Tuesday 30 September 2014

Building an international brand - an encounter with Anthony Wilkinson of the Wimbledon International Music Festival

Anthony Wilkinson
Anthony Wilkinson
Running a music and arts festival anywhere is hard work. But it would seem to be a thankless task to do so in an area where your potential audience has the delights of central London just a train-ride way. But Anthony Wilkinson, founder of the Wimbledon International Music Festival, seems to warm to his task with enthusiasm, even though this year is the sixth Festival (running from 8 – 23 November 2014).

In conversation, Anthony admits there are problems, mainly the perennial ones of finance, but our talk quickly diverges into his passion for people, plans and projects. It is clear also that what keeps him going is the genuinely enthusiastic response to the festival from local residents. Not only the gratifyingly high number of positive letters he receives after the festival, but the response people have to individual concerts. The festival is very much a personal one, and Anthony does not programme anything or anyone for whom he doesn't have enthusiasm. This means that the more obscure and lesser known means as much to him as the well known. He clearly enjoys the feeling that the Wimbledon Festival is a place where people might come to a concert and have their lives changed.

Wimbledon International Music Festival (WIMF) is a local festival that thinks big. Anthony is not frightened of programming major artists, this year includes Wolfgang Holzmair in Schubert's Die Winterreise and The Sixteen. But Anthony also brings smaller, quirkier programmes as well, such as violist Lawrence Power in Bax, and the Musicians of the Globe in 17th century broad-sheet ballads (a programme that he later refers to as Death by Custard!).
Artists appearing at the 2014 Wimbledon International Music Festival
Artists appearing at the 2014
Being a local festival means building your audience, both in numbers and also building their trust. Anthony relies a lot on the WIMF brand coming to be trusted. Excellence is a word he uses more than once, and it is clear that his goal (which he seems well on the way to achieving) is the feeling that the audience trusts him; if Anthony has programmed it then it must be good and they will give it a try.

Anthony is a film-maker and drama director by trade, having spent years working both for the BBC and freelance; he cites Ken Russell as something of an inspiration. He seems to have fallen into the festival almost by accident. Playing the oboe at Dartington in the summer led to friendships with musicians, and the almost accidental discovery of a small festival at St. John's Church in Wimbledon led to expansion plans. These turned into a new festival, based around St. Cecilia's Day (November 22), well away from the summer tennis when many locals leave. That first festival was very much based around Anthony's address book, but it made a surplus so lived to see another day.

Anthony's interests run wider than the festival itself, and one of his other projects is aimed at filling a gap in Wimbledon's facilities (the lack of a decent concert venue), by creating a concert hall with good acoustics and a capacity of 1250. This is a coherent project, with a location (close to Wimbledon station) and a financial rationale, which Anthony and others have assembled. He clearly feels that the results would be of great benefit to Wimbledon and Merton as whole. There is no direct link with the festival but certainly such a venue would also be very useful to the festival too.

The festival has a great deal of support but doesn't have the financial clout to compete with continental festivals and thus to attract the sort of artists Anthony is keen to programme. One of his solutions to this is forging partnership, both locally and abroad. One is with Wimbledon College of Art, whose students will be designing a production of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale in this year's festival. Other partnerships are wider in scope. Thanks to more personal contacts Anthony has created links with a group of foreign festival. These festivals co-operate on commissioning new work which means they share the fee and the composer is guaranteed five or six performances across the world, in UK, Australia, Texas, Alaska and Canada. The first fruit of this was the commission to Ben Wallfisch for Chopin's Waterloo inspired by the works of the French/American painter and sculptor Arman. This was premiered at last year's festival.

Next year, the Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin is writing a dance suite inspired by Picasso's 1925 picture of the Three Dancers. This is a picture, with its fascinating back story involving a triangular love-affair and tragedy form Picasso's younger days, which clearly intrigues Anthony. The new work has generated interest and Rambert Dance Company will be using it as the basis for a dance work and the Australian company Dance North will be doing their own, different version. The result is a global piece of music with a global audience which builds on one of WIMF's strengths, the recognisability and reputation of the Wimbledon name abroad.

Anthony always tries to include a large scale theatrical even in the festival, though it is something of a challenge given the lack of suitable venues in Wimbledon. Last year the pianist Mikhail Rudy did his own version for piano solo of Stravinsky's Petrushka which formed the basis for a theatrical presentation, and this will be returning to the festival next year paired with Rudy's new programme based on a Chagall painting. Previously the festival has done Britten's Noyes Fludde and this year it will be Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale about which Anthony is very enthusiastic. It is planned to perform it in the theatre of Wimbledon College of Art and Anthony's ideas for staging it the piece are intriguing. He talks about how the Russian folk-tale rather creaks a bit nowadays and he plans to present it as a computer game!

Another major coup for this year's festival is that the closing event, on 23 November, will be the Philharmonia Orchestra performing in Trinity Church, Mansel Road. The programme has been tailored to the space and Robin O'Neill with both conduct and play the solo bassoon in a programme which includes Mozart's Symphony No. 29, Vivaldi's Bassoon Concerto and Strauss's Metamorphosen. And Anthony hopes that the Philharmonia will be returning next year. Other programmes which he singles out include the Musicians of the Globe's intriguing Death by Custard, music from the Spanish civil war with the guitar playing Katona twins and York2 in a programme of music for piano four hands, including the original versions of Holst's The Planets and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, plus Debussy's La Mer.

The theme of the festival is War and Piece, but Anthony's eyes (and ears) have ranged widely so that war takes in both Nelson and the Spanish Civil War as well as World War 1. Next year's festival will have Dance as its theme with 2016 being music inspired by folk music.

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