Kings Place Festival - and the importance of building bridges
‘What kind of music do you like?’ I’m often asked this, and as it’s usually by people who know what I do for a living, by this I assume they mean: what genre or era of classical music do you particularly like? It’s a perfectly fair question, and before joining Gramophone more than a decade ago I suppose I might have had a shot at an answer, having then areas that I was particularly focused on. But an outcome of a role like mine is that, by necessity, you adopt a much greater breadth of listening, constantly challenged by the critics, whose championed recordings vie for Gramophone Choices each month, to step out of any comfort zones and discover the new. Depth of knowledge is perhaps sacrificed slightly for breadth, but I’m immensely grateful to know music I might never otherwise have done. So I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer anymore, even if I do mumble something about guitar music...
What’s all this got to do with Kings Place Festival, you may well be asking by now? Well, the festival, which spanned a long weekend last week at one of London’s newest concert halls, epitomised such an approach to music, challenging visitors to listen to something new, and crucially, making it easy to do so. Events were presented throughout the day and throughout the venue's two halls and foyers, each one lasting no more than 45 minutes. One day I saw soloists from the London Sinfonietta begin with a set of ‘birthday candles’ by Simon Holt, before tackling Lutosławski and Bartók, followed 15 minutes later by another concert, of soloists from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performing Haydn’s music for baryton. Returning the following day, the Saccioni Quartet unpacked the themes of Bartók’s Third Quartet before offering a thrilling performance of it in a programme called ‘What’s Under the Bonnet?’. Then a little after that violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky took to the stage for an illustrated talk on transcribing the Goldberg Variations.
Forty-five minutes isn't a long time, and I'd hesitate to recommend it as the new norm. But used imaginatively, it can feel just right: just enough time to spend 25 minutes discussing a complex quartet, 17 minutes playing it, and three minutes taking questions, for example. Or to squeeze in two baryton trios and a duet. Whether by design or simply because the format implies such a thing, all concerts wore an air of informality, musicians talking openly to audiences - indeed when one concert began without such interaction, it suddenly felt a bit unnatural.
As varied as my experience was, in many ways it was one of the more conservative paths you might have taken through the festival. I also caught some Indian dance as well as a capella pop arrangements, but in addition there was jazz, folk and world music on offer, plus comedy and spoken word. Even a canal boat trip. Bringing audiences from different art forms together is not easy: the South Bank tries it with occasional site-wide festivals, and indeed by their very nature as arts centres both it and the Barbican embody such an approach. Radio 3, through programmes like Late Junction, does its bit too. All such organisations will acknowledge the challenges in trying to achieve audience crossover, but when it works, the audiences are often the first to express their gratitude for being taken outside their comfort zones (something I see at first hand: my wife runs a theatre which puts on drama, dance and music, and sometimes various combinations of all three at once). Festivals like that at Kings Place are an important part of a worthy mission.
And of course, if you want to create a little festival of your own at home spanning the full breadth of all that classical music has to offer, then you could do worse than explore the winners, from early to contemporary, of the Gramophone Classical Music Awards, announced next week…
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.