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Flying the Flag: 30 years of Baroque Music in London

This is the full text of the 6th annual Lufthansa Lecture, presented at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square, in London on 17 May 2014.   It was delivered by Dr Tess Knighton, Artistic Director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque from 1984 to 1997, and Research Professor at the Institut Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Barcelona.

The only reason I can actually believe that the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music has been flying for thirty years is that it also means I have been married for thirty years to Ivor Bolton, the Festival's Founding Musical Director: it feels like a lifetime! If it seems strange for me to begin this talk on such a personal note, it is, in fact, not altogether inappropriate. The Lufthansa Festival could be said to have grown out of a combination of personal and public relations: it could be said that it succeeded because our musical friends supported the Festival, and those who supported the Festival financially became our friends. I have written about the origins of the Festival in the programme book and don't propose to rehearse the story again now. The names of many of those who contributed so generously and so loyally to the venture appear there, and to all of them I am personally deeply grateful. Looking back now, I can see that there was a second marriage in 1984, a marriage between two visions of how a festival of music might enrich people's lives and represent quality, elegance and innovation. Yes, I'm talking now about both the Festival and the airline.

From the start I felt very strongly that if an international company was prepared to support artistic endeavour and creativity, then they should receive due recognition for that financial support. The quid pro quo was for me incontestable: money had always been needed to support artistic endeavour, whether it had come from the Church, the aristocracy or the state. The use of a Lufthansa designer for the brochure, and the colours of the airline (at that time yellow and silver), was subtle, but lent an immediate identity to the Festival, with the iconic logo of St James's Church and the use of the stylish Helvetica type-face. That clean design cannot compete with today's splendidly sumptuous brochures, but then it distinguished the Festival as something new and different in the London concert calendar. Then there was the name. Despite the emphasis during the Thatcher era on increased business sponsorship of the arts, it took several years before the media, including BBC Radio and the arts pages of the national newspapers, would accept that the name Lufthansa formed an integral part of the title of the Festival: free advertising, whatever next! To me, it seemed that if a company such as Lufthansa wanted to invest in a festival of Baroque music rather than a page of advertising in the Financial Times, that was very much to their credit and deserved due recognition. Few companies would choose to convey their message in such a subliminal way but one that enriched so many lives. It was only in 1988, when another good friend, Teresa Levonian Cole, who was then working for The Sunday Times, persuaded the paper to include the Lufthansa Festival - sponsor's name notwithstanding - in their promotion of tickets for the leading summer festivals up and down the country, that it began to be acknowledged universally as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, rather than the St James's Festival. Somewhat ironically given this initial resistance, it has now for many years been known simply as the Lufthansa Festival.

But Baroque music was what it was all about, about music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries being performed in a Baroque church on Baroque instruments - or at least copies of them - with all that that implied for a new exploration of the music of the past. This was the fundamental artistic vision behind the Festival and informed the approach to programming from the start. Visually, Christopher Wren's interior to St James's Church, Piccadilly, offered the perfect performing space. The church was finished, appropriately enough in 1684 - the first Lufthansa Festival taking place in its tercentenary year - and is striking in its architectonic proportions and the way it is filled with light that sets the gilded stucco a-glitter. Together with the exuberance of Grinling Gibbons's altar carvings and marble font, the church's interior was perfectly in tune with the balance, the intricacy and the airy brilliance of Baroque music. If the acoustic was far from ideal for many repertories, and the wooden pews were unforgiving, the intimate splendour of the setting felt right, and it felt right for the recreation of the sound-world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1998 the Festival migrated to St John's Smith Square, which was completed in 1728 by Thomas Archer. Again, light and proportion, plus a quiet environment for concert-making. 

