Lammermuir Festival: taking stock, 8 years on

James WatersTue 12th September 2017

How the Scottish festival moved from early ambitions to awards success

As the Lammermuir Festival – the recipient of this year's RPS Award for Concert Series and Festivals launches its 8th season this week, its co-artistic director reflects on what it aimed to achieve, how well its done against that initial vision, and where it goes from here.   

As we approach the 8th Lammermuir Festival and in the wake of our 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award now seems a good time to take stock.

Setting up a festival used to be a radical idea, but now unless there is a clear vision and a gap in provision beyond simple artistic aspiration, the advice must be ‘don’t’. So why create the Lammermuir Festival in 2010? We wanted to provide excellent music-making for an under-provided area and to use culture to put a strikingly beautiful part of Scotland on the map. 

One of the challenges to our nerves in our first year was marketing a new festival with absolutely no mailing list. We thought it was great but would anyone actually come? The moment when an audience turned up at a church in the middle of nowhere was one of great relief, thanks to really effective marketing distribution and investing properly in PR.

Three things make a good festival: excellence of programme (obvious but often forgotten in the need to hit funders’ criteria); a location worth visiting even without a festival; and a combination of performance and location which is as near as possible unique. East Lothian has no concert hall, but does have the highest density of historic buildings in Scotland. This is an opportunity, not a problem.  

Each year we undertake a ‘venue crawl’ for new locations. We find the right place for each concert, but equally important is to find the right performance for each location. A definitive Lammermuir event was our performance of Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof in the Concorde Hangar, but 1500 people braving Tantallon Castle for a visual installation runs it close.

We very carefully fitted the festival into the summer festival schedule to avoid clashes. We also developed a very clear artistic policy which differentiated us from the East Neuk Festival (another RPS winner) who were our closest comparator. We have a very big brother down the road in Edinburgh, but the Lammermuir experience is entirely different. A wide variety of unexpected venues where you can park (free!) within 50 yards of the door, artists of the highest quality and a sense of intimacy and community which has given the festival a rather special atmosphere reflected in the loyalty of our ever-growing audience. We were pretty clear that the Lammermuir combination of place and artists was unique in Scotland.

Our programming is based on Scottish performers of international standing – BBC SSO, SCO, Dunedin Consort, National Youth Choir of Scotland, as well as our patron Steven Osborne. Into this framework we drop major visiting artists such as Alison Balsom and Francois Leleux – this year we host Alban Gerhardt, Quatuor Mosaiques, Tenebrae and the Orlando Consort.  

So what have we achieved?  We are now running a highly regarded 26 concert festival drawing more than 50 per cent of its audience from outside East Lothian. 

The festival is now well-respected enough that we can be ambitious with our choice of artists and, thanks to our funders and remarkable private sector supporters we are, for the time being, financially secure. We have been very lucky indeed to do this under the aegis of the Lamp of Lothian Trust with its musical tradition going back to Menuhin.

Unfinished business?  One of our founding aims was to inspire young people to become involved in classical music. We have not done enough here, but our performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde last year involved 130 young performers and sparked the creation of a new music school in Dunbar. The most important work we can do going forward is to embed the festival in the community of East Lothian in a way which harnesses world class performances to increase the quality of life in the county.

James Waters

James Waters is co-artistic director of the Lammermuir Festival

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