible for it, or at least it’s less exhausting to sustain!

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my debut album, ‘Piano Polyptych’, which is a collection of contemporary piano music by British composers. It was quite a strain to learn all the repertoire in time for the recording, especially as much of it is extremely complex, but I have had so many opportunities as a result of the project. It was a particular pleasure to collaborate with the composers. It’s a completely different experience when you’re working on music by living composers as they can tell you exactly what kind of sound they’re aiming for. It brings an element of dialogue into what can otherwise be a very solitary pursuit.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I’ve performed in a number of venues with wonderful acoustics, but my principal concern when playing in concert is the quality of the piano. Recently, the best that I’ve encountered was at St George’s Hall in Bristol. Their newer Steinway is extremely responsive and has a very pure, glowing tone, supported admirably by the acoustic of the hall itself.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Personally or musically? In either case, I’m not sure I can answer this question. I know so many wonderful musicians who have so much to offer that to place them in any kind of order would be impossible!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable experience of performing was not for an official concert per se but at my parents-in-law’s house. My father-in-law is a vicar and I gave a recital for a music society near to his parish a few months ago. Several of his parishioners were keen to hear me but couldn’t make it to the recital so we arranged a coffee concert the following morning. I performed on an upright piano in their front room, surrounded by about 12 people many of whom had never been to a classical music concert before. I’m not sure if it was due to the intimacy of the venue, or the fact that I knew many of these people personally, but I felt that my playing was at its most communicative. I now try to recreate that, with varying levels of success, in larger halls!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

Again, I can’t give a specific answer to this question. Different works or styles of music are suitable for different occasions and express wildly varying emotions. In fact, one of things I love about being a pianist is the breadth of the repertoire. However hard you work, you can never learn everything that has been written for the piano so there are always new horizons to strive towards.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

I’ve found that the most important skill in teaching is to be able to tailor what you’re trying to explain to the particular skills and aptitudes of the student. Of course, there is a broad ‘syllabus’ of concepts that you need to communicate to students depending on the level that they’re currently at, but you also need to draw out what is individual and unique about them as a person. When I was studying with Ronan O’Hora, at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, I had the impression that he never taught two students in the same way. First, you have to understand the student as a personality, and then you can start teaching them music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on Piani, Latebre by Piers Hellawell, whose Das Leonora Notenbuch and Basho I recorded as part of ‘Piano Polyptych’. Piani, Latebre was commissioned by the pianist William Howard who premiered it at the Spitalfields Festival in 2010. I performed it as part of my inaugural recital as Artist-in-Residence at Queen’s University Belfast on 11th October 2012. My programme also included two pieces, Portrait and Spring Fantasy, by the Northern-Irish composer, Hamilton Harty, which have only recently been discovered. It’s quite exciting to give a world premiere of pieces which were written nearly 80 years ago!

What is your present state of mind?

Calm, on the whole, and drowsy. I’ve just eaten an enormous meal and the resulting haze of contentedness is impeding my ability to think clearly…

Acclaimed by The Daily Telegraph as a pianist of “amazing power and panache”, Clare Hammond has performed across Europe, Russia and Canada and has appeared recently at the Wigmore and Barbican Halls in London and the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Her Purcell Room debut for the Park Lane Group concert series was praised by The Guardian for its “crisp precision and unflashy intelligence”.

A passionate advocate of twentieth and twenty-first century music, Clare combines a formidable technique and virtuosic flair onstage with stylistic integrity and attention to detail. Since her debut with orchestra at the age of eleven, she has acquired a concerto repertoire of over 20 works which she has performed at major venues across the UK and on the continent. Solo engagements have included recitals in concert series and festivals across Britain, in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Russia.

Clare Hammond’s full biography

Recordings, film clips and an interview at www.clarehammond.com/recordings.html

Forthcoming concerts:

Monday 24 June, City of London Festival

Saxton – Chacony for left hand alone; Bach-Brahms – Chaconne in D minor, transcribed for left hand; Harty – Portrait, Spring Fantasy; Sibelius – Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 75 “The Trees”; Saxton – Hortus Musicae (world premiere)

Tickets and further information here

Further information at www.clarehammond.com/concerts.html