Tuesday 25 January 2022

You have two ears and an opinion: artistic director Fiachra Garvey introduces this year's Classical Vauxhall festival

Fiachra Garvey and Adam Walker performing at the Garden Museum as part of Classical Vauxhall 2020
Fiachra Garvey and Adam Walker performing at the Garden Museum as part of Classical Vauxhall 2020

Classical Vauxhall is lively festival intended to celebrate the Vauxhall area. Funded by Vauxhall One, Vauxhall’s Business Improvement District, the festival is run by artistic director Fiachra Garvey and returns next month (10-13 February 2022) for its third edition. After the first festival in 2020, last year's festival was entirely online, whilst this year the festival returns to live audiences with five events at St Mark's Church, SE11 4PP.

Fiachra Garvey (Photo Marshall Light Studio)
Fiachra Garvey (Photo Marshall Light Studio)
The festival is intended to celebrate Vauxhall inspired by the visionary Jonathan Tyers, who was a champion of extraordinary talent when he opened the Pleasure Gardens in 1732, where entertainment could vary from the music of Handel to fireworks and circus acts. Whilst this year's Classical Vauxhall does not have quite that degree of variety, Fiachra Garvey is firm his desire for the festival to attract a wide audience including those who might not normally go to classical events.

Fiachra came to the festival almost by accident. Whilst he lives mainly in London, in 2017 he founded the West Wicklow Festival in his native Ireland, and contacts made whilst looking in London for a web developer for the Wicklow festival led to him being invited to create the first Classical Vauxhall festival 2020.

When we think of Vauxhall today, we tend to think mainly of the transport hub, a place to pass through. Vauxhall One wants to make the area a better place to live and work, and so a classical music festival was very apt. Fiachra is keen to attract a young audience without alienating the more traditional classical music audience. The concerts are presented in a relaxed way with no formality, and Fiachra is feels that people should feel able to express appreciation in the way they want. He points out that when Mozart played his piano concertos, audiences would applaud after a cadenza without disturbing the overall music.

Whilst many people talk about making classical music accessible, what comes over chatting to Fiachra is his passion and imagination, his awareness that any festival like his needs a degree of balance, being approachable whilst respecting the music. He feels that people are often put off classical music because of feeling a lack of knowledge, but he points out that everyone has a pair of ears and an opinion, and people should not worry that their opinion is not valid because they do not know the technical aspects of the music.

He also talks passionately about the perception of elitism in classical music, pointing out that no musician he knows lives an elite life; he comes from a farming family in Wicklow and went to a rather rough state school in Dublin. This leads to a discussion about the price of concert tickets, with Fiachra commenting on the prices for a recent Adele concert which were far above anything an opera house might charge. And there is rarely a dress code even at theatres like Covent Garden, so Fiachra feels that there is a need for classical musicians to fight back. Classical Vauxhall is one way to do this.

Part of this is the festival's education programme. This is an aspect that Fiachra is keen to expand and currently the only limitation is the festival's budget. As it is, this year's festival will include free schools workshops from Apollo5, and free school workshops from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a masterclass from horn player Ben Goldscheider (who is performing in the festival's opening concert).

A lot of Vauxhall One events are not classical, such as beer gardens and cinema evenings, and Fiachra is hoping that their marketing will encourage some of these people to come to Classical Vauxhall. He also feels that they have a duty to the local residents, that he wants every person to know about the festival and feel that they could come. He is also realistic, pointing out that typically 5% of the audience goes to classical and jazz events, and with Classical Vauxhall they would be delighted if they could edge this figure up to 8%.

The festival's atmosphere will be relaxed, there will be small things such as being able to buy a beer and take it into the concert, and they plan to make the concert atmosphere relax and amenable. He also talks about plans to combine visuals with music as a way of intriguing people and getting people in.

Last year the festival was streamed and they had people tuning in from all over the world. Whilst Fiachra appreciates the emotional impact of live music, he is reluctant to lose these international links and this year's concerts are being filmed and will be streamed later in the year. Last year's concerts were taken by the Irish broadcaster RTE, which send them to the EBU thus extending the international audience.

Classical Vauxhall 2021

This year's festival features five concerts of which four are standard repertoire yet packaged in a way to help people who might be unsure. The fifth event is somewhat different, The Royal Opera House is Burning a late-night drag event which features counter-tenor Kangmin Justin Kim in his drag alter-ego, Kimchilla Bartoli, accompanied by Fiachra in a programme of favourite arias and songs from musicals.  Fiachra first met Justin when they were both students at the Royal Academy of Music and Justin has always performed Kimchilla on the side. In fact, Justin has performed female roles in conventional operas and has the support of his 'namesake' Cecilia Bartoli. Fiachra points out that during the 18th century it was common for castratos to sing female roles in opera (though it does not seem to have happened in London), so a man in a frock singing roles from female characters in opera is nothing new!

With the other concerts, Fiachra finds that it helps audiences if the concerts have titles. So, the festival opens with Love and Loss, Rosanne Philippens (violin), Ben Goldscheider (horn) and Fiachra in music by Schumann, Franck, Huw Watkins and Brahms. The starting point for this was Brahms' Horn trio and as there are few works for this combination of instruments they were keen to include Huw Watkins' one. The first half includes Franck's Violin Sonata, written for the wedding of violinist Eugene Ysaye, whilst the Brahms is more elegiac, hence Love and Loss. Serendipitously, there is more Brahms the following evening, Beautiful Brahms, as Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) bring an all-Brahms programme that they are touring. Saturday starts with Glimpses of Light with the Amatis Trio in piano trios by Schubert, Andrea Tarrodi and Shostakovich, this latter was written under the influence of the Nazi death camps yet has a ray of hope at the end. The final concert, Snapshots of a Romance features soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper (piano) in favourite songs and arias by Verdi, Chausson, Hahn, Puccini, Strauss and Britten.

And for all the concerts, Fiachra is pleased that they are using a large Fazioli grand piano provided by Jacques Samuels.

Classical Vauxhall 2021

Full details of the festival from the Classical Vauxhall website.

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