Opera + Classical Music Features

Q&A: London Handel Festival’s Samir Savant

Samir Savant, Director of The London Handel Festival, discusses lockdown and the future of the Festival

Samir Savant

Samir Savant (Photo:Frances Marshall)

The London Handel Festival was one of the earliest cultural casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. When the Prime Minister announced in March that entertainment and cultural venues would close, the Festival was about a third of the way through, and had to shut down in short order. I talked to Samir Savant, the Festival’s Director since 2016, about the music, his role, the lockdown and the future.

You’ve been Festival Director of the London Handel Festival for four years now; which performance do you think was the Festival’s greatest success? 

It’s difficult to pick a single one. Three things over the last few years have made me very proud.

The first is the Festival’s collaboration with the Royal Opera House that resulted, in 2019, in eight performances of the opera Berenice at the Linbury. It was a great production and attracted a lot of international press coverage, not least because the opera hadn’t been performed at Covent Garden since Handel himself conducted it there – sadly, being taken ill after only four performances. The production was nominated for an Olivier Award, but as the ceremony was cancelled because of lockdown, we still don’t know who won.

I’m also very proud of the way we have developed the Handel Singing Competition in recent years. Handel nurtured young singers and it is good that we can carry on the tradition. This year we had 187 applicants from 32 countries – a record number since the competition began 19 years ago.

The third is a project to develop new audiences: Handel Remixed at last year’s festival was a collaboration between Festival Voices (under Gregory Batsleer) and DJ / electronic music producer Nico Bentley resulting in a fusion of Baroque and electronica centred around Handel’s Dixit Dominus, presented at Peckham’s iconic Bussey building to a young audience, 90% of whom were under 30.

Which Handel work that has never been performed at the Festival have you always wanted to present?

One of the core objectives of the Festival (which was founded in the late 1970s) has always been to showcase lesser-known works by Handel, so we have performed a lot of the canon. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, though, is a great favourite, and has not been presented in recent years.

Sadly, two-thirds of this year’s Festival had to be cancelled due to the lockdown; how has this most affected you? Has the Festival been able to ‘make the numbers work’ for itself and the businesses it works with? 

The effect was devastating, not only for the Festival itself, but for the artists involved, who were all stood down at the last minute. On March 17, our performance of The Triumph of Time and Truth (our major oratorio this year) was due to take place at St George’s Hanover Square, and I stood outside to make sure no one turned up. In the event, our email and telephone cancellations reached most people and only one person actually arrived, but it was very lonely standing outside Handel’s own church on a cold evening with only the shadow of the composer for company.

Luckily, the Festival had a huge amount of support from our Trustees, to work on our finances and secure the future of the Festival for the time being, as well as our regular audience members, 60% of whom opted to convert their advance ticket purchases into donations. I am pleased that we have been able to pass on 100% of the donations received directly to the performers. Many of the Festival’s artists are freelancers, and the impact on their work has been almost unthinkable.

“Handel nurtured young singers and it is good that we can carry on the tradition”

Elsewhere, you mentioned that one thing that arts organisations need to espouse (particularly in the light of the coronavirus pandemic) is ‘meaningful, thoughtful stewardship’; could you expand on that a little?

My experience in fundraising and marketing (Savant has worked in the cultural sector for over 20 years, including at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal College of Music) has taught me that donors often are not thanked properly. I believe it costs nothing to say thank you, and the way the Festival espouses “meaningful, thoughtful stewardship” is to make a special effort to thank our family of supporters. Following the cancellation, for example, one of our Trustees rang a number of donors personally to thank them. Moving forward, I am also very keen to involve our artists in acknowledging the contribution of donors and demonstrating the impact of their gifts. This need not be an expensive or time-consuming process, so any charity can do it, no matter what its size, but it is meaningful and thoughtful.

You’ve also said that arts organisations, learning from lockdown, will, in the future ‘ignore digital media at their peril’; could you tell me how you would see the London Handel Festival operating this way in the future?

Handel himself was a great innovator and cared as much about presentation as about the music, and we like to take a leaf out of his book. The good thing is that Baroque music is very flexible, and much of it can be performed by smaller groups – which may well be the future if coronavirus is around to stay. I’ve been very impressed by the digital output during lockdown, not only in terms of the high performance standard, but that the technology works well. I’d like to record as much digitally as possible in the future, for digital transmission to a much wider audience than would come to a traditional concert. Our Musical Director, Laurence Cummings, for example, has been learning and performing a new harpsichord piece every week and we have been releasing it on YouTube; the first one had over 600 views in under a month. I am also a Trustee of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, and it is interesting to see how the contemporary dance sector is exploring the possibility of creating works for digital performance only. I would love to develop a digital Handel singing project, as his choral works have such a universal appeal.

What are the Festival’s plans for 2021? Can you give readers any tasters?

I’m reluctant to jinx next year by revealing anything yet. Suffice to say that the Festival is already planned for 2021, and will, providing all goes well, run from the 4th of March to the 4th of April. It will contain the usual mix of oratorio, chamber works and insight events, and we will also be marking the 20th anniversary of the Handel Singing Competition.

What music (outside the Handel and Handel inspired works of the Festival) is your go-to listening?

I’m a trained singer and cofounded the choir Pegasus, so the choral tradition in general is my great passion – I recently took part in the online virtual Evensong organised by Ralph Allwood and the Rodolfus Foundation. Beyond this, I have genuinely eclectic tastes, everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Qawwali (devotional music from the Indian Sufic tradition).

Many of us are listening to streamed digital archive material during lockdown; do you have any recommendations?

I was very moved by the live-streamed performance of Bach’s St John Passion from Leipzig on Good Friday; it featured a soloist – singing not only Evangelist but many of the arias and choruses as well – joined by some live singers, pre-recorded choruses and a range of unusual instruments. Lockdown has also given me a chance to watch streamed archive performances by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. There have been some excellent broadcasts of theatre and opera, for example the Metropolitan Opera has provided me with opportunities to see performances (such as Sutherland in Lucia) that I could never have seen on stage. When so many organisations are sharing the wealth of their performances, I would urge culture lovers to take the opportunity to explore new things – works they haven’t heard before, art forms they are not familiar with – and to support arts organisations not only through engaging with the works, but by supporting their favourite organisations through donations as well.

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Q&A: London Handel Festival’s Samir Savant