Sunday, 13 June 2021

Festival moves from the classics to contemporary

THE winning formula of the Henley Festival is getting the balance right, according to the woman in charge.

THE winning formula of the Henley Festival is getting the balance right, according to the woman in charge.

As the 31st annual music and art event approaches, it seems the combination of big names from the music industry, glamour, art and the river setting will always attract audiences.

But today’s festival is a long way from the event of old — four nights of purely classical music.

Gill Mitchell, who has been chief executive of the not-for-profit organisation for nine years, says: “It has changed a lot since I got involved as we have tried, over the years, to maintain a balance of diverse acts.

“The classical evenings do not sell very well so it has been a move towards providing what our audience wants, which is bigger and more contemporary acts.

“Our aim is to deliver that and fill the festival as the overriding thing to remember is that if we do not make any money, then the charity does not make any.

“That’s why we are constantly striving to attract more sponsorship as we cannot survive on just ticket sales.”

Until 2009, three of the five festival nights were classical. But despite that year’s acclaimed line-up, which included Katherine Jenkins, the Three Mo’ Tenors and Kerry Ellis, there was a huge drop in footfall.

Mrs Mitchell recalls: “That was when the biggest change came about — when the world went into meltdown and we really struggled.

“The festival still did much better than any other festival in the country but it was time that we had to look at where we were going.

“People had begun to come to two or three nights instead of every night and although we still had a lovely database of people who booked tickets for every evening, that number was getting fewer.

“Our big battle now is that there are so many more festivals in Henley and people are supporting them.”

The aim has been to offer more of a balance and attract a slightly younger audience while maintaining the classical fans.

This has been reflected in the headline acts in the last three years, who have included Tom Jones, Sting, Will Young, Ronan Keating and Olly Murs.

Mrs Mitchell says: “The festival would not have been sustainable if we had not moved on — we could not have afforded to do it. Bringing the stars in is not a cheap option but people vote with their feet. Sting was the most expensive by far but we have to be careful.

“I would love to get Elton John and Rod Stewart but the only way to do that would be to charge people a lot of money. That is not what we are about.

“We must not get away from our roots — we are not the O2, we are a summer party that people can go along to. We do not want to be elitist, we want it to be premium and glamorous but it has to be accessible.

“Prom tickets are a good option for everyone and are cheaper. People can also have a cheese toastie and an orange juice to keep the costs down. It is not about spending lots of money.”

The festival is attracting slightly younger audiences.

Mrs Mitchell says: “We used to be 55-plus but now we are probably around the 45 mark.

“We want to be cool, not old fashioned, and now we have the Indigo nightclub. It is not everyone’s cup of tea and it shouldn’t be but it is something else that you can do.

“People can take their teenagers there and they will be happy as Larry or they can just sit and soak up the atmosphere.

“Some nights are going to be more popular than others but we would not want to have Sting every night, it is about variety. We are going to have classical concerts every night and we are bringing back comedy because people have said that is what they want. We are trying to keep everybody happy.”

The transformation of the festival is complete with the rebranding and new logo revealed by the Standard this week.

Part of the thinking is to raise the profile of the festival in order to attract the bigger artists and sponsors.

Mrs Mitchell says: “We have been talking about it for a long time and I have never liked the pink [branding]. It was a bit outdated but it is recognised everywhere and has served its purpose.

“However, because we are now on BMW and Invesco’s websites, the old logo does not do justice to our product and we thought we needed to look a bit more professional.

“The festival always looks better in the dark and that’s when the photos come out really well with the fireworks and the lights, so it seemed sensible to have a black background as it is striking.

“We wanted ‘Henley’ to be the major part of the design and we used the reflection as a nod to the river. The location is absolutely perfect, it is beautiful.”

“You can go and see Sting and Tom Jones anywhere but when you see them at Henley it is intimate.

“When you are sitting in the grandstand watching the main stage with the boats going up and down the river and the church and bridge in the background, it is so magical that you would not want to be anywhere else in the world.”

One man familiar with that feeling is Tim Abbott, managing director of BMW, which has just signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the festival.

Mrs Mitchell says: “He lives locally and has been coming to the festival for years so he knows how wonderful it is.

“I was absolutely delighted when I found out that BMW were sponsoring us. I think it fits really well with the festival and it will help with other sponsors. At the end of the day we are a local event so to attract a national premium brand is quite an achievement.”

When asked to describe the festival to someone who has never been, Mrs Mitchell pauses for a long time.

Finally, she says: “I would say that the festival is extraordinary, magical, unexpected. It is really hard to bottle what we are but those three words are the nearest we have come up with. We are a summer party of the stars, under the stars.”

She says the festival’s dress code is key to the “premium” image, adding: “We are different from every other festival and want to maintain that.

“We to have to have a black-tie event because people want to dress up and that appeals across the ages.If we did not have that we would just be another festival and we don’t want that.

“The festival is a great excuse to dress up and it is a shame when people do not but we do have a big stack of clothes from Oxfam if that happens. In 2006 we had Deep Purple fans turn up from all over the world in jeans and denim jackets. We went through a lot of charity clothes that year.” Mrs Mitchell says one of the biggest frustrations for the festival organisers is people thinking the event is a “big party for the wealthy of Henley”.

“Many people do not realise that we are a charity and always have been,” she says.

“We also open up the event for free on the Saturday during the day, so people can come and enjoy the site, look at the art and get a flavour of what we do.”

The Henley Festival Trust, the festival’s holding company, has donated more than £2million to music and art charity projects in the Thames Valley over the last 30 years.

One such project is the Henley Festival Orchestra, which gives 100 children subsidised lessons and instruments which some of them would not be able to afford otherwise.

They work as a group and lessons take place at various Henley schools. Then once a month they meet at Trinity Primary School and play together as an orchestra.

The trust has also funded a music therapist at brain injury charity Headway for the last seven years and continues to work with it on a number of projects.

New to the festival this year is The Wall, a street art project aimed at teenagers.

Mrs Mitchell says: “This is an opportunity for disadvantaged, disaffected, disabled and mainstream youngsters to get involved in art.

“It is a series of big murals which will be displayed at the festival and done with the help of experienced street artists from a London gallery.

“It will teach the teenagers to make something beautiful and the groups will keep the pieces as a legacy.

“The tuition goes on in the individual areas then they all come together as one at the festival. It is very exciting.”

Mrs Mitchell’s favourite festival act from over the years was Sting.

“I knew he would be good but he was even better than I thought he would be,” she says. “I really enjoyed it.”

And her biggest disappointment? Dione Warwick in 2007.

“She sang beautifully and was the utmost professional but she could have been singing anywhere in the world,” says Mrs Mitchell. “There was no rapport.

“What I really like about Henley is that it is so intimate and you almost feel like the stars are talking to you.

“We want everyone to go away from the festival, saying ‘That was such a great evening’.”

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