Every spring, London hosts a month-long celebration of the great Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, who made Georgian London his adopted home. There are Handel festivals in his native Germany too, but what makes London Handel Festival (LHF) an unmissable event for Baroque music lovers is that it brings together many of the venues that have historical links with Handel’s personal and public life, such as his parish church St George’s, Hanover Square, his house in Brook Street and his favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital (now a museum). Also, through the two pillars of the festival – the annual opera production in collaboration with the Royal College of Music and the Handel Singing Competition – the festival can be credited for discovering and nurturing young singers at the start of their careers.

Laurence Cummings
Laurence Cummings
The 39th festival runs from 8 March to 11 April 2016, opening with a staging of Handel’s undisputed masterpiece Ariodante at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music. It will be directed by James Bonas, who returns after a imaginative production of Giove in Argo last year. The casts will consist of young singers on the RCM International Opera School and the London Handel Orchestra will be led from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings, the inspirational music director of the festival.

The Handel Singing Competition, which started in 2002, has now become a popular fixture of the festival, and the 2016 final will be held at St George’s Hanover Square on 4 April. The illustrious list of past prizewinners and finalists include Andrew Kennedy, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Anna Devin amongst others. The prize money is not huge, but the greatest prize for the winner and the finalists is that they are all given the opportunity to perform in the main festival the following year, and many of them return regularly. The Finalists’ Concert (for the finalists of the 2015 competition) will be held in the elegant Picture Gallery of the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury on 23 March, and the Catalan baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé, who won the first prize, is definitely a talent to watch out for.

St George’s, Hanover Square is the spiritual home of LHF and many of the concerts, including the Singing Competition final, are held here. The performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Good Friday (25 March), another annual fixture, will include Nathan Vale as the Evangelist and Tim Mead as the alto soloist. The Associate Director of the festival, violinist Adrian Butterfield, leads two concerts – with the chamber choir Pegasus (11 March) and the Southbank Sinfonia Baroque (18 March). Opera Settecento, an exciting company that specialises in reviving neglected eighteenth-century operas will present a Handel pasticcio (31 March). During the festival, there is also a lunchtime concert series featuring young, upcoming baroque ensembles.

St Georges Hanover Square
St Georges Hanover Square

The must-see event for Handelians in particular is the concert “Chandos 300: Handel Cannons Te Deum” (7 April) at the beautiful baroque church of St Lawrence, Little Stanmore near Edgware in north London. This church is a real hidden gem with a historical link with Handel – it was where Handel’s church music for the Duke of Chandos was first performed when he was the resident composer at nearby Cannons.

One should also emphasise that LHF is not only about Handel, but features the music of many of his contemporaries such as Bach, Vivaldi, Hasse, Telemann to name a few. “Handel and his European Connections” at the Wigmore Hall (5 April) by the London Handel Players looks at the music of Corelli, Purcell, Quantz and Leclair.

Catherine Hodgson
Catherine Hodgson
The festival will close with Handel’s rarely performed oratorio Alexander Balus at St John’s Smith Square, with the London Handel Orchestra and Singers directed by Cummings. A good festival programme should have a healthy mix of well-known and lesser-known works, and this oratorio will be a discovery for many. Composed relatively late in Handel’s life in 1747, it is a sort of sequel to the more popular Judas Maccabeus written a year earlier. With a strong cast led by Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupić in the title-role (it was originally sung by a female alto), it should be an entertaining evening.

Amazingly, this large-scale festival is run on a relatively small budget and is almost single-handedly managed by Festival Director Catherine Hodgson, who is bowing out after the 2016 festival. There is a team to assist her during the festival, but in the months running up to it, she organises everything from her office in Somerset, liaising with musicians, working with the venues, marketing, and designing publicity materials. Furthermore, in her 16 years, she has strengthened the overall structure and developed the festival through collaborations with new venues and external groups, which are beneficial to both parties.

 

This preview was sponsored by London Handel Festival.