The prospect of attending an arts festival carries associations of being on holiday, of unleashing yourself from predictable routine in a spirit of immersive enjoyment. But the challenges of putting it all together as a festival director are enormous. When it comes to mastering an instrument or voice, emerging musicians have something tangible with which to practice. But what does it take to run some of the biggest classical music festivals worldwide? 

Bachtrack spoke with four eminent festival directors who shared their insights and perspectives on the factors that go into determining success and sustainability at the events they helm: David Pickard, who began his directorship of the BBC Proms in 2015; Jane Moss, the force behind Mostly Mozart, the White Light Festival and numerous other ventures at New York’s Lincoln Center, where she has been artistic director since 2011; Ruth Mackenzie, the Holland Festival’s artistic director since 2015 who was awarded the CBE for her directing of the cultural programme of the 2012 Olympics in London; and Fergus Linehan, whose tenure leading the Edinburgh International Festival began in 2015. 

These four directors discussed topics essential to their respective roles at these large-scale festivals, each of which has a unique character, history, and sense of mission. At the same time, some shared ideas emerged that are more widely applicable to the art of being a festival director in this era of rapid change for classical music and its presentation. 

Festival visions 

With the robust tradition of the BBC Proms as a basis, David Pickard says that his vision is “not to remake the wheel but to develop and take that tradition – [original Proms co-founder] Henry Wood’s mission ‘to present the best of classical music for the widest possible audience’ – to different levels. That means keeping the artistic quality high but also finding some of the great artists and groups that haven’t been to the Proms, including performers and composers as well. You do feel the boundaries coming down to an extent as to what we consider a classical music project.”

Since beginning her association with Lincoln Center in 1992, Jane Moss has observed the decline of the old model of subscription series. Festivals, in contrast, offer exciting possibilities because they can be built according to “different kinds of organising principles. Festivals allow one to look at programming in different ways.” The Mostly Mozart and White Light festivals might present some of the standard repertoire, but the contexts ensure distinctive experiences – even for the same audience members.

Moss explains how this works in the context of White Light’s mission statement, “to illuminate the many dimensions of our interior lives”: “When we have an orchestra performing a transcendent version of a Mahler symphony at the White Light Festival, with its special focus, it has a different quality. What we try to do at Lincoln Center is to make sure there is a resonance to the many kinds of things being presented, so they are not just a random collection of events.” 

Ruth Mackenzie immediately refers to the starting point of the Holland Festival in 1947, when cities including Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Avignon all “spent money they didn’t have and turned to international artists to ask how to build the future after the war.” While some were concerned about these resources being spent on art rather than food and housing, she says, the impulse was based on a conviction of the urgent need for art to reimagine a way out of the ruins. “This created the Holland Festival’s tradition of innovation, and the big question always is: which artist do we invite? How can we make today’s festival as essential as it was then? That’s a high bar to follow.”

Though of the same vintage as the Holland Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) has developed a different sense of mission, observes Fergus Linehan, because the city’s cultural offerings in general feature less of an abundance, for example, of “famous top orchestras coming through all the time.” Linehan’s vision is to balance the special-event appeal that EIF’s programming of world-class artists has for aficionados with reaching out “to be accessible to larger group of the public.” 

And because the audiences for the festival are often distinctly segmented into fans of classical music, theatre or dance, it’s important “to find ways to connect the work we’re doing in those different areas. The opera crowd tends to stick with what’s going on in the opera scene, for example, but we can create a larger sense of curiosity about the other disciplines.”

Programming choices 

The BBC Proms has faced resistance from some quarters for committing to gender balance, pledging that half of all new commissions will go to women composers by 2022. According to Pickard, his role is “to think about those areas which are underrepresented, and in the music world there is some way for us to go.” As for general guidelines to programming choices for the more than 90 concerts in a typical season, he says that “each concert needs to stand on its own. But it does help if there are a few little tent poles along the way to help guide the audience.”

Moss finds the principle of programming around a “theme” to be constricting, preferring to program a festival that has a more flexible idea behind it. “That allows you to think creatively as a curator, and it gives you greater freedom in a certain way.” She cites the White Light Festival and its guiding idea of illuminating the interior life. “Because it’s a big idea, you can go around the world with it and juxtapose many different kinds of works. This in turn can foster greater curiosity in the audience.”

During his first years at EIF, Linehan focused on broadening access – with tangible results, including a new record in ticket sales for the festival’s 70th-anniversary edition in 2017. “Now that I feel confident within some of these areas, I’d like to push out in terms of programming work that experiments with form and tackles difficult questions.” He also intends to look more closely at “the ways in which we present concerts and theatre and other events. EIF is a festival of virtuosity which we’ve made more accessible. A festival is also a place where you can explore new ideas.” This is especially true nowadays, he believes, when people are going to arts events in search of something more than escapism.

Mackenzie points to a sense of privilege and responsibility that comes with “being part of the public service. Everybody in the city has paid for this festival through their taxes, and everyone deserves to have a voice and a part to play.” Working with Amsterdam’s Moroccan community, for instance, has led to new programming ideas. “There are lots of different ways in which you can empower your local audience to become partners.” This involves thinking “not just about the content of a show but also in the form of its presentation, how the audience and performers interact.” 

