Reflecting Olympian ideals in music

Lindsay-KempWed 16th May 2012

This year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music takes as its theme the great sporting event

I wonder when one of those polite pleas will turn up in the Gramophone letters page for greater appreciation of the music of Zbigniew Turski? An archive search suggests that no piece of his has ever been reviewed in the magazine, yet this is no less a figure than the Gold Medal winner for Orchestral Music at the 1948 Olympic Games. In the other two music categories no gold was even awarded; man, that competition was tough!  

1948 was the last time the Olympics gave out medals for the arts (architecture, literature, painting and sculpture were also included); no doubt the dubious amateur credentials of a man like Turski, a former Polish Radio producer and conductor of the Baltic Philharmonic, made it all look rather untenable, though it would hardly be a matter for concern these days.   But of course, the very idea of outright competition in artistic disciplines has always been a troublesome one. As Sir Steve Redgrave remarked in the London Evening Standard this week, compared to clear-cut ‘faster, higher, stronger’ events, those such as gymnastics or synchronised swimming that have to be decided by judges can look shakily subjective.

When, about two years back, I started thinking about this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, I became attracted to the idea of giving it an Olympic theme not just because it was obvious (yeah, yeah, London 2012 and all that), but because I could see a worthy challenge in reflecting Olympian ideals in music. How could two such different ways of looking at things be seriously brought together? It’s the kind of challenge that makes festival-theming fun!  

The starting point was easy; I had to have Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade, in which an Athenian athlete agrees to compete under his friend’s name, not knowing that the prize he’s going to win for him is his own lover (it works out right in the end). When I found that the Vivaldi-mad Adrian Chandler was planning performances of the piece with his group La Serenissima, I knew that the Olympic theme was on. There may not quite have been general rejoicing in Trafalgar Square at this point, but I was pleased anyway.

After that, things just kept falling into place. A mythical musical dispute is played out in Bach’s cantata ‘The Contest of Phoebus and Pan’ (brought to us by the Dunedin Consort), and everything from cricket to cudgels and boxing to cockfighting (oh yes, and cheating) surfaces in a specially devised concert of 18th-century sporting ballads by voice-and-fiddle duo Alva. Then Christian Curnyn of the Early Opera Company contributed the brilliant idea of a re-creation of the notoriously contentious relationship between Handel’s two great sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. And for good measure, I also booked two international early music competition winners in Ensemble Meridiana and ensemble savādi.

But, as we all know, any good Olympic competition is about more than just winning.   Sporting festivals and musical ones bring together minds, bodies, ideas and skills in a celebration of what we as human beings can offer one another, and I wanted to reflect the spirit of co-operation and friendly rivalry that any such international event must demand. So we open with Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations offering a mini-tour of musical Europe, while other concerts examine some of the great stylistic unifiers in Baroque music: Muffat, Couperin and Telemann. This is how the theme eventually settled at ‘Contests, Competitions and the Harmony of Nations’, a meeting which I hope will leave performers, audiences and promoters enriched, inspired and spurred to greater endeavours. Let’s hope the Olympics can do that too.

The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2012, ‘Contests, Competitions and the Harmony of Nations’, runs from May 18-26 www.lufthansafestival.org.uk

Lindsay-Kemp

Gramophone critic and Baroque music expert Lindsay Kemp is artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

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