00:00 Saturday 30 June 2012  Written by Jackie Keogh

Chamber Music Festivals artistic director shares his vision for Bantry

When Francis Humphrys talks about Kuhmo in Finland it sounds as if he is talking about a place that only exists in fantasy.

He says that the scenic town, which has a population of less than 10,000 people, has its own state-of-the-art music venue; and has a small army of volunteers – 250 to be precise – who help run the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival for two weeks every year in July.

But what sounds most fantastic of all is that the residents of Kuhmo move out in order to accommodate the huge influx of visitors who travel to the town to hear world class musicians perform a rich and varied programme.

Houses, chalets even, are left with their possessions still in them as the residents welcome back music lovers who have made this festival an annual place of pilgrimage.

Own music venue

Those who know Francis will not be surprised to hear that he thinks Bantry can do something similar. Okay, maybe not a mass evacuation, but he sees Bantry with its own music venue.

The man, who founded the West Cork Chamber Music Festival 17 years ago, and has since gone on to become its artistic director, said: ‘we have modelled ourselves for a long time on the festival in Kuhmo.’

The festival in Finland was established in 1970, but it took them 23 years before they developed a purpose-built music venue that serves throughout the year as a place of learning and practice.

That gives West Cork Music, the festival’s parent company, and Francis, six years to achieve the same impossible dream. ‘The key to a venue, when you build it, is that it has to have between six and ten rehearsal spaces that could be used for instrumental teaching for the rest of the year,’ Francis said. ‘West Cork is a bit of a blackspot for musical teaching. Ask any parent who is making the long trek to Cork city for classes and they will tell you the same thing. The School of Music is in the city and the county school of music’s outreach programme only goes as far as Dunmanway.’

West Cork Music – which has five strands to its bow – runs its own schools’ programme called Tuning Up in addition to the Chamber music festival, the West Cork Literary Festival, the Masters of Tradition festival and the concert series throughout the year.

To be fair, Francis said the Tuning Up programme, which includes 50 school visits throughout Cork county during the autumn, would not be possible without funding from Cork County Council.

‘The students drink it up. The teachers like it too,’ said Francis. ‘We have even brought string quartets and baroque groups and have held concerts in the classrooms. That’s important because it opens children up to the world of music.’

During the two weeks of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival – which, this year, runs from Friday June 29th to Saturday July 7th – the town of Bantry, and West Cork by extension, will once again be opened up to the world of music.

An Economic Impact Survey carried out by the department of economics at University College Cork has confirmed that over the last 17 years the festival has amassed an international audience of 31%, which is a very large number when counting tourists in a town the size of Bantry.

The figures, which have been independently verified, show that for every €200,000 invested in the annual programme it delivers between five and six times that figure in terms of economic impact – basic tourism: bed nights and economic spend.

In real terms, the trio of summer festivals provides a €1.6 million boost for Bantry.

There’s truth in the old adage that success breeds success even if the artistic director would prefer it if West Cork Music was given money for the purposes of cultural excellence alone.

‘We are realistic,’ he said, ‘we know it is important to match artistic achievements with practical results’ – a veritable bums on seats. ‘Good stats means that a lot of people from the Arts Council downwards have reacted favourably to those figures.’

Long-term, Francis knows that the festival’s capacity is not only dependent on the size of the auditorium but also on the quality and size of the hotels.

Fortunate

In Bantry, we are fortunate to have three hotels in the town, but if we had a 500-seater auditorium we might not be able to accommodate the number of visitors we could potentially attract to the area. But it is good to know that the potential is there.’

Talking to Francis is different at different times of the year. There are times when he looks like a scarecrow: clothes on bare sticks, topped with a colourful scarf. But that is Francis at his most exhausted. And it usually happens on day six of the nine-day music festival.

This shambling figure, complete with ashen complexion and half-closed eyes, is only around for about 12 hours. For the rest of the time, you can expect to find him talking animatedly, and knowledgeably, with musicians, valued volunteers, long-time friends, and associates from all parts of Ireland, England and the continent.

Sometimes, you’ll see him trying to get a rise out of Judith, a formidable woman in her own right, who runs the cake and coffee stalls in the marquee in the grounds of St Brendan’s Church, as well as refreshments at the evening concerts in Bantry House.

Francis is, however, at his most concentrated when he is writing the 130-page programme that sensible people have kept both as a valuable souvenir of previous festivals, and an important reference on various works.

Sixteen-hour days writing about the works of great composers, and the passion and emotion they have infused into their music, is an intense way to spend the month of May, but needs must – the programme needs to be with the printer a good three weeks before the start of the festival.

This year, things went a bit more smoothly because Francis got himself a Girl Friday and then the gods went one step more and sent him additional funding from Europe and the Arts Council.

When speaking about Heather McDougall, Francis said: ‘I can’t believe my luck.’ He is referring to the fact that Heather previously managed the Lyric fm website, is herself a talented musician, and has remarkable organisational skills.

With Heather’s assistance West Cork Music’s new website, www.westcorkmusic.ie, is more than an update: it comes with a new fully searchable online archive facility that will delight music lovers the world over.

The website also provides an easily navigable guide to the programmes for the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, the West Cork Literary Festival and the Masters of Tradition.

Having access on demand to quality recordings – by kind permission of RTÉ Lyric fm with the assistance of sound engineer Anton Timoney – featuring the finest musicians in the world has all the bearings of being a major achievement for West Cork Music.

The website already has some fantastic recordings on it, but it is West Cork Music’s primary objective to provide all of the festival recordings – all 17 seasons – in such a way that people who visit the site will get very high quality sound.

‘It will take a bit of time to build it up,’ Francis said, ‘but what we will do, at key points along the way, when we have a full season’s work, or five seasons’ work, is alert people, possibly via Facebook or Twitter, to say we have new content available.

‘It will be a great tool because it will be a fully searchable online archive, so if someone has a memory of a particular musician playing on a particular date, they will be able to search for it by the name of the artist, the name of the composer and the date of the performance. ‘But, for now, we are happy with the initial recordings and that we have achieved one of our main objectives, which was to make the new website more user friendly.’ A new EU grant – which provides West Cork Music with €100,000 extra in funding each year for the next three years – has helped no end with the website innovations.

Of course, the EU money is not without its dramas: the application procedure was arduous and the reporting procedures are another task that has been added to the already long list of arduous tasks that Francis and the staff at West Cork Music have to work through in a calendar year.

Lucky

Francis said: ‘we were incredibly lucky with this one. They brought in an international festival strand – previously to get funding in the cultural field you had to be a partner with other festivals on the international circle – then suddenly, out of the blue, this thing landed in our lap.

‘The grant specifically related to international performers playing European works and we had all that. As it turned out, it fitted us like a glove.’

On this Friday night, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival – offering international performers playing European works – opens with a sell-out concert: one of many, no doubt, over the nine days of this sublime festival

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