Saturday, 28 January 2017

New ideas round the edges: I chat to London Handel Festival's Samir Savant, the new Festival Director

 Adrian Butterfield (Associate Director), Catherine Hodgson (retiring Festival Director), Samir Savant (incoming Festival Director), Laurence Cummings (Artistic Director), Richard Hopkin (Chair)
Adrian Butterfield (Associate Director), Catherine Hodgson (previous Festival Director)
Samir Savant (Festival Director), Laurence Cummings (Musical Director),
Richard Hopkin (Chair)
The London Handel Festival has a new Festival Director, after the 2016 festival Catherine Hodgson retired after 17 years as Festival Director and Samir Savant took over, with Laurence Cummings continuing as Musical Director. The 2017 festival, which runs from 18 March to 24 April 2017, is the first under Samir Savant's stewardship, and whilst it is too early to see the full effect of his ideas, there are indications of a refocusing of some aspects of the festival. I caught up with Samir by telephone to find out more about his ideas for the festival.

One of the first things we talked about was the question of the festival venues. This year, the festival is venturing away from St George's Church, Hanover Square to give concerts in venues such as Cadogan Hall, and Charterhouse. But St George's Church, as Handel's own parish church, remains a core venue, with the opera staged of course at the Britten Theatre.


Anna Devin in the title role of Handel's Semele with Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Festival with Rupert Charlesworth, Louise Innes, Ewa Gubanska & Maria Valdmaa at the London Handel Festival in 2015
Anna Devin in the title role of Handel's Semele with Lawrence Cummings,
Rupert Charlesworth, Louise Innes, Ewa Gubanska & Maria Valdmaa
at the London Handel Festival in 2015
Thankfully plans are in hand to remedy some of St George's Hanover Square's limitations, adding risers to the 2nd and 3rd rows of the gallery to enhance visibility, and smart brass plaques to number the seats should be an improvement too. Other problems are more intractable, the size and layout of the church means the performing area is cramped; Samir comments that has performed in the church with the Pegasus choir and can testify to the difficulty of fitting performers in. The question of toilets and facilities is another big problem, and here the church hopes to develop the undercroft to provide improved facilities including decent back-stage areas for the performers. Samir adds that he feels that performers will live with cramped performing spaces if they have a decent backstage area.

Whilst St George's Church remains central, this year's festival includes events at the Cadogan Hall, the Foundling Museum, the Royal Academy of Music and Charterhouse. Whilst the links between the Foundling Museum and Handel are well known, there are in fact links to Charterhouse too. At Charterhouse, the organist in Handel's day was Johann Pepusch, best known for his arrangements of the music for The Beggar's Opera, but Samir adds that Pepusch was also involved in the concerts put on in Clerkenwell by the musical coal merchant Thomas Britton, where Handel also played.

Samir comes from a fundraising and marketing background, having worked for the Royal College of Music, the Globe Theatre and Handel House, and he was a choral scholar at St John's College, Cambridge.

Whilst he does not want to make major changes to the festival, he is keen to bring in new ideas round the edges. One of his innovations this year is a staging of Bach's Coffee Cantata by the Little Baroque Company, a staging which Samir describes as funky. He talks of taking the regular festival goers on a journey rather than just giving them what they have always had before. Though this involves capitalising on areas where the festival is already strong, such as the support for young and little known talent through the singing competition, as well as support for up and coming ensembles.

Handel - Ariodante - 2016 London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Handel's Ariodante at the 2016 London Handel Festival
photo Chris Christodoulou
This year La Nuova Musica are returning to the festival, performing Handel's Italian duets with Louise Alder and Emilie Renard. Samir was at the Royal College of Music when soprano Louise Alder studied there and he calls her 'absolutely extraordinary' and she is paired with mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard 'another great College product'. Opera Settecento performs for the third time bringing a Handel pasticcio, Ormisda. Also the Southbank Sinfonia is returning for what is becoming its annual appearance as the young professionals work with Adrian Butterfield on baroque repertoire, and this year working with emerging singers Bethany Seymour (soprano) and Tom Verney (counter-tenor). The Brook Street Band is bringing an Italian programme. Samir loves what the ensemble does, and feels events like these show that the festival can be both a receiving house and a producing house, showcasing the best of other groups' events as well as creating its own.

Samir hopes that performances such as the one by the Little Baroque Company will appeal to a younger audience as well as festival regulars. He first saw the company in Stoke Newington and enjoyed what they did. The performances of the Coffee Cantata are being given just for Friends of the London Handel Festival and supporters, in recognition of the enormous amount that people do for the festival. In receipt of no statutory funding, the festival is very dependent on private philanthropy.

In the UK, private philanthropy in music seems to be less strong than in other areas of the arts, Samir comments that perhaps music is less 'bling' than some of the visual arts. But philanthropy is an area which again links back to Mr Handel, as he not only put on benefit concerts but did his annual fundraising Messiah for the Foundling Hospital.

