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A Tradition of Renewal: The History of the Lufthansa Festival

It may take two to tango, but it took several to create a festival of Baroque music. It is perhaps rare that a collective vision should converge and be realised in a single event, but that is what happened, and that is what no doubt laid the foundations for its success.

In 1984 Ivor Bolton and I were married in the Wren church of St. James's, Piccadilly, where he had been appointed Director of Music by the then rector, the Reverend Donald Reeves. Donald was a man with a vision: for him, St. James's was to be a centre for as many activities of a positive and creative kind as possible. A more than competent organist himself, he set out to enable music (among many other things) to happen in the church, and his energy and enthusiasm were matched by those of Ivor, not long graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, where he had been Organ Scholar. And, it could be said, it was in the formation of the St. James's Baroque Players to accompany Ivor's performances of Bach cantatas at Sunday services that the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music had its roots. The St. James's Baroque Players also performed in some of the concerts that formed part of the 1984 Piccadilly Festival, a wide-ranging arts events organised at the church; the following year the concerts were grouped under the title of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music with Ivor as Musical Director.

This is where the next person came in. Rita Zampese was then Head of Public Relations at Lufthansa's London office, almost opposite the church in Piccadilly, and, impressed by the vitality and quality of events at St. James's, she agreed to underwrite a mini-series of concerts of Baroque music at the Piccadilly Festival. For the following year it was proposed that these concerts should be expanded into a festival in its own right: the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music as a self-contained event was born.

The vision behind the Festival was simple but unique. Although London in the 1980s was already a hive of activity as far as early music was concerned, there was no single festival dedicated to music of the 17th and 18th centuries performed on period instruments. Also, those concerts of Baroque music that did take place in the major concert halls in the capital were largely given by British ensembles. Having an airline as the sponsor meant that it would be possible to bring over to London internationally-acclaimed ensembles and performers from abroad, many of them for the first time. Indeed, in many ways, it was the performance of three Brandenburg Concertos by Reinhard Goebel's Musica Antiqua Köln in 1986 that secured the Festival's identity: the church was packed, the audience had never heard anything quite like it, and the resulting cheers resounded along Piccadilly as far as Lufthansa's offices and beyond.

The tradition of bringing together the best period-instrument ensembles and early music soloists from home and abroad has afforded the Festival a unique perspective on changing approaches to performing Baroque music, and this remains perhaps its principal defining characteristic. It has certainly been fascinating to see how those changes have been reflected over the years: if there has been a new development out there worth hearing, Lufthansa has usually gone out and got it, from one-to-a-part Bach (Joshua Rifkin performed Bach's St. John Passion for us in 1991) to the rise of professional chamber choirs (our own St. James's Baroque Singers were the mainstay of the Festival's Handel oratorio performances for many years), and from the rejuvenating influence and brilliant musicianship of continuo-based improvising groups such as Tragicomedia and L'Arpeggiata to ear-opening connections with world-music styles demonstrated by groups of the likes of Sarband, Joglaresa, Ensemble Organum and the Russian Patriarchate Choir.  

The Lufthansa Festival has charted fashions in repertoire change - Vivaldi's vocal music is popular on record these days but, when Ivor Bolton conducted the three surviving serenatas and the oratorio Juditha triumphans between 1989 and 1996, they were real rarities - and has been among the first to welcome musicians from countries where, 25 years ago, Baroque performance practice and period instruments were almost unheard-of; the early 1990s witnessed visits by ensembles from eastern Europe, Spain and Italy, all with their own things to say. Early UK performances by now major stars (for example, Andreas Scholl in 1996, Magdalena Kozená in 2000) have been a feature, as has exploring the territory where 'modern' and 'period' performance meet, notably in the innovative Bach-based series of piano and chamber-music recitals in 2000 and 2006.

The Lufthansa Festival was unique in another respect, however: it was, as far as I'm aware, the first to build the sponsor's name into the title of the actual event. Yet this was more meaningful than merely bringing the name of an airline more prominently into the public domain: it represented the close symbiosis between sponsor and event from the start, a shared vision of what a music festival could be and of how to realise it successfully. Many of the names involved have changed down the years, but it is thanks to the continuing close working relationship between Lufthansa and the Festival's successive Artistic Directors that the original vision has been faithfully maintained.

It is still just as much of a thrill for me now to go to concerts in St. John's, Smith Square, as it was in those early days at  St. James's, especially as I no longer have the stress of having to put out the music stands, move the harpsichord, obtain last-minute visas for Argentinian musicans, sell the tickets at the door, ring the bell for the start of the concert and then stand at the doors at the back of the church to persuade the homeless and the drunk to stay quietly in the courtyard until the performance is over. But it was all part of the adventure. It has been a voyage of musical discovery, and contributed greatly to London's musical life: long may it continue to do so.

Tess Knighton
Founder Artistic Director (1984-1997)