By the mid-1980s, historically informed performance was already preparing for take-off. London led the way with period-instrument orchestras such as Trevor Pinnock's English Concert, Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, and Andrew Parrott's Taverner Consort and Players, not to mention smaller ensembles such as London Baroque, The Purcell Quartet, Trio Sonnerie, Fretwork and many others. The clarity of sound and transparency of texture of period instruments allied to the technological revolution brought about by the CD resulted in an unprecedented limpidity and perfection of recorded sound and a musical brilliance and elegance that proved irresistible to the listener and the concert-goer. I had personally been converted to period instruments at masterclasses given by the Baroque flautist Stephen Preston as early as 1977. Preston explained how the nature of the one-keyed Baroque flute influenced the way in which Bach and other Baroque composers wrote for the instrument. Phrasing, breathing, articulation, melodic nuance through ornamentation, tempo, pitch, and a certain built-in unevenness of tone: all these fundamental elements of music corresponded to the specific qualities of the instrument that the composer had in mind as he wrote. It brought the music alive because it was all about nuance, about melodic shape, about underlying rhythmic patterns, about tension and release, ebb and flow, and not about the single aspect most assiduously taught to modern flautists: a loud, smooth and even tone that should be applied indiscriminately to music of any kind and any period. The Dutch Baroque flautist Wilbert Hazelzet was one of the earliest musician friends of the Festival, and appeared many times with the ensembles Musica Antiqua Köln and Trio Sonnerie. Here he is with the members of Trio Sonnerie playing a short movement from one of the Paris Quartets by Telemann.

[CD example 1]

So stylish, so elegant: these artists playing these works were featured at the Festival before they were professionally recorded. Indeed, it was Wilbert Hazelzet who helped to bring Musica Antiqua Köln to the Festival for their London début. One of the distinctive hallmarks of the Lufthansa Festival has been the potential opened up by an airline sponsor to fly in the leading Baroque specialists from abroad. While the major British period-instrumental ensembles were already travelling to European festivals, the reverse was not the case. Although early music festivals were springing up in the UK, notably the Early Music Centre Festival in London and the York Early Music Festival, and concert venues such as the Wigmore Hall were beginning to present successful series of early music concerts, it was relatively rare to be able to find the best performers from abroad. This may in part have been due to the embarras de richesses of the UK early music scene, but there was also an important economic factor: it was expensive, often prohibitively so in the age before cheap flights, to bring over a group of musicians and their instruments. It seemed to me that Lufthansa's sponsorship could make a real difference to the London concert season because together we could do just that: we could offer audiences in London new perspectives on the interpretation of Baroque music by flying in performers not only from Germany, France, Italy and Spain, but also from Canada and the United States - even Russia. The international artists featured in the 1980s by the prestige recording companies - Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and EMI - on their specialist early music labels were already becoming known to British music lovers, but there were few, if any, opportunities to hear them live in concert. This opening up of musical experience - both in terms of different interpretations of Baroque masterpieces and of exploring unfamiliar repertory - was key to the pioneering vision behind the Lufthansa Festival, and was - and has continued to be - one of its distinguishing aspects. 

So in 1986 Musica Antiqua Köln, with their inspirational violinist-director Reinhard Goebel, flew in from Cologne to perform three of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - a concert forever etched on my memory: St James's Church was full to capacity, with people standing in the organ loft and sitting on the window sills of the upper balcony, and the atmosphere was buzzing with anticipation. Reinhard and his players waited at the vestry door to make their entrance. Few present in the audience would have realized how close we had come to having to cancel that landmark concert or how at that very moment the brilliant but unpredictable German violinist had whispered in my ear 'zere vill be no interwal'. This was a minor catastrophe since Lufthansa had invited their guests to drinks in the courtyard - during the interval - and there was no possibility of communicating this unexpected change of plan to Rita Zampese, Head of PR. Potentially much more disastrous, however, was the phone call I had received from Reinhard a few days previously. He explained that they had 'ein klein problem', a minor problem: two of his key players for the Brandenburgs had Argentinian passports and had no visas to travel to Britain. A flurry of phone calls to the Home Office, the Foreign Office, Immigration and I don't remember where else, ensued. There was complete consensus: no chance of visas since, following the defence of the Falklands in 1982, we were still technically at war with Argentina. Such are the joys of being a festival director. In the end, the Argentinian players, who were studying in Basel, were allowed into London on their Swiss visas, and as I watched them walk into the church to a storm of applause I heaved a huge sigh of relief. The performance that followed was unforgettable: fast, furious, brilliant, virtuoso, exhilarating - Bach's music was taken by the scruff of the neck, given a good shake and revealed to us anew. This was not the sewing-machine music of which Bach's detractors had so often complained; it was inspirational, effervescent, irresistible, a celebration of life, a veritable dance to the music of time. Let's hear the last movement of Brandenburg Two from the recording made by Musica Antiqua Köln for the Deutsche Grammophon Archiv label shortly afterwards.

