A Festival of Classic Proportions

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I’ve lost interest in music festivals of late. Partly because I’ve rarely heard of who’s playing and partly because, in the last few years, music festivals have become somewhat two-a-penny and there doesn’t seem to be anything to distinguish them. It’s a shame that the increase in music availability online and the gradual demise of the CD have driven impoverished pop stars to play live to make a living, but it seems as though anyone with a back garden and a spare tent is hosting a music festival these days. In a way, it’s great to have the choice but, personally, I’ve had about as much interest in going to a muddy, midge-infested field to stand shoulder to shoulder with sweaty individuals for the sake of some second rate derivative cover band as I have in, well, going to a music festival. It’s not that I don’t like them any more, simply that my interests have changed. I like a more sedentary option, something less active, less…contemporary…something more…classical.

It was Biggles who brought Serenata to my attention. I’d not heard of a classical ‘festival’ before (unless, of course, one considers the Proms a festival) but it sounded intriguing, how does one do a ‘classical’ festival? My imagination flitted from Victoriana-dressed couples walking among string quartets in quaint country gardens to a full orchestra going bananas with the 1812 Overture culminating in the timpanist tipping his drums over and the brass section flinging their instruments into the crowd as the demented assembled thousands whoop in unison to this Who-like dénouement to a big stage gig. Back in the reality of the Quo Vadis lounge, I asked him where it was happening and he uttered the magic word: Dorset. There was something of a perfect storm happening here…three days of classical music in a setting in the Dorset countryside. In spite of the off-putting ‘F’ word, this sounded like my idea of Nirvana (so to speak).

Less than a fortnight later, Jonesy and I are hot-footing it down Piccadilly, cursing traffic as we bound into the Dover Street Arts Club to meet Lesley Malpas, Serenata’s founder. In a rare trip to London amid the maelstrom of those final stages of putting the event together, we managed to catch up with her for a chat about the forthcoming festival that has captured the media’s attention. I don’t waste any time.

“Why Dorset?” I ask. “We live in Dorset,” comes Lesley’s response. So it is as straight-forward as setting up in your back garden? Well, not exactly, but it helps that Dorset is home to many a landowner keen to diversify and as luck would have it the first site they saw, Smedmore Estate, was perfect. “We knew as soon as we saw it. It’s boutique, it’s nestled against Smedmore Hill in the background, it overlooks the sea, it’s stunning.”

Setting Up Festival Check List. Item #1: Find location. Tick.

I wonder if the rest has been as simple. Passion projects such as this usually take years to get off the ground, particularly the first of their kind, so I’m surprised to hear that the idea was only conceived last summer. Something like this in less than a year? It must take a background in event management. “My background is actually in coaching and developing talent,” says Lesley. “I was working with Nick Patrick, who is a record producer for Katherine [Jenkins] and Russell [Watson], and we were working on a production for Sky at the time. When that came to an end I was looking for a new platform to develop talent, that’s how this idea initially started.”

Naturally, passion projects begin with what you know but I’m curious about how a talent contest – one of Serenata’s features – is folded into a festival format. Lesley explains, “Over the three days we whittle down 40 entrants to two winning artists, one instrumentalist, one vocalist. We’ve had international applications for this event, because of Katherine it’s gone internationally in terms of the press and media coverage, so we’ve had people from Russia, from Canada, India, you name it.” And these are members of the public, they’re not professional singers? Surely there must have been thousands of entrants like, dare I say it, some sort of classical X-Factor. I’m relieved at the response; “No, they are students studying classical music all over the world and have heard about this as a serious platform for classical music students with a talented panel of professionals and artists,” Oh, phew, there’s a degree of gravitas to it then. Genuinely, this doesn’t sound like a gimmick to give the festival an edge, it’s distinctly possible we’ll be seeing the discovery of a new star here. Lesley confirms this, “There’s prize money and, of course, the opportunity to perform on stage on the final night so it’s a serious opportunity for young artists. In fact, we’re in the process of doing that now, writing the format for the talent competition.”

It’s a good angle for the event but I’d naturally assumed the idea for a classical music festival comes from an interest in classical music. “Really, I’m not a sort of purist,” Lesley tells us. “I always say it’s a bit like the sky, I can pick out certain constellations but I couldn’t name every star, and that’s how I am with classical music. Sometimes it takes people from outside that core world to ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ and ‘Let’s do something new here’.” That’s a very intriguing point. Were a purist to set something like this up it might threaten to become too specialised, too niche and alienate a broader audience.

But even though the hardcore classical element may have been diffused by the talent search, it still might just feel like Proms in the Park. It needed something else. “I then thought about putting it in a rock festival format,” says Lesley. This, it would seem, would make it a festival in the true sense of the word. She continues, “So I went and had a chat with some friends in the music industry and they said that hasn’t happened before, doing this sort of event in this way. As you know there are some wonderful classical festivals out there but what we’re doing that’s different is putting it into a rock festival format, multi-stages, a broad repertoire so you have your core classical on one side, crossover artists like Katherine and Russell and then right over to the other side with classical jazz, classical comedy, even a classical nightclub.”

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