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Stephen Barlow - Buxton Festival's new Artistic Director

PUBLISHED: 15:12 20 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013

Stephen Barlow - Buxton Festival's new Artistic Director

Stephen Barlow - Buxton Festival's new Artistic Director

Mike Smith talks to accomplished musician, conductor and composer Stephen Barlow, Buxton Festival's new artistic director

Over the years, Stephen Barlow has watched in admiration as the Buxton Festival has grown into an event of remarkable breadth and quality. In 2010, he made a big impact on the spa towns festival-goers when he conducted


When I spoke to Stephen, he was clearly full of enthusiasm for his new role. Extending his colourful description of the event, he said: The festival is a wonderful kaleidoscope, which offers audiences the chance to see fine operas that are rarely performed elsewhere and the opportunity to attend literary events that get more wide-ranging by the year. Buxton is a beautiful town in which to stage a festival and it has a superb opera house Ive performed there on many occasions, particularly with Opera 80, and Ive found the acoustics to be clear and gentle and the pit to be perfect for the orchestra.


Over two dozen distinguished musicians, directors and administrators applied for the role of artistic director in succession to Andrew Greenwood, who has done so much to secure the reputation of the festival during his five years at the helm. Explaining why Stephen was appointed ahead of the opposition, retiring chief executive Glyn Foley points to the impact he made as a participant in the festival a couple of years ago and to his huge international reputation.


In common with the festival itself, Stephen has a reputation that is based on both quality and width. As well as being a conductor who is in great demand in many countries, he is an accomplished composer and pianist. The range of his musical talent became evident when he was a pupil at Kings School, Canterbury, where he studied piano, flute, French horn and percussion. At this time, he was also a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and played timpani with the National Youth Orchestra.


Stephen went on to win an Organ Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he quickly made his mark, founding the University Bach Choir and becoming musical director of the University Chamber Orchestra. Recalling his undergraduate days, he said: There was a huge amount of music at Cambridge and there was something in me that made me want to make as much music as possible. I played lots of instruments, but didnt feel that I wanted to hone in on any one of them. It was Simon Rattle, whom I met at the National Youth Orchestra, who suggested that I ought to take up conducting.


Suitably encouraged, Stephen secured a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he studied conducting under Vilem Tausky. It is a choice of career that he has never regretted. Describing the challenge and satisfaction involved in conducting an orchestra, he said, You need to learn how to manage men and women, because conducting involves the never-ending challenge of understanding your players and getting the best out of them.


Stephen is best known as a conductor of opera, a role that has taken him to the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, English National Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera North. He was musical director of Opera 80, which became the English Touring Opera, from 1988 to 1991, and artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland from 1996 to 1999. His globetrotting as a conductor has taken him to a host of European countries, the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, where he spent time as the musical director of the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra. Explaining how his involvement with opera began, he said: It is not easy to get a job as a conductor when you start out, but the traditional way of learning your trade is by conducting opera, and it was Alan Ridout who suggested that I should apply for a job at Kent Opera. I didnt realise that I would have to face a four-hour audition, but I was delighted to come through it and get the job.


A demanding conducting schedule has left Stephen with precious little time to pursue his other musical talents. He began composing his opera


Stephens determination in recent years to pick up again on his piano-playing will be evident to this years audiences at Buxton, where he will be accompanying baritone Mark Stone, with whom he has made CDs, performing alongside flautist Paul Edmund-Davies in a varied programme of French music and also playing piano in a performance of


Intermezzo is one of three new Buxton Festival productions to be staged at this years musical extravaganza, which will have its usual accent on quality performances of works that are rarely performed elsewhere in the country. Emphasising that he has no intention of altering the special nature of Buxtons offering, Stephen said: Buxton is almost unique as a festival and there is no doubt that it attracts audiences for operas that are difficult to see in other places. Having worked with Grange Park Opera, which has a mission to engage young people in opera, Im also determined to continue Buxtons strong tradition of involving schoolchildren in composing and performing.


Currently, about half of the festivals audience is drawn from outside Buxtons immediate geographical region, and Stephen would like to see an increase in that proportion. To this end, buses are being laid on this year to Macclesfield Station in order to pick up festival-goers arriving by train from London, and matinee performances are being staged with the aim of making it possible to enjoy the Buxton Festival experience as a day out. Stephen fully understands that one of the factors that has widened the festivals appeal is the Literary Series, founded by Roy Hattersley. The author events are particularly numerous this year and three of them feature Joanna Lumley in conversation with writers.


The chance to enjoy some time together in Buxton will come as a welcome opportunity for Stephen and Joanna, who often have to spend long spells apart because they lead such busy, peripatetic lives. However, the couple have a very happy marriage and, whenever their schedules allow, they go off to a little shepherds cottage in Dumfriesshire, which they renovated from near-dereliction and now use as a hideaway. Stephen also hopes to spend time in the peace and quiet of their Scottish glen in order to complete another operatic composition that is forming in his head. Of course, a great deal of his time over the next three years, which is the length of his initial contract, will be spent ensuring that the peacocks tail that is the Buxton Festival will be kept bright, colourful and fully on display.


The Barber of Baghdad. This year, he begins his tenure as the artistic director of the annual celebration of the arts, which he describes as a peacocks tail: a fully-fledged summer festival of opera, concerts, talks and literary events, whose reputation has spread far and wide.King, which tells the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, as he travelled between engagements, but then decided that he would take an eight-month sabbatical so that he could complete the work, which had its premiere at Canterbury Cathedral with Stephen as conductor. Other works that he has both composed and conducted include his clarinet concerto, performed with Emma Johnson and the Ulster Orchestra, and Rainbow Bear a childrens composition with his wife, actress Joanna Lumley, as narrator.My Dearest Bauxerel, a concert which offers a glimpse into the stormy relationship between Richard Strauss and his wife, Pauline. Her jealous rages were also the inspiration for Strauss Intermezzo, which will be performed at the festival, with Stephen conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra.



Intermezzo is one of three new Buxton Festival productions to be staged at this years musical extravaganza, which will have its usual accent on quality performances of works that are rarely performed elsewhere in the country. Emphasising that he has no intention of altering the special nature of Buxtons offering, Stephen said: Buxton is almost unique as a festival and there is no doubt that it attracts audiences for operas that are difficult to see in other places. Having worked with Grange Park Opera, which has a mission to engage young people in opera, Im also determined to continue Buxtons strong tradition of involving schoolchildren in composing and performing.


Currently, about half of the festivals audience is drawn from outside Buxtons immediate geographical region, and Stephen would like to see an increase in that proportion. To this end, buses are being laid on this year to Macclesfield Station in order to pick up festival-goers arriving by train from London, and matinee performances are being staged with the aim of making it possible to enjoy the Buxton Festival experience as a day out. Stephen fully understands that one of the factors that has widened the festivals appeal is the Literary Series, founded by Roy Hattersley. The author events are particularly numerous this year and three of them feature Joanna Lumley in conversation with writers.



The chance to enjoy some time together in Buxton will come as a welcome opportunity for Stephen and Joanna, who often have to spend long spells apart because they lead such busy, peripatetic lives. However, the couple have a very happy marriage and, whenever their schedules allow, they go off to a little shepherds cottage in Dumfriesshire, which they renovated from near-dereliction and now use as a hideaway. Stephen also hopes to spend time in the peace and quiet of their Scottish glen in order to complete another operatic composition that is forming in his head. Of course, a great deal of his time over the next three years, which is the length of his initial contract, will be spent ensuring that the peacocks tail that is the Buxton Festival will be kept bright, colourful and fully on display.

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