Thursday, 18 April 2013

Buxton Festival 2013 launch

Richard Strauss - Intermezzo
Buxton Festival 2012
with Stephen Gadd
and Janis Kelly
To the Houses of Parliament yesterday (17 April 2013) for 2013 Buxton Festival launch, which took place in the Terrace Room, with its glorious views of the Thames (thankfully at high tide). The event was hosted by Andrew Bingham, the MP for High Peak within whose constituency Buxton lies. Speakers included the Chairman of the Buxton Festival Dame Janet Smith, Andrew Bingham MP, the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport Maria Miller MP and Stephen Barlow, the artistic director of the festival. This year's festival includes a tempting and varied programme with operas by Mozart, Gounod, Saint-Saens, Vivaldi, Sciarrino and Messager plus extensive other programmes.

Dame Janet explained that one reason for having the launch in London, in so prominent a place, was to help spread the word about the festival. The festival has over 3000 loyal friends, who come each year to show their support but this is not enough for festival finances and they hopes to attract more people. Both she and Andrew Bingham emphasised that Buxton was not that far away from London. In fact one innovation, which was introduced last year and continues this year, was the presentation of the main operas at matinees to make it easier for people who might wish to travel.


Buxton is situated at a high altitude in the Peak District and there was much joking about the weather, snow in particular, but we were assured that it never snows in July!

Maria Miller commended Andrew Bingham for his infectious enthusiasm for the festival. She talked about how Buxton, with its presentation of lesser known works by major composers, represented the sort of spirit of innovation which the government wanted to encourage. She spoke of the Buxton Festival's success story, with the tripling of audience numbers within a decade, the increase in Arts Council funding and the winning of a host of tourism awards. For Miller these last were of particular importance, indicating the way the arts have an important role to play with visitors from overseas. Buxton was setting a standard in the way public investment acted as a seed greater growth, and the festival made a strong case for sustained investment in the arts

Whilst Miller's extremely positive words were very welcome, I can only hope that they carry further than just the festival launch and that the senior figures in the government holding the purse strings, the Treasury in particular, take note. It was heartening to see that other senior figures such as Ed Vaizey and Sir George Young were also present at the launch. We were informed that the Prime Minister had been hoping to drop in, he spoke in Buxton in 2009 at the Literary Series, but the events surrounding the funeral of Lady Thatcher had prevented him.

Stephen Barlow, the festival's artistic director, said that this would be his second festival, that it was really quite a unique and rather special event so that it was a privilege and a pleasure to be artistic director. The festival is now in its fourth decade and has built up a substantial degree of security. It developed out of a visit to Buxton by Malcolm Fraser who saw the potential of the opera house. A theatre designed by Frank Matcham, at the time of Fraser's visit it was being used as a cinema and there was a danger that it might be converted into a multi-plex. Barlow explained that though the theatre was designed for both theatre and opera, and has a pit which orchestras love playing in, it remains quite an intimate space seating around 1000 audience.

The festival has grown from these beginnings to encompass music, literature and opera. This year there will be 140 events in 17 days. The festival produces two new opera productions per year, as well as inviting touring opera, music theatre and contemporary opera. This enables them to present a wide range of works. For instance, this year Music Theatre Wales will be giving the UK premiere of a new English translation of an opera by the contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. The opera, Luci mi traditrici (The Killing Flower) deals with the story of Gesualdo and his murder of his wife. It will be given in a double bill with Peter Maxwell Davies' iconic music-theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King.

This year, for the first time, Grange Park Opera will be visiting, bringing their production of Andre Messager's Fortunio. Thus enabling, in Barlow's words, visitors to Buxton to experience the high quality work of Grange Park Opera but not at Hampshire prices. Other visitors to the festival this year include La Serenissima, returning with Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa. And Mahoganny Opera will be performing Benjamin Britten's three Church Parables, in productions directed by Frederic Wake-Walker who directed last year's memorable production of Handel's Jephtha at the Buxton Festival. James Gilchrist, who sang the title role in Jephtha will be taking the leading tenor roles in the Church Parables.

The festival's own productions this year are of lesser known operas. The first proper UK production of Saint-Saens' La Princesse Jaune is being given in a double bill with Gounod's La Colombe. Barlow was most enthusiastic about this pairing, commenting that Saint-Saens had written a great many more operas than people realised. The second festival production is Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, an opera written by Mozart when he was 17, which is being given in a production by Harry Fehr with a talented young cast.

The Music Series now includes from two to four concerts per day with chamber music, vocal recitals, music and words. Some are linked to festival operas, so that there is a programme of Gounod songs plus readings. One notable event will be a recital by pianist Pascal Roge and his wife. An innovation for 2013 is the five late night jazz concerts.

The Literary Series has now developed into one of the national book festivals, with presentation of the latest books and some events, notably the political ones, already sold out.

The Buxton Festival presents three weeks of total immersion, with events from 10am to midnight. There are plans for further developments, Barlow mentioned the possibility of including a food fair. And one serious development is Trevor Osborne's creative plan to refurbish the Crescent, the glorious buildings at the heart of historic Buxton. These beautiful buildings are being restored to include a hotel, which will once again be at the centre of a visit to Buxton. The refurbishment will be complete in late 2014, so that the 2015 festival will be the first one to benefit from the new work. I can remember from my own visits to the festival even in the early days that the Crescent has always looked rather forlorn and unloved, and has never taken a major part in the festival so it will be something to look forward to indeed.

Barlow looked forward to continuing improvement in the of the quality of the festival, there are also plans for the continuing development of a wider audience. Notably, the festival plans for even deeper links with the surrounding region with an outreach programme which will run throughout the year. Thus showing their commitment to pass on to others their enthusiasm for this very unique festival.

Further information from the Buxton Festival website.

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