An eminent Arts Editor of the Birmingham Post would always wince whenever I used the word “indefatigable”. “You write as though you’ve swallowed a dictionary,” he would comment, and I dutifully found another way of saying what I wanted to.

But “indefatigable” is the exact word to describe Richard Phillips, about to preside over his 107th arts festival when the popular Leamington Music Festival hits town at the end of the month. As is always the case with Richard, the Festival has the knack of homing in on vibrant pegs, whether composer anniversaries, local connections, or even topical issues, such as Ukraine. How does he explain his nose for this gift?

“It is partly who I am and my experiences in life and partly working in the arts, mostly in the world of music, for more than fifty six years,” he replies. “I did not programme concerts or festivals until I was in my forties, so had been listening a long time!

“I studied history at university and have always valued the past, particularly as I was born and brought up in and have lived for the last forty years in a beautiful William and Mary house in the historic town of Warwick.  Naturally composers’ anniversaries chime with that and in particular if there are local connections

“My experience of festivals goes back to the 1950s, including seeing Ralph Vaughan Williams conduct his Dona Nobis Pacem at a Three Choirs Festival.  Festivals used to be a succession of names which would perform what they wanted and the papers began to talk about rent-a- festivals.  Themes and more intelligent planning came into vogue thank goodness during the 1980s and that is when I got going.”

Returning familiar performers are always a joy at Richard’s festivals, but he also scouts around for new faces, too.   

“Listening to Radio 3 throws up new talent and I read music magazines and the arts pages of newspapers, although sadly serious music is not given the space that it used to command.  We have had a lot of musicians to stay over the years and one always tries to socialise and if a musician one admires gives he thumbs up to younger ones, then I take notice.

“We all receive a lot of emails – it used to be leaflets and CDs – and I can usually pick out the right ones for us simply by reading a biography – where did they study and where are they performing?

“I am bringing in fewer new musicians now, but when I was doing 3 or 4 festivals in a year, plus a number of concert series, including lunchtimes, then one could try people out.  I did a lunchtime series in Solihull and note that it included Angela Hewitt, Steven Hough, Olli Mustonen and Joanna MacGregor and many other well-known names.”

What does Richard think are the characteristic hallmarks of the Leamington Festival? Might it be in the frequent exploration of eastern European composers?

“It is Czech music that I most value and that all stems back to being in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and having a Czech family, with the mother educated in Leamington during the War, subsequently staying with us in Warwick when the Russians and ‘friends’ invaded on 21 August that year.

“Alena’s father had been in the Czech Free Army stationed in Leamington and district 1940-42 and the Army Choir used to rehearse in the Royal Pump Rooms, often with the conductor Vilem Tausky who was to come three times to our festivals.

“We have had most of the leading Czech quartets to Leamington over the years, as well as the famous Czech Nonet, the Guarneri Piano Trio and many others.  We have a great relationship with the Dvorak Society, which is streets ahead of any other organization supporting composers in terms of producing an audience.  The 2024 Festival plans for a further Czech music feast are coming on well.”

Does the impact of the Leamington Music Festival spread around the town?

“The Festival always has some impact, but of course nothing like Warwick Folk Festival which takes over the town for a weekend.  The size of the buildings we use and the fact that the music we programme is mostly on a scale that is not suitable for large buildings has an influence.

“The recent Halifax choices of the best places to live included Leamington!  It mentioned that the town had a football and a rugby team.  It did not say that it had four orchestras, even more choirs and a rather good festival which brings in musicians working internationally. I could use the words ‘world class’,, but I always think that is rather meaningless, let alone OTT.”   

*Leamington Music Festival 2023 runs from April 27 to May 1, chiefly in the Royal Pump Rooms. Among the performers are Michael Collins, Amy Dickson, Gemma Rosefield, and Michael Seal conducting the Sinfonia of Birmingham. There is a generous ticket offer price of £1.00 for children and students for all lunchtime and evening concerts. All details on www.leamingtonmusic.org.


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