By Maria Bregman
Cambridge Music Festival (CMF) is one of the UK’s leading classical music events, presenting world-class performances in the historic and beautiful venues of the city. This year, the festival celebrates its 31st edition with a rich and varied programme that showcases the diversity and innovation of the musical scene.
The festival runs from October 17 to November 15, 2023, and features 18 concerts by renowned artists and ensembles, as well as emerging talents and local groups. The festival’s artistic director, Justin Lee, says that the aim is to offer something for everyone, from traditional Syrian music to contemporary and early music.
“We want to challenge and inspire our audiences with music that is both familiar and unfamiliar, and to create a dialogue between different genres, cultures and eras,” he says. “We also want to support the development of new music and new audiences, and to foster a sense of community and collaboration among the musicians and the public.”
One of the highlights of the festival is the opening concert by the Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and his ensemble CityBand, who will perform a mix of classical, jazz and folk music influenced by their homeland and their experiences as immigrants in the US. The concert, titled “Songs for Days to Come”, will also feature guest singers from the Cambridge Syrian Refugee Project, a local charity that helps refugees settle and integrate in the city.
Another highlight is the performance by the acclaimed pianist Mahan Esfahani, who will play a selection of works by Bach, Scarlatti, Ligeti and Reich on the harpsichord, an instrument that he has championed and revitalized with his virtuosic and adventurous approach. Esfahani, who was born in Iran and studied in the UK and the US, says that he is fascinated by the connections and contrasts between different musical traditions and styles.
“I think that music is a universal language that can transcend boundaries and communicate emotions and ideas that are otherwise hard to express,” he says. “I like to explore the similarities and differences between music from different times and places, and to show how they can enrich and complement each other.”
The festival also features several concerts that celebrate the legacy and influence of John Tavener, one of the most popular and influential British composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, who died in 2013. Tavener, who was known for his spiritual and mystical music that drew inspiration from various religious traditions, especially Eastern Orthodox Christianity, had a close connection with Cambridge, where he studied and taught, and where several of his works were premiered.
The festival will present two concerts dedicated to Tavener’s music, one by the King’s College Choir, conducted by Daniel Hyde, and one by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae, directed by Nigel Short. Both concerts will include some of Tavener’s most famous and beloved works, such as “The Lamb”, “Song for Athene” and “The Protecting Veil”, as well as some of his lesser-known and unpublished pieces.
The festival will also host a panel discussion on Tavener’s life and work, featuring his widow Maryanna Tavener, his biographer Piers Dudgeon, and his friend and collaborator Steven Isserlis, the renowned cellist who premiered and recorded many of his works. The panel will be moderated by the music critic and broadcaster Tom Service, who says that Tavener was a unique and visionary composer who touched the hearts of millions of listeners.
“Tavener was a composer who was not afraid to express his faith and his spirituality through his music, and who created a sound world that was both ancient and modern, simple and complex, serene and dramatic,” he says. “He was a composer who transcended the boundaries of classical music and reached a wide and diverse audience, from the royal family to the Beatles.”
The festival will also showcase some of the best local talent and initiatives, such as the Cambridge University Musical Society, the Cambridge Philharmonic, the Cambridge Youth Music, and the Cambridge Music Education Outreach, which aims to bring music to schools and communities that have limited access to it. The festival will also collaborate with other cultural institutions in the city, such as the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Kettle’s Yard Gallery, and the Cambridge Literary Festival, to create cross-disciplinary events and activities.
The festival’s director, Justin Lee, says that he hopes that the festival will be a source of joy and inspiration for the city and beyond, especially after the challenges and difficulties of the pandemic.
“We are very excited and grateful to be able to present live music again, and to welcome back our audiences and artists,” he says. “We hope that the festival will be a celebration of music and culture, and a reminder of the power and beauty of human creativity and expression.”