We caught up today with violist Lawrence Power to talk about his upcoming West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival, and why it's one of the best-kept secrets in the classical music world.
Lawrence Power is a musician who hardly needs an introduction. Since leaving the Juilliard School at 20, he has risen to the very top of the viola-playing world, turning down an invitation to lead the Berlin Philharmonic viola section in favour of pursuing a career as a soloist and chamber musician. As well as being a dedicated performer of the existing viola repertory, he is a keen champion of contemporary music, premiering concertos by such leading compositional lights as Krzysztof Penderecki, James MacMillan, and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
But this weekend you’ll not find him treading the boards of metropolitan concert halls. Every September for the last five years Power has retreated to the small village of West Wycombe in South Buckinghamshire to curate his own chamber music festival. Each evening local enthusiasts make the pilgrimage up West Wycombe hill to the beautiful (and very aptly named) Church of St Lawrence to hear musicians play who ordinarily would sell out the Wigmore Hall.
So what is it that draws Lawrence each year from the high-octane lifestyle of international touring to a small village nestled in the Chiltern Hills?
It began very simply: I was organising a memorial concert for my grandmother, who lived in the area, and I was fortunate to know a lot of incredible musician friends who I invited to come along and play. It somehow felt like a wasted opportunity to just perform a one-off concert in such a lovely place, so we met up again the next year to play two concerts and called it a festival (which is the minimum number of concerts that you can call a festival!). After that it’s grown a little bit each year. I’m not fussed about getting the radio and critics there, one has enough of that during the year. You meet so many lovely people on your travels, it’s nice to get them all in one place.
A brief perusal of this year’s line-up reveals that Power’s ‘musician friends’ are a star-studded bunch: Mark Padmore, Anthony Marwood and Adrian Brendel, to name a few. All are international soloists in their own right.
So how does the Power dream team come up with their programmes?
I often start by planning programmes that I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the chance to perform elsewhere, but this can be difficult before you know who’s coming. I’m lucky in that I’ve played with many of the festival musicians before so we can often play pieces we've done in the past and save rehearsal time. Through that, a theme tends to emerge. This year, it’s music written between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the fin-de-siècle period which I’ve always found so interesting musically.
The WWCMF is now in its fifth year. What does the future hold for the festival?
The one thing I would love to do is expand the educational side of the festival. I’ve lead masterclasses for a few local musicians on the Friday morning, but it would be great to take more musicians in. I’m also hoping to get a small orchestra together to perform some baroque music next year.
Honestly, I’ve found that after attending festivals all over the world, the most enjoyable ones are the simplest and most straightforward. I'm not interested in making it big and glitzy - there are enough concerts around like that already!
Power’s approach to the festival’s direction may be simple but his programming is far from perfunctory. The four concerts mix an eclectic range of compositions from the less well known works of Rebecca Clarke and Venezuelan Reynaldo Hahn to those of the more popular John Williams, Brahms and Korngold.
Are there any pieces we should particularly look out for?
Enescu’s Octet, which closes the festival, is real a masterpiece and the Kodály Serenade for two Violins and Viola has been a great discovery. Mark Padmore will be singing Vaughan-Williams and Ravel - he’s one of the great tenors singing today, in my opinion.
Lawrence has published the full programme listing at westwycombechambermusic.org.uk
What role do you think the internet has to play in the future of classical music?
I have to admit that I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to social media - I’m yet to fully embrace Twitter and Facebook - but the power of social media to draw in the younger generation (the holy grail!) is undeniable. The internet is obviously the way forward if we’re to attract people born after 1985.
Do you think there’s something about the standard recital format that younger people may find alienating?
If I knew the answer to that I’d be a very wealthy person! I’m not one for dumbing down - classical music is what it is. I think it’s far more important that, as they grow up, kids are able to appreciate the importance of hearing a beautiful piece of music or looking at a beautiful painting without the need for neat tricks to attract their attention. I’ve always made sure that the concerts are free for students and under 18s, which means they can dip in and out as they choose.
After the festival you’re being shipped off to Trondheim to perform a mixture of chamber and solo repertoire. How do your roles as chamber musician and concert soloist relate to one another? Is it an easy switch to make?
In a way, each one informs the other. Whether you’re playing with a small group or an orchestra, you just want to perform a piece of music well. Ultimately I think that whatever you do should be extended chamber music: that ideal where everyone knows what’s happening, hears what’s happening, and listens to one another.
One final question, what are you listening to at the moment?
To be honest it tends to be music that I’m performing! Listening to the music you’re learning is always quite helpful. For musicians the time around when you’re performing is sacred.
I thanked Lawrence for allowing me to trespass on his sacred free time and put down the phone as the sounds of his rehearsal beginning began making their way across the line.
The West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival runs from Thursday 17th September to Saturday 19th. Tickets are £15 for evening concerts and £10 for the Saturday morning concert. FREE for students and under 18s.