sun 21/07/2024

First Person: Laurence Cummings on his 25th and final year as Musical Director of the London Handel Festival | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Laurence Cummings on his 25th and final year as Musical Director of the London Handel Festival

First Person: Laurence Cummings on his 25th and final year as Musical Director of the London Handel Festival

A blockbuster month begins tomorrow, mixing starry casts with new talent

Laurence Cummings at the London Handel Festival

At the time of writing, rehearsals are well under way for the London Handel Festival 2024. It’s a big year for me as it’s my 25th and final year as Musical Director.

Though preparations are keeping me very busy, I have found the odd quiet moment to reflect on the last 25 years. In fact it was 31 years ago that Denys Darlow first asked me to play in the LHF. He was organist of St George’s Hanover Square, and he loved to perform and record Bach Cantatas for BBC Radio 3, until one day a member of the public came up to him and said “You’ve got a bit of a cheek, performing Bach’s music in Handel’s church!”

Denys saw the point and the London Handel Festival was born, championing the great composer at a time when many of his major works were unknown to audiences. I am proud of what the Festival has achieved since then, with Handel now a regular feature in opera houses around the world and the exciting thing is that there is still more to explore. Last year Adele Thomas and I put together four solo cantatas and with the title In the realms of Sorrow they practically exploded on to the stage with their visceral story telling. (PIctured below by Camilla Greenwell, Nardus Williams, who makes two appearances at this year's festval, in one of the staged cantatas).  Nardus Williams in 'In the realms of sorrow'
Many of the world’s finest singers have performed in the festival over the years. I’m thinking of Dame Janet Baker, James Bowman, John Mark Ainsley, Iestyn Davies, Rosemary Joshua, amongst many others and perhaps it is what the festival has done to support and nurture young singers that gives me the greatest pride. The International Handel Singing Competiton (pictured below, Cummings with last year's finalists) has helped launch the career of a host of singers and we are lucky to have their continued presence in the Festival.

Over the years I have built up a close relationship with our audience and I think this is one of the things I cherish most. The Festival has introduced many people to their first experience of this lavishly dramatic and glorious music. We have performed large scale oratorios, chamber operas, solo recitals and everything in between.  International Handel Singing CompetitionFor my 25th year it seemed appropriate to revisit the first epic oratorio that Handel wrote in 1732. In fact “rewrote” would be a more appropriate term, as he first composed an early version of Esther in 1718 when he was staying with James Brydges, later Duke of Chandos, at Cannons. For the later version one could say Handel pulled out all the stops. Two coronation anthems are inserted, “My Heart is Inditing”, the anthem for the crowning of the Queen (the oratorio starts with the marriage of Esther to Ashuerus, in doing which she becomes Queen of Persia), and “Zadok the Priest” with an altered text to fit the biblical story. Handel even included mention of this in the billboards to garner an audience hungry to hear the music written for an occasion for which they had not received an invitation.

One of the fun parts of directing a Festival like LHF is the multi-tasking. I often joke that I have about 12 hours of Handel in my backpack as concurrent rehearsals for different projects keep me on my toes. Thank goodness for the energy of Mr Handel’s music. Even at my most exhausted, I know that as soon as we start playing and singing the tiredness will dissolve. I feel blessed to be celebrating my 25 years as MD surrounded by wonderfully talented colleagues and a hugely supportive audience who have accompanied me on my Handel journey for my whole professional life. Thank you all!


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