Don't let the hype fool you: there's more than one show in town this summer. The number of classical music festivals in the coming months is truly huge, and you're in for a treat whether you're after big or small, old music or new, concerts or opera, a trip to the south of France or a week in Aberdeen. Wherever you're based in Europe, or if you feel like taking a musical break there in the next few months, there's plenty to choose from. Below are just a few standout moments from the truly Olympian summer and autumn of music festivals ahead.
With almost a hundred Proms on offer, making a selection isn't the easiest of tasks. But Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven / Boulez cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – which sees all Beethoven's symphonies performed alongside works by Pierre Boulez – is a piece of programming which will be fascinating to hear in action, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra's all-Mendelssohn concert should be an interesting tribute to the composer, their former director. A pick for the children will be the Wallace and Gromit Prom with the Aurora Orchestra, featuring some new animations and a Concerto in Ee, Lad, of course, and you can also hear Staff Benda Bilili, a group of paraplegic street musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Plenty to choose from as ever: take a look at our more detailed Proms picks here for more.
But the European music season is far broader than this, and the Proms have a major UK rival in the shape of the Edinburgh International Festival. Despite also packing in a huge schedule of theatre and talks, its music, opera and dance schedules are world-class, with turns from numerous top orchestras and soloists. Particularly mouthwatering is the range of opera available, with Opera North, Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera, who are doing a total of four contemporary works. Les Arts Florissants are also performing Marc-Antoine Charpentier's seldom-heard sacred opera David et Jonathas. Whichever part of the three-and-a-half weeks of the festival you can make is bound to be more than worth the trip.
Not that huge festivals full of fantastic classical performances are an exclusively British phenomenon. We discussed goings-on in Salzburg, Rheingau and Dubrovnik in a feature a few months back, but they are all still well worth a close look. And anyone heading remotely near Amsterdam this summer should make sure to stop by for a few of the Robeco Summer Concerts at the Concertgebouw. It's a mightily impressive programme of events, and already under way. Dynamic young violinist Pekka Kuusisto is leading the way with a number of concerts, both orchestral (Vivaldi's Four Seasons) and chamber (a Paganini recital with guitar and a tango recital), and a number of other stellar soloists are featured as well: Ronald Brautigam, for instance, is playing four concerts and an obscene amount of Beethoven. A contemporary pick is Steve Reich's Drumming, with a top line-up of percussionists including Colin Currie and Joby Burgess along with Synergy Vocals.
The Festival International de Piano de La Roque d'Anthéron is another huge continental festival, set outside in the grounds of a southern French castle in a spectacular acoustic shell. The festival, in its 32nd year, attracts a huge number of top pianists (Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Khatia Buniatishviki) as well as orchestral ensembles (Hong Kong Sinfonietta, National Orchestra of Hungary) and jazz groups (Portico Quartet, Tord Gustavsen Quartet). It runs in July and August, and spectacular sounds and scenery are guaranteed.
Several exciting opera festivals are also heading this way, in an amazing range of locations. Any Wagner fan should be fascinated to learn about a Bayreuth Festival coming to Barcelona this summer: the Liceu Theatre will host the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus in concert performances of Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin and Tristan. A rare chance to hear this iconic opera company outside their normal home: they don't tour elsewhere, and this is only the third time they've been to the Liceu – the other two having been in 1955 and 2011.
We mentioned the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland back in April, but it remains very much worth a look if you want adventurous repertory in beautiful surroundings. It features a combination of new works (Kimmo Hakola's La Fenice, Markus Fagerudd's Free Will) and classic pieces (The Magic Flute, Peter Grimes). And a little later in the year, the opera world will be treated to some more bold programming by Wexford Festival Opera. They're putting on works by Cilea, Chabrier and Delius this autumn and there's a vibrant "Fringe Festival" featuring art and pubs too.
Early Music Festivals
A particularly fascinating summer festival is the Festival Oude Muziek (Early Music Festival) in Utrecht, which in the space of ten days manages to fit in 86 events of various sorts, from recitals featuring Bach Collegium Japan and the Gesualdo Consort to guided tours of Museum Speelklok, a treasure-trove of mechanical instruments which play Bach automatically. An intense but stimulating week looks guaranteed, and early music enthusiasts should think seriously about making the trip this August.