[CD example 2]

Musica Antiqua Köln were much applauded for their Brandenburgs, but also criticised by some for the speed at which they took these brilliant concertos. Tempi were faster, true, but Reinhard unleashed the virtuosity that is their essence, their raison d'être, and the apparent ease with which they were performed belied that virtuosity and made the listener experience them afresh as exuberant dances full of rhythmic vitality that foregrounded long-range harmonic tensions and resolutions. No-one could quite believe that Baroque winds and trumpets could be played with such dazzling virtuosity.

Fresh musical insight and innovative interpretations lay at the heart of what the Lufthansa Festival has consistently aimed to offer, then and now. The complementary aim - to explore little known repertory from the Baroque - was also an integral part of Reinhard Goebel's philosophy. He employed the image of the lighthouse to bring out the importance of exploring the music of the past. For him, the masterpieces of the great composers - Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell, Telemann and others - were beacons that shone out over the long centuries of European cultural heritage. Yet at the foot of the beacon, in the penumbra of those great and timeless works, but nevertheless glowing against the darkness of oblivion, were those other pieces by composers who lurked in the shadows of the history books. Reinhard, through his own research in German archives, recovered many long-lost masterpieces, including works by Biber, Schmelzer, Heinichen and others, and this sense of rediscovery was also an integral part of the vision behind the Lufthansa Festival.

Probably it should be part of the vision of all music festivals of all kinds to present a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar, to win the audience's trust through coherent programming and outstanding, memorable performances. Music, much more than the visual and literary arts, has a curious physiological effect on the mind, simply because it is performed and experienced in the moment: musical performance is framed by time and in time. The listener cannot say 'Hold on, I'd like to hear that bit again!', nor can the performer say 'Hold on, I'd like to play that bit again and get it right this time!'. Time passes, the music progresses inexorably to the final cadence, our response, our emotions, our musical memory endeavouring to keep abreast of the flow. Memory has a huge role to play in how we experience music. Pieces that are familiar to us from repeated hearing wrap around us like a favourite old coat: we know the feel, the texture; we sense instinctively the warmth and protection it offers. The unfamiliar is far less comforting: it can be prickly, unexpected, difficult to come to terms with, even alienating.

The problem of unfamiliarity is far more acute, of course, in the case of contemporary music, yet it can still be difficult to sell a programme of works by Samuel Scheidt or Thomas Arne or Jean-Henri D'Anglebert or Giuseppe Torelli or Antonio LĂ­teres, composers whose works have come to emit a lesser radiance across the centuries. Their music is, of course, fantastic, but you couldn't describe it as familiar, except perhaps to a handful of experts. No artistic director of a festival would want to adopt the musical supermarket approach with Vivaldi's Four Seasons recurring as frequently as the eponymous pizza. Actually, I do wonder whether anyone does go to these quattro stagioni concerts that are fly-posted on every available surface of a town like an urban paper rash that flares up for a few days and then mysteriously disappears. But for the success of a festival you do have to attract a faithful audience, often with the lure of the familiar to explore and experience the unfamiliar. Let's take Vivaldi as an example. The four concertos of the Four Seasons form part of a set of twelve that were published in 1725 with the title 'The contest between Harmony and Invention', and dedicated to a Bohemian count. In the early years of the Lufthansa Festival, Ivor Bolton and the St James's Baroque Players featured the other eight concertos as well as other little-known works by the Italian composer who had such a profound influence on Bach and the virtuoso concerto idiom he exploited in the Brandenburgs. A highlight of this musical exploration of little known Vivaldi was the performance of his three then all-but-unknown serenatas in concerts by St James's Baroque Players. These became showcases for excellent young singers destined to make a mark on the international opera circuit. For example, the 1989 performance of Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante at St James's Church featured the baritone Gerald Finley and the mezzo Susan Bickley. Ivor was particularly good at finding such singers through his work at the National Opera Studio and Glyndebourne, and the sheer quality of their voices brought out the previously unknown qualities of the music. Ivor's own career as a conductor had, of course, quickly progressed to the opera house and he continued to invite international vocal stars such as the Swedish soprano Katarina Karnéus who sang in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in the 1998 Festival. Fortunately, BBC Radio 3 recorded that concert in St John's, so we can hear a little of that famous lament, so beautifully sung on that occasion.

