Thursday 12 October 2023

First Person: Sholto Kynoch, artistic director of Oxford International Song Festival

Sholto Kynoch
Sholto Kynoch

As the Oxford International Song Festival (formerly the Oxford Lieder Festival) opens tomorrow, artistic director and founder Sholto Kynoch reflects on 22 years of festival making.

It might be the first time it’s been the Oxford International Song Festival, as we change from Oxford Lieder, but for the 22nd time in my life, I am sat at home waiting for the Festival to begin tomorrow. I reflect that, as of this year, I’ve now been doing this for more than half my life! Some things have changed significantly since the early days, when a group of student friends started a little festival. Some things remain very much the same.

Tonight is what I might call uncomfortably calm. I know that the brilliant Festival team have everything under control, I’m more or less on top of my own preparations, and there’s really nothing more to be done. And yet it’s hard to relax, even with takeaway fish and chips and a glass of wine. There’s always that feeling that I’ve surely missed something, coupled with a childlike excitement that will probably keep me awake all night. My requisite three annual anxiety dreams are long done and dusted: it’s all real now.

That sense of anticipation has been a consistent eve-of-Festival feature over the years. Though there are plenty of demanding and stressful elements to running an event like this, this is my favourite time of the year. When else do I get to perform what I want, with who I want, where I want? When else do I get to immerse myself in other people’s wonderful music-making multiple times every day for sixteen days? And when else do so many friends, both musicians and attendees, fly in from all over the world – or just pop round the corner – for this celebratory fortnight of song?

There are some things I don’t have to worry about anymore. Twenty years ago, I’d have been up half the night formatting, printing and folding programmes. I’d have been fielding questions from artists who’d not been given any advance information on their rehearsals, and probably making up last-minute posters and the like. Friends would help out, but we were learning on the job. Today, we have an exceptional team, led by our brilliant Director of Administration Taya Smith, who make everything run like clockwork. So at least I won’t be worrying about those things.

The Festival programme is very personal, something I’ve spent at least a year thinking about in detail, and longer than that planning in concept. Unveiling it – earlier in the year – is always a tense moment (will people like it?) but now I’ll be worrying all night how people will actually experience it. Feedback this year has been great, but I don’t believe it until I see it. There’s no point doing this if people aren’t enjoying it, and something I’ve learnt over the years is also what a profound experience the Festival, at its best, can be for people. It’s not the happy-go-lucky approach of those early years: it’s much more important, and the pressure has grown proportionally.

We may have ‘professionalised’, but the essence of the Festival is the same. Whenever I’m not playing, I like to be standing at the door greeting everyone personally. The atmosphere is welcoming, fun and informal. We’ve seen many friendships made (and the Festival has even been an unwitting matchmaker on more than one occasion!) and it’s always wonderful seeing the mix of new and familiar faces arriving for concerts.

So, I think I won’t sleep well tonight, but I will wake up tomorrow bursting with energy and eager for the day ahead. With any luck, enough energy to see me through sixteen days and then I can collapse. It’s a fortnight like no other, and I can’t wait.

The Oxford International Song Festival ART:SONG Images / Words / Music’ runs from 13 to 28 October in venues across Oxford. More information from the Festival website

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