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Guildford International Music Festival: the story

PUBLISHED: 16:10 14 March 2011 | UPDATED: 18:23 20 February 2013

Guildford International Music Festival - Nicola Benedetti Photo Simon Fowler Universal

Guildford International Music Festival - Nicola Benedetti Photo Simon Fowler Universal

The annual Guildford International Music Festival is once again set to showcase a host of international and local talent this month in our county town

The bi-annual Guildford International Music Festival is once again set to showcase a host of international and local talent this month in our county town. Legendary guitarists John Williams and Paco Pea will lead the way along with bass-baritone Sir Willard White, violinist Nicola Benedetti, composer and musician Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and jazz singer Claire Martin all also highly anticipated. With over 60 events making up the programme, tickets are available from 01483 444334 and 01483 444789, or by visiting the festival website at:

Guildford International Music Festival: the story

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2009

Celebrating its tenth year, the Guildford International Music Festival, has seen stars such as Vanessa-Mae and Nigel Kennedy steal the show in the past. MATTHEW WILLIAMS catches up with artistic director Pauline Johnson, right, to learn more about this year's event

Why was the festival originally started?

Discussions about a music festival for Guildford started in 1988, when various people from the University of Surrey and Guildford Borough Council wished to highlight the work of the university's music department and to bring professional performers into Guildford.

The first Guildford International Music Festival took place in March 1991. It was originally a classical chamber music festival but has grown and changed considerably over the years and is no longer just a classical showcase; it now includes community music groups as well as professional musicians in all genres.

That's one of the things that make it special to me - the way in which the festival provides a higher profile for the excellent musicians who live in and around Guildford.

After ten years of festivals, do you have a particular highlight?

Gosh, that's a really difficult question. Nigel Kennedy in the very first festival lives in the memory - not least because he grabbed my very pregnant tummy to feel my daughter kicking; she'd been very lively when he played.

The festival also put on the first fully-staged light and sound show in Guildford Cathedral with jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine (who got an OBE in this year's Honours List) and that was an amazing evening - although I spent most of it worrying about the electricity generator, which nearly conked out.

Last year's closing event, with the London Community Gospel Choir, was a real highlight - it was a great way to end the festival with a cathedral full of people standing on their feet clapping and singing along.

Have you ever had a relatively unknown performer at a festival, who went on to receive international acclaim?

The exquisite Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang played at an earlier festival and she is returning this year after taking the international scene by storm.

Probably the most famous, however, is Vanessa-Mae, who gave her first solo recital in the first music festival. She was just becoming known as a child prodigy through some concerto performances with orchestras around the world, but her first solo chamber recital was with the festival in the Royal Grammar School. I remember she wore a very pink, flouncy evening dress with puff sleeves and astounded us all with her playing.

Would you say that Guildford has a particularly musical community?

Guildford definitely has a thriving musical scene and a very active and engaged musical community, but when the festival started there weren't many opportunities to hear top class performers in Guildford - apart from the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra and the occasional group at the Civic. Now, you can go out almost every night of the week to hear good artists perform in all sorts of styles.

Why is the event only biennial?

The festival runs on a really small team and is extra to our full-time jobs. The planning, co-ordinating and marketing takes so much time that it would be difficult to make it an annual event without bringing in permanent staff to run it, and that would cost. At the moment, the money we raise is used for artists' fees and to organise the individual events, rather than pay for staff salaries. However, the festival is growing and getting more exciting each time, so who knows what might happen in the future.

So what highlights can we expect from this year's festival?

We have listened to what past audiences have said, and this time we've spread the festival over three weeks, so that people don't have to make so many conflicting choices. For this tenth anniversary festival, we've returned a little to our roots and invited back some of the classical stars: so we've got the Classical Brit winning violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and one of the world's top guitarists, John Williams. We are also very excited to have the first night of a national tour by the BBC World Music winner Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni ba from Africa. We hardly ever have the chance to hear world music in Guildford and there is a real appetite for music from other cultures - Tinariwen, in the last festival, sold out very quickly.

And who are you personally most excited about seeing?

It is really hard to differentiate because I am so excited by the whole festival. That's one of the great things about the festival - that moment when a piece of music or a performance takes you by surprise and just transports you somewhere else. I guess Nicola Benedetti has to be at the top of my list, as she is an extraordinary performer. I also hope to see the brilliant beatboxing Beardyman at The Boileroom!

Are there any Surrey performers at the festival that you tip for future success?

A hidden gem, I think, will be First Night, an evening of new musical theatre works by student writers from the department of music and sound recording at the University of Surrey and student singers from Guildford School of Acting. They are all such talented people; there are definitely a few future stars among them!

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