Mackenzie, who has directed festivals in several countries around Europe, adds that the financial structuring in place is conducive to this kind of experimentation, which is part of the Holland Festival’s DNA. “The Dutch government has been a model in how to organise a transparent and open system of funding and evaluation for the arts.”

Another point about what influences festival programming relates to what Jane Moss describes as increasing fragmentation of audiences. One way of addressing this phenomenon is to offer “many different events for different groups of people”, but with the large venues in place at institutions like Lincoln Center, it also means programming the kinds of events that might appeal to “several different audiences all being funnelled into the same event.”

A favourite example in recent seasons is George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. “We had the usual Mostly Mozart crowd, the opera crowd, the new music crowd and, more surprisingly, a big theatre crowd.” With this degree of intersecting interests, “the numbers can start to mount up.” 

Moss observes that competition for attention in New York City has been increasing – at the same time as the press’ commitment to coverage of the arts being radically reduced. “One of the advantages of the festival structure is that it is a way of standing out in a very crowded marketplace. It’s like the situation with independent voters who have not made up their minds. The arts market is becoming like that, as ticket purchases are being made on a last-minute basis.”

Cultivating an atmosphere

Moss’ insights about the advantages of a festival atmosphere are especially pertinent within the context Lincoln Center, a mammoth performing arts complex where many regular subscription seasons run concurrently. In the case of the other three festivals under discussion, this unique atmosphere is already in place. But there are ways to enhance it.

“Nobody comes away from a Prom saying, ‘That was a routine night out,’” Pickard remarks. “Just being in the Royal Albert Hall is totally different... There’s an atmosphere and sense of occasion being with the Prommers, which I experienced growing up. We are lucky to have that. But every night needs to be special. We need to make sure that we are putting on this level of quality and are a place where you can hear things you never heard before: pieces that orchestras would probably quake to put on in a regular season, like Per Nørgård’s Third Symphony, which is receiving its UK première [at the 2018 Proms].”

For Mackenzie, the festival atmosphere can be enhanced “by the themes or issues we choose to explore, or the way we try to develop form and content. It might be by exploring innovation through participation or the digital dimension. This also has to do with what happens when you put lots of artists and projects together and have an audience who are consciously using the festival as way to experiment. The audience of the Holland Festival are incredibly brave and committed. They might see something they love or that shocks and horrifies them, but they know that’s what a festival is: a safari, an adventure.”

Linehan believes there’s an enduring attraction to the core idea of a festival “in the Wagner festival sense, as he realised it at Bayreuth. He wanted a special time apart where you’re reflecting during the day and are then prepared for the performance. We have something of that atmosphere here.”

Indeed, during festival time in Edinburgh, he notes, the city becomes “a very busy and contested space,” with the Festival Fringe and Literary Festival occurring during the same period. The challenge isn’t just to sustain a festival atmosphere, but one that holds its own in relation to the parallel festivals. “We are conscious that we are part of an Edinburgh experience which spans all of these festivals,” Linehan says. “And we do work closely together so that we’re not competitive. In my time you’ll never see a scenario where one festival does better than the other. They all do well or do poorly.”

The result is a kind of synergy that works against the tendency for audiences to segment. “You have every conceivable level of performance going on, from small choral works to major international ensembles. The whole industry is pushed together as one, so you might have have Christine Goerke singing Wagner and 50 yards away someone is doing their first stand-up show. I don’t know anywhere else where that exists.” 

Advice for emerging festival directors 

“Follow your head! Do what you believe in,” insists David Pickard. “I’m very much aware that every time a new Proms season is announced, some people love it and some people don’t. You have to be stubborn and hold out for what you think is right. Then you can create a festival which has real integrity. The key thing is to maintain and develop the thread that is there.” 

Preserving a special sense of meaning is pivotal for Jane Moss. “There are lots of festivals around. You need to stay focused on a festival that has meaning of some sort.” She has found that the most successful performing arts events “always have enormous passion attached. For a festival, you need somebody who is an advocate and who is passionate about what they are presenting. Audiences do not want programming based on a focus group. They tend to respond to vision. If you start with the premise: ‘We want an audience of XX and therefore will do YY, because we think we know what they will like’, it almost never works. The audience will respond to a director who has passion.” 

Moss’ other key piece of advice: “You have to keep it new all the time. The minute it becomes a formula, you will get into trouble. Art truly is a life force, and you have to keep nourishing it. Art can take over in a way few things can, opening up different dimensions of yourself.” 

Fergus Linehan recommends cultivating “at least one area of absolute expertise. If you have within one genre a more complete understanding, you can make sense of everything else and broaden out from that. People who try to be complete generalists from the start run into trouble. At a festival, you constantly put yourself in the discomfort of those areas which you don’t know so well. This helps you to be prepared for that.”

For Ruth Mackenzie, the cardinal advice for a festival director is clear: “You have to listen: to your audience, to your staff, to everyone involved. You have to trust your own instincts. And you have to trust the artists. If you do trust them, you may get a bad piece of art, but you will never get a good one if you do not trust the artists. Above all you have to defend the freedom of the arts and the freedom of the audience to enjoy experimentation. It sounds straightforward, but none of that is easy. On the practical level, I have to say that everything is my fault when something goes wrong. And offer to buy everyone drinks at the end of it all!”