[CD example 3]

Many stars made their London debut or rare London appearances at St James's, and the tradition has continued at St John's. Many of those who performed at the Lufthansa Festival in the early years developed a long-term relationship with it, returning time and again and becoming part of its extended family of performers. Among many others were Tafelmusik, Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble, Fabio Biondi and L'Europa Galante, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Concerto Köln, Cantus Köln, Al Ayre Español, Hespèrion XXI, and many, many others. Special relationships were forged with soloists such as the male alto Andreas Scholl, who first sang at the Festival in 1997 with La Petite Bande in St James's, and again, two years later, with his sister Elisabeth in St John's. An unforgettable experience for both myself and my immediate successor as Artistic Director, Kate Bolton, was a visit to the Scholl family in their home town of Kiedrich in September 1997, together with Bernhard Jung and Willi Vogler, our stalwart supporters at Lufthansa. We were shown round the parish church where the younger Scholls had belonged to the choir, and were treated to the tasting of local Rheinland wine in the family home. Let's hear a little of Andreas's magical voice, in Bach's cantata 'Vernügte ruh'', BWV 170.

[CD example 4]

Another memorable moment was St James's Baroque Players's 250th-anniversary performance, in June 1993, of Handel's Dettingen 'Te Deum'. Lufthansa flew over to London a choir from Dettingen specially for the occasion. The music critic Meredith Oakes wrote in The Independent: 'The conjunction of a big amateur choir, much of it not English-speaking, with St James's Baroque Players, whose style is supremely cultivated and professional, must have caused a certain amount of apprehension all round, but things went unbelievably well.' It was indeed a terrific performance, crowned, quite literally, by the presence of the Festival's patron, the Princess of Hesse and the Rhine, and her godson the Prince of Wales. Earlier in the day St James's Church had been checked out by sniffer dogs, and the prince's bodyguards whisked out some extra cushions to mitigate the effect of the church pews on the royal spine, slightly injured in a game of polo a few days previously. It is marvellous to see that St James's Baroque Players, conducted by James O'Donnell, are performing the 'Dettingen' Te Deum again this year, this time round the corner in Westminster Abbey.

The continued success of the Lufthansa Festival owes much to my successors as artistic directors. Both Kate Bolton, whom I've just mentioned, and now Lindsay Kemp, have kept the flag flying, always respecting and building on the original vision of the Festival as a celebration of Baroque music by the best international artists, and consistently giving pride of place to original programming that mixed the familiar and unfamiliar and to compelling interpretations that have opened our ears and reached our hearts. I think we have all valued spontaneity and fantasy in concerts performed at the Festival: that 'something special', that intangible connection with our musical culture, that moment of frisson when the music penetrates your whole being. One such moment for me was when in 1990 the Escolania de Montserrat sang music by Joan Cererols in Westminster Cathedral, the boys lined-up in perfect formation and singing from memory, with both a sense of discipline and a profound understanding of the polyphonic idiom. They brought the same approach to the football match they played against the boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir in the school courtyard. Well, we all know how good the Spanish are at football!

When I asked Kate and Lindsay about concerts that had particularly lingered in the memory from their own times as artistic director, Kate mentioned the visit of the Russian Patriarchate Choir and of the Neapolitan Baroque ensemble La Capella dei Turchini. Lindsay immediately responded with Philippe Herreweghe's B minor Mass, the opening concert of the 2011 Festival, as well as harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt's last London recital in St Gabriel's, Warwick Square, that same year. Lindsay also recalled the previous year's late night concert of improvisations by the gamba-player Paolo Pandolfo whom he described as 'an absolutely inspiring musician'. Here is Pandolfo, improvising on the Passamezzo moderno

[CD example 5]

Brilliant and inspirational - almost other-worldly. I wonder what you, the audience, remember from the last thirty years - yes, thirty years, because I know that there are people here who have been coming to the Festival every year since it began. And this is really important: I have spoken of how we have consistently striven to offer unusual and inspiring concerts, and how Lufthansa's sponsorship helped to bring artists from abroad who were otherwise rarely heard in this country, but we could not have been as adventurous, as experimental at times, without an audience as loyal and as open to the unfamiliar as you. In the end, I think that perhaps the success of the Lufthansa Festival has come down to one thing, quality: quality of performance and quality of music, brought to you, yes, by a quality airline. I am very sad that Lufthansa no longer feels able to continue with their support for the Festival, but in 1984 I never would have foreseen that that support would continue for three decades. That is something we must celebrate, even as we hope that support can yet be found to enable the Festival to continue for another thirty years, flying the flag of excellent performances of Baroque music in London.

Return to The Lufthansa Lecture Archive