Stand out from the crowd – the musician that cofounded a festival

Cellist Ashok Klouda plays the dual role of cellist and festival director, he writes for IAM about founding Highgate International Chamber Music Festival and why he thinks all musicians need to skill up.

Today’s world can be a pretty tough place for musicians. Each year there are new conservatoires being built, more students, more competitions and the demand to study classical music at an advanced level seems to be at an all-time high – it’s no surprise then that competition in the sector is also at an all-time high. Many musicians now realise that a well-rounded skillset can prove invaluable when carving out a career as a performer in the overcrowded world of musical excellence. It is no longer enough to play brilliantly and win competitions, being able to play exceptionally well is just the starting point.

Some people manage to generate a ‘wave’ of support and publicity from a young enough age that the wave becomes self-perpetuating (or they have that wave generated for them). However, the remainder of musicians need to find ways to get that wave going and to ride it. That’s where having a broad skillset can come into its own: in the creative industries you need to create opportunities for yourself, something that successful musicians have done for centuries. Learning to understand what audiences want and what promoters need can be invaluable.

I started to learn a lot about this other perspective seven years ago when pianist Irina Botan, violinist Natalie Klouda and myself started Highgate International Chamber Music Festival (HICMF).

Together we realised the sheer number of friends and colleagues we had who were artists of the highest international quality and whom we could potentially bring together each year to perform a series of chamber music concerts in the intimate settings of the beautiful Highgate churches. We were just about to become neighbours in Highgate, an area of North London known for its cultural heritage and love of classical music, so we were optimistic that there were concertgoers in the area who would show enthusiasm toward the festival. The difficult part was, of course, making it all happen.

Classical music festivals usually fall into two categories: those run by musicians and those run by non-musicians. Festivals run by musicians often have a truly special atmosphere, as they are driven by a passion for music and a common understanding between artists.

When it comes to performance, most artists have an unspoken wish list: our friend, violist Ruth Gibson, explained this to me as “the three Ps”: Prestige, Pleasure and Payment. As a musician, the target is to have all three Ps ticked, in which case taking on an engagement is a no-brainer. However, performers in general are often very understanding if just two of the three Ps are in good supply. Only tick one of the Ps and it is unlikely that you will secure the musician you want. It amazes me how often the basics are forgotten, particularly when it comes to an artist’s wellbeing – providing them with a nice meal and generally ensuring they are happy goes a long way.

So, armed with this understanding, creating concert performances of the highest level has never been an issue for HICMF. It is the process of bringing together all the other elements that has always been the major challenge. As with many artist-run festivals, things can be disorganised, we are often understaffed, underfunded and it’s fair to say, a bit manic!

For any musicians out there thinking of starting a festival, do not underestimate the enormous amount of time that it takes to find funding and promote your event effectively, liaise with and look after performers, staff, sponsors, supporters and audience members.

I have had to learn about all of these things ‘on the job’ and deal with them on a daily basis, which inevitably means it is quite hard to turn off my ‘inner-promoter’.

I often turn up to a concert rehearsal with a dual mindset: I’m there to enjoy it, whilst at the same time taking in everything I can see. From my seat, a dialogue runs through my head: “Oh what a lovely acoustic and such atmospheric lighting, not to mention the great piano, I’m really loving playing here – I wonder how much it will all cost to hire? It’s interesting that they’ve managed to get the piano onto temporary staging: I wonder what type of staging that is and where to get it from? There’s a decent turnout tonight, but surely not enough tickets were sold to cover all the costs? I wonder who is sponsoring this concert?”.

Suffice to say, my ‘inner-artist’ tells my ‘inner-promoter’ to shut up when it comes to actually performing at the concert!

HICMF is now in its seventh year and I am happily immersed in so many aspects of the festival that the single skill I still find most challenging is delegation: this is an art in itself and it can take a while to even get to the stage when you are in a position to delegate effectively. However, this is a very important skill to learn, as in the long run, it is the only way an organisation can grow. It is also the only way in which it is feasible to run a festival and continue to be a performing musician, as there are only a certain number of hours in each day. One must avoid the danger of allowing the project management process to take up so much time and energy that it detracts from the very art form you are trying to pursue.

Ultimately, if you believe wholeheartedly in a project, you will find a way to make it work through determination and delegation. Before HICMF I was 100% a cellist, now I am 100% a cellist and 100% a festival director. I work twice as hard, am more efficient with my time, and sleep a bit less! There is always an audience out there waiting to hear good music, you just have to find a way to reach them.

Ashok Klouda is founder and co-director of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival, which takes place 17-25 November 2018 in St Michael’s and St Anne’s Churches in Highgate, North London. Performers this year include Alina Ibragimova MBE, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Julian Bliss, Alexander Sitkovetsky & Simon Callow CBE.