Going for a song

GEORGE Vass is on a tight schedule in the run-up to the opening night of this year's Hampstead and Highgate Festival

GEORGE Vass is on a tight schedule in the run-up to the opening night of this year's Hampstead and Highgate Festival.

As well as organising the programme and using his charm to pull in some world class performers, he is also set to play a starring role as a conductor.

The festival is a feast of classical music but also includes poetry readings, exhibitions, comedy, cinema and a series of intriguing talks and events including one that looks at how composers' works are influenced by their dreams.

"I don't think people realise quite how phenomenally high the standard is at this festival," said Mr Vass. "It's as good as anything at the Wigmore Hall or the South Bank and yet it's right on our doorstep. It's some of the best playing in the world and it's also at a very reasonable price."

The festival has a wealth of first class musicians but the performers with perhaps the highest profiles are pianist Stephen Kovacevich and baritone David Wilson-Johnson.

"To say Stephen is a big name is a bit of an understatement - he's world class. I'm really happy he's playing," said Mr Vass.

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"And David is a phenomenal singer - he sang Beethoven's ninth symphony on that famous Last Night of the Proms after 9/11. He's playing there again this year and he does a lot of work at the Royal Opera House.

"There is also the Carducci String Quartet who are fantastically good. They are an English couple and an Irish couple and they've won seven or eight international awards and are due to make their debut at Carnegie Hall."

Musical themes this year include anniversary celebrations for Olivier Messiaen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Howard Ferguson, Michael Tippett and Adam Gorb - a contemporary composer with strong Hampstead connections. There will also be a performance by renowned organist Jennifer Bate at St Michael's church in South Grove.

But the festival is not just about showcasing big names - it is also about nurturing emerging talent and the sense of community in Hampstead and Highgate.

Choirs from University College School, South Hampstead High School, Hampstead Parochial School and New End School will all play a part and professional musicians will perform the winning pieces from the festival's nationwide young composers competition.

With the festival in its 10th year, this is the fifth time Mr Vass is in charge. "Since I took it on I've tried to get the local institutions like Burgh House, the New End Theatre and Lauderdale House to come together," he said.

"It's about showcasing what everybody's doing and making it an event that is performed for and by the community.

"Last year the atmosphere was fabulous - people came and enjoyed good quality music, good wine and a beautiful church. I think it's the area - it exudes that artistic flavour. There have always been artistic people in Hampstead and Highgate."

Mr Vass is conducting some of the festival's centrepieces, including the Gala Concert in aid of the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead and the premiere of Thomas Hyde's new work That Man Stephen Ward. The latter stars baritone Andrew Slater and chronicles the rise and fall of the man at the centre of the Profumo affair in 1961.

Although he was initially a grudging student, having been forced to learn the piano at the age of four, Mr Vass developed a love of classical music when he discovered his father's gramophone at the age of 10.

"My passion for music developed when I was at school in Walsall, just outside Birmingham," he said. "I had a very good music teacher and I started off playing the percussion for the school orchestra."

After his teacher had a stroke he took over conducting the orchestra for a couple of terms and after school he secured a place at the Royal Academy of Music. He moved to London in 1976 and has lived in Parliament Hill ever since, except for a brief spell in West London, which was short-lived because he could not bear being away from his beloved Hampstead.

"I'm interested in all sorts of music," he said. "But there are essentially only two types - good and bad. As a conductor it's not good to have favourite types of music. You've got to do what the composer wants you to do - not what you want to do.

"A lot of people talk about their interpretations of music but really it's their interpretation of what they think the composer means, which isn't quite the same. In that sense it's better not to get too involved in the music when you're conducting."

Listening to Mr Vass speak about the line-up for this year's festival, it is clear how much passion is invested in the process of having everything ready and as the opening night draws nearer, it all seems to be coming together. The all-important ticket sales are starting to swell.

"This is a great opportunity for everyone to come along and enjoy the event," he said. "People who haven't been before should just try it. There's no black tie - no dress code and no-one is judging anyone - you just turn up and have a good time."

o The festival runs from May 7 to 18. For the full programme of events and for more information visit www.hamandhighfest.co.uk