This is the first of a trio of European festivals for which Baroque enthusiasts may want to take some sabbatical time off work and rent a tour bus. In September, the Baroque place to be becomes the Croatian town of Varaždin, where the Varaždin Baroque Evenings Festival will be entering its 42nd year. A number of distinguished European Baroque performers attend, but it's not just about music: there is also Baroque visual art, literature and food. It's a well-informed and lively celebration of a fascinating and culturally rich historical period.
And just as exciting is next January's Valletta Baroque Festival in Malta, which is hosting talents including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Les Talens Lyriques and The King's Consort. The organisers have big plans for the festival, hoping to put the historic city of Valletta firmly on the Baroque map – and with various beautiful and period-appropriate concert venues, it will surely be a fascinating couple of weeks.
For those after a beautiful location with more variation of repertoire, the Festival International de Musique Sion Valais might provide the answer. Set in the beautiful, ancient Swiss city of Sion and in venues in the old city and up the mountains too, this festival is particularly renowned for its violin competition, held every other year – not this year, but Artistic Director and violinist Shlomo Mintz will still be on hand to present several recitals and welcome soloists such as Nikolai Lugansky and I Cameristi Della Scala. Between concerts, the local vineyards may well be worth a look.
For new music aficionados, sound in Aberdeen is now in its eighth year and has an amazing and edgy line-up coming this October. Works will range across the contemporary spectrum, with new commissions from composers as varied as Robert Saxton, Claudia Molitor and Paul Mealor (a Professor at the University of Aberdeen, and of recent Military Wives fame), and ensembles including Counterpoise and the Kungsbacka Trio are playing, as are the National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Scotland. It is high time to challenge any preconceptions you might have about contemporary music, or, um, Aberdeen, and sound is the place for this to happen.
If nautical introspection is more your thing, then the Valery Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam is the place for you – or "Sea and You", to quote the title of this year's theme. Gergiev is at the helm, mooring audiences at performances of Verdi's Otello, Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and more, while boatswain Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes charge of the ship's wheel for a frothy final concert of sea-themed works well worth splashing out for.
It's not just Gergiev that gets his own festival, though: the seventh Malcolm Arnold Festival will be taking place for one weekend this October as well. The festival celebrates the music of this important British composer, who died in 2006, in his home city of Northampton, and this year it is crowned this year by the world première of his opera The Dancing Master, being paired in a semi-staged production with Johann Strauss' ever-popular Die Fledermaus.
A rather more famous composer celebrated in festival form is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who demands the attention of Salzburg for a week at the end of January: the Mozartwoche (Mozart Week) in Salzburg commemorates this titan composer's legacy with a series of concerts of Mozart and more. Opening proceedings is his rarely-heard early opera Lucio Silla, and in an inventive twist of programming the festival also features other works on this subject – Silla, or Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was a Roman dictator – by Pasquale Anfossi and J.C. Bach. The line-up of performers is stunning, and the repertoire is broader than might be guessed.
If you're destined for London this summer but would rather avoid the crowds, the Westminster Abbey Summer Organ Festival will offer some respite in the city centre, with its range of recitals by top organists encompassing repertoire from the Baroque to the contemporary.
The Leicester International Music Festival looks set to be another charming festival on a relatively small scale this autumn. Set in Leicester's New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Artistic Director and oboist Nicholas Daniel leads the way in a festival programme inspired by the meeting of art and music, with core classical repertory set alongside new pieces by Michael Berkeley, Jonathan Harvey, David Matthews and Sven-Ingo Koch. Daniel will be joined by the exciting Carducci Quartet, among others, and deserves points for inventive programming. Daniel will also be at the International Wimbledon Music Festival in November with the Britten Oboe Quartet, and this festival is also welcoming top performers including Alina Ibragimova and Mark Padmore. This festival has already expanded hugely in a relatively short amount of time, and is one to watch keenly.
Not content with these two festivals under his belt, Nicholas Daniel will also be heading this autumn to the Oxford Chamber Music Festival, now in its twelfth year. This carefully curated concert series is themed around "Fairytale & Fantasy" this year, and works its top selection of chamber players hard, with stars such as Ilya Gringolts, Maxim Rysanov and Alasdair Beatson playing in numerous fantastical, and no doubt fantastic, recitals.
So that's the surface scratched, but there's plenty more to explore as well: after all, it's not a sprint, but very much a long-distance run. Take a look here if you fancy venturing further afield around the UK, and you can browse a more comprehensive list of upcoming festivals here. Don't let the Olympics steal the show in the coming months: classical music is going for gold, and it's far easier to get a ticket too.
29 June 2012