Another area of strength in the festival is its championing of unusual repertoire; this year Handel's relatively neglected oratorio Joseph and his Brethren gets an outing.

William Wallace, winner of the 2016 London Handel Festival © Chris Christodoulou
William Wallace, winner of the 2016
London Handel Festival
© Chris Christodoulou
But Samir also feels that the festival can use the core of Handel's music to say something in 2017, by involving dancers and artists, and by working in places where classical music is not usually performed. There is also the story of Handel in London, as an entrepreneur, European, and philanthropist, stories which deserve telling more widely and can be used to engage people with his music.

This year's opera, performed at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre, is Faramondo, Again this is relatively unusual repertoire, being performed by emerging talent with students from the college's opera course. In addition to the public performances, the festival is also working with schools and the schools matinee is sold out. Community and public engagement is another area where Samir would like to see the festival expanding. One example of the community engagement is the 'Come and Sing' event where Laurence Cummings will be directing a choir of amateur choral singers in Handel's Coronation Anthems. Samir comments that on such occasions Laurence's joy is infectious and his patience is amazing.

This years Handel Singing Competition is the 15th, and there have been 150 entrants from all over the world. There were singers from the UK, Russia, Czech Republic, Israel and France in the 2016 final. Samir thinks that this range indicates that singers recognise now that Handel is something important to learn, even for those singers who will eventually be going on to sing Verdi and other heavier roles. Iestyn Davies will be chairing the adjudicators at the final. Iestyn is someone Samir has known since he was in the choir at St John's College, when Iestyn was a boy chorister.

The festival provides strong support for the competition finalists, all are guaranteed a lunchtime recital at the following year's festival and many are booked for other things. So that William Wallace (winner of the 2016 festival) is in this year's performance of Joseph and his Brethren, whilst Galina Averina (another 2016 finalist) sang in last December's performance of Handel's Messiah, a work which she had never sung before! And one of the impressive thing about the festival is the way that former finalists crop up on casts, Samir adds that the audiences love them, so this year former finalists in the festival include George Humphreys, Christopher Lowrey and Christopher Ainslie.

As this year's singing competition is the 15th, a celebration seemed to be in order and there is a gala concert at the Cadogan Hall featuring former finalists, Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Charlesworth and Josep-Ramon Olive, singers who continue to work with Laurence Cummings and to support the festival. The event's name, Mr Handel's Scholars comes from Handel's day. When the mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli died in 1804 (she had created a number of roles for Handel including Storge in Jephtha) she was referred to in her obituary as the last of Mr Handel's Scholars. The use of the name for the gala helps to bring out that Handel really did work with and nurture young singers (as depicted in the recent play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, All the Angels, see my review), an aspect to Handel's character which Samir feels gets neglected.

An innovation this year is the celebration of baroque dance at the Royal Academy of Music. Samir points out that all the arts forms were integrated in Handel's day and that he is keen to explore more dance, both baroque and contemporary.

Josep-Ramon Olivé, winner of the 2015
London Handel Singing Competition
© Chris Christodoulou
Festival regulars will be relieved to see that the 2017 festival still has the familiar landmarks. The annual performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion on Good Friday is something of a phenomenon. It always sells out, and this year the soloists include two former competition finalists, George Humphreys and Christopher Lowrey. The festival's annual visit to the Wigmore Hall is also an institution, and this year Adrian Butterfield directs music by Handel and Telemann with soloists including soprano Rowan Pierce, whom Samir refers to as another bright star,

At St Lawrence's Church, Little Stanmore (another venue closely associated with Handel when he worked for the Duke of Chandos), Adrian Butterfield will be completing his survey of the Chandos Anthems working with a consort of singers (rather than a choir), as Handel would have done when he performed the anthems for the Duke. The singers will include soprano Grace Davidson, tenor Charles Daniels and bass-baritone Edward Grint (another former competition finalist), and they will be recording the works, the first time that they have been recorded by a vocal consort!

The festival finale is the annual oratorio performance, this year Joseph and his Brethren with a strong line up of singers including Christopher Ainslie in the title role, Elizabeth Watts as Asenath, plus Anna Starushkevych, Edward Grint and William Wallace, with treble George Vyvyan as Benjamin (Vyvyan is a treble at Westminster Abbey).

Moving forward, Samir would like to plan further ahead for the festival, and introduces themes which explore aspects of Handel's life. He points out that Handel is the most famous person to be naturalised by Act of Parliament, and that Handel used to travel to the City a lot to inspect his accounts at the Bank of England (accounts which still exist), stories which deserve to be told and could be used to articulate aspects of Handel's music. By telling these stories, there is a chance to bring out aspects of life on Georgian London which are not so well known, and Samir feels that there is a fascination for the era. He also wants to increase the engagement of younger people and community groups by bringing Handel to them.

Public booking for the 2017 London Handel Festival opened on Tuesday 24 January, more information from the festival website.

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