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European Festivals Association: Focus on SoNoRo Festival

EFA: Festival in Focus

Simon Mundy, in interview with the Executive Director of the SoNoRo Festival
Bucharest, Romania

SoNoRo is a quiet festival, not just because it concentrates on chamber music, but because it does not have a big news agenda or feature film back story. It did not start as an antidote to war, or as a way of drawing world attention to a forgotten city. It has no big name composer, conductor or megastar performer at its heart. It does not hire symphony orchestras from other continents – or orchestras at all, for that matter. There are no large subsidies, no massive productions or street parties.

The festival was first held in 2006 and was the brainchild of the violinist Răzvan Popovici, from Romania but who had spent much of his life in Bavaria, and Latvian pianist Diana Ketler.  Their idea was that Bucharest needed a festival that gave the city a concentrated period of high quality chamber music and used it as springboard for ideas and thematic connections. “Don't worry too much about the title, SoNoRo” he says, “it is just a play on the word for sound, roughly the same in Italian and Romanian.”

The programming itself has all the marks of chamber music, tightly bound to a theme each year and with a core group of nine players. “The thematic concept,” says Razvan, “allows us to think deeper and connect the music with poetry, philosophy and the other arts. For that to work, though, it has to be a good theme!”
So far the dozen years of the festival have included seasons built around, among others, Un Ballo in MascheraThe Dreamers, Love Unlimited, BridgesNew Worlds, La Muse et Les Poètes, and just the word Up. For the 2017 festival they went for thoughts of Hide and Seek.

The overall label then allows each concert to have its own sub theme, so the opening concert explores the eternal child, translated via Mozart (who else with that theme?) via his late Kagelstatt Trio, K498, Shostakovich's Five Pieces for two violins and piano, Mendelssohn's Octet and Ferdinand the Bull, for narrator and violin by Alan Ridout, who died much too young twenty years ago. A couple of nights later the theme becomes the labyrinth with works by Mozart and Beethoven grouped as wrong time, wrong place.

Razvan enjoys juxtaposing standard repertoire with the unexpected, one year interposing John Cage's music in between the movements of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. He says that the audience have come to expect the intelligent inclusion of contemporary music. It's about trust, he says, but it's also about the profile of the audience he and Diana have aimed to attract: not so much the traditional over 50s, nor the young looking for constant novelty but those in the middle.

He sees the average age as being 35. Since he and Diana were in their early thirties when they started SoNoRo it is perhaps hardly surprising that they are taking their own peer group as their ideal listeners – the Eastern Europeans who grew up as the Communist regimes were overthrown and survived the dismal nineties to emerge as the builders of the new normal EU society. It is a generation that is not especially wealthy (most of the tickets are between €5 and €20) but does not automatically look for state funding either – the majority of the festival's funding is private, either from donors or sponsors.

That audience, Razvan realised quickly, does not just exist in Bucharest. The same thirst for sophisticated music making was also to be found in Romania's other cities and so now, after starting in the capital, SoNoRo moves on to Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca and Brasov. “I suppose we are a barometer of Romanian society. Things could be better, of course, but given what we have been through I have to be optimistic. And among the audience there is a quality of listening which suggests that the way we perform is needed.”

Increasingly he finds himself thinking of SoNoRo as not just a music festival but as a “cultural platform”. It is built around a core of nine players, a number which expands or contracts as repertoire dictates, and with (says Razvan) about 30 to 40% of performers changing each year so that the format does not get stale. It is similar to Diana Kettler's other group, Ensemble Raro, which in turn is modelled on the Nash Ensemble in London, which has been a benchmark for consistent and imaginative musicianship for the last fifty years.

Like the Nash, SoNoRo is not interested in including people just because they are famous names. To be fair, though, Diana especially is no stranger to the world's great concert halls. She made her debut as a soloist with the Latvian Symphony Orchestra at the age of eleven and in the 30 years since has played in a list of venues that includes Carnegie Hall, the Musikverein and La Fenice, and the festivals of Lucerne, Gstaad and Rhinegau. She has been based in London for many of those years, where she finished her studies at the Royal Academy of Music and is now a professor of piano. She and Razvan also programme another event in Bavaria: the Chiemgauer Musikfrühling Festival.

Grand venues are SoNoRo's natural habitat. The performances take place in concert halls, of course, and churches but also in palaces and the halls of buildings that lend themselves to performance: grand cafés, art museums, banks and the splendidly named Marble Hall of the National Military Circle Palace.
The cultural platform model means that Razvan is ambitious to make SoNoRo even more mobile. He has already taken it to Arrezzo (“it was good for the Italian establishment to see cultured, educated Romanians”) and now he wants to use chamber music to open up some of the beautiful old buildings around Romania that have fallen into disuse or lost their function in the last century. “These buildings, castles and mansions, are being refurbished now but they used to be the focus of their communities and I would love to do something to help them fill that role again."

Read more here.

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