Hampstead arts festival returns

The Hampstead and Highgate Festival went out in a blaze of glory two years ago, with an unprecedented number of acts but a mountain of debt and dwindling audiences.

So it is with tentative steps that the classical music festival returns to the village.

The renamed Hampstead Arts Festival is a dramatically downsized reincarnation of its former self.

Three classical music concerts and a series of literary talks by broadcaster Piers Plowright in Burgh House are on the menu for this autumn’s return, after the organisers spent a year balancing the festival’s books.

Despite having to go back to the drawing board – severing its ties with Highgate in the process – their ambition remains to create a tradition befitting the vociferous cultural appetites of Hampstead residents.

The Rev Stephen Tucker, chairman of the festival’s board of trustees, said: “We have had to rethink some of the festival’s raison d’�tre, but we have decided primarily to focus on Hampstead. With the need to relaunch the festival, we thought it best to put our roots down in one community, starting small and building big.”

In 2010, under the leadership of a new artistic director, the festival made an effort to broaden its appeal.

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Organisers now recognise that the festival outgrew its audience and are taking a back-to-basics approach.

Ems Magnus, a trustee on the board, said: “Forty events was way to much for a festival here.

“Events like the literary talks by Piers Plowright are always going to be sold out, but we had some experiments with modern music and unknown composers who we wanted to launch.

“It was too much to expand with not enough people to pay for the costs, so we decided we had to start from scratch this time around.

“It’s about getting it right and doing it in a more business-like manner, being very careful about our budget and making a strategic plan – essentially making sure the community is on board.

“We would like to end up with a fully fledged festival again in the autumn, but we need to build it up first. We just want to be an ongoing part of cultural life in Hampstead.”

While the programme looks sparse, this year Mr Tucker is keen to restore the festival to its pre-eminent position in the Hampstead arts calendar, with plans to feature jazz and visual arts in the near future.

“In coming years we may need to consider employing an artistic director again, because it’s difficult to put on a festival that’s anything like the size it ought to be without someone doing the work,” said Mr Tucker, who plays the flute in his spare time.

“That’s something we have got to work towards.”

The Hampstead Arts Festival will kick off on May 22 with a performance by Britain’s longest-running chamber music ensemble, the Allergi Quartet, at Hampstead Parish Church.

For tickets visit www.hamandhighfest.co.uk