BUXTON FESTIVAL: Future is bright for summer arts festival

Randall Shannon, Executive Director of the Buxton Festival. Photo: Melissa Downhill.
Randall Shannon, Executive Director of the Buxton Festival. Photo: Melissa Downhill.
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Executive director of the Buxton Festival Randall Shannon is particularly pleased by this year’s programme.

“The purpose of a festival brochure is that it has to bankrupt you,” he says. “You have to pick it up and think: ‘Gosh, yes, yes, yes, yes!’ and want to see far more than you can possibly afford… and I think we have achieved that.”

For starters there are three spectacular Festival operas. Beethoven’s Leonore is the original version of the opera that would become Fidelio.

Explains Randall: “It was written in 1805 at the height of Napoleon’s power just after he’d taken Vienna and the opening night was mostly to French soldiers and it was not a success. Beethoven was very depressed… he spent a long time worrying about how it could be made better. He did another version in 1806 and then the final version that became Fidelio in 1815.”

Randall and artistic director Stephen Barlow think Leonore is “much stronger dramatically” than Fidelio but want audiences to make up their own minds.

In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there is also Bellini’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi.

A scene from the Buxton Festival production of Beethovens Leonore. Photo: Robert Workman.

A scene from the Buxton Festival production of Beethovens Leonore. Photo: Robert Workman.

“It is the Romeo and Juliet story but based on a different source. So whereas in Shakespeare’s version they are teenagers, in this version Giulietta is the daughter of the head of the Capuleti family but Romeo is the leader of the Montecchi, so basically Giuletta is in love with her father’s worst enemy.”

In Handel’s Tamerlano the Tartar emperor of the title spares the life of his prisoner Bajazet after pleas from Bajazet’s daughter, Asteria. Says Randall: “Tamerlano and Asteria are in love, so again the daughter’s in love with her father’s enemy. Musically Handel operas are glorious. The three operas are stylistically very different. Everyone knows Handel, everyone knows Beethoven. In a way the unknown one is Bellini. The tragedy of Bellini is that he died when he was 33-years-old.”

Other key highlights include leading international pianists Stephen Kovacevich and Angela Hewitt, The Chilingirian Quartet, baritone Roderick Williams, tenor James Gilchrist, The Schubert Ensemble, The Northern Chamber Orchestra and The English Concert. Randall adds: “It’s good to have the mix between the really established and the less established. We have young Jackie Campbell, a 15-year-old pianist from Chetham’s School who recently won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, and also a young quartet, the Jubilee Quartet.”

Randall is confident that there is something for everyone with a thriving books programme and diverse music including the burgeoning late night series featuring alternative folk group, Tir Eolas, Digby Fairweather’s show The Swing’s the Thing and band Paprika, straddling Eastern European, gypsy and classical traditions.

It is very exciting, and it’s a huge privilege to be part of such a wonderful event and call it work.

Randall Shannon, Executive Director of Buxton Festival

Much as all this seems like a July bonanza, Randall points out that the Festival has a year-round programme including the Literary Weekend in the Autumn and its Poetry Competition as well as its outreach work and the Kaleidoscope community choir. He is particularly passionate about the Festival’s school initiatives.

“The creative arts aren’t seen as an important part of the curriculum any more… There is an impression of creativity as something special that is only given to ‘artistic’ people and my point has always been that every child is a creative animal… I think an organisation like ourselves has a role to play to bring creativity back in.”

Randall is keen to stress that the Festival is not “just something that happens because it’s worthy”. With 50 per cent of its audience coming from more than 50 miles away and enjoying accommodation and sustenance in the town, he maintains: “Buxton Festival is a serious economic driver in the town”. He says the opening of the five-star Crescent will enable it to market itself internationally.

At the time of interview, the festival had already achieved 83 per cent of its target ticket sales and with three home-grown productions and its opera programme agreed for the next three years, it could be forgiven for resting on its laurels.

The Chilingirian Quartet.

The Chilingirian Quartet.

Randall says: “The future is looking very good… but because the Festival looks so successful, because we bring a lot of people into the town, there is an assumption that we are well off and we are not. We do live on a knife-edge because ticket sales are such a high proportion of our income.”

He says this year’s three productions have happened because of “one very generous donor supporting Tamerlano. We need to enthuse more donors because the reality is that we have to raise 40 per cent of our turnover every year.”

For now though it’s all about July 2016 and that impossibly bulging programme. “It is very exciting”, he concedes: “And it’s a huge privilege to be part of such a wonderful event and call it work.”

• The Buxton Festival of opera, music and books runs from July 8 to July 24. For tickets, visit www.buxtonfestival.co.uk.

Classical pianist Angela Hewitt performs on Tuesday July 19 at the Pavilion Arts Centre.

Classical pianist Angela Hewitt performs on Tuesday July 19 at the Pavilion Arts Centre.