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Cambridge Music Festival marks its 30th anniversary with another stellar line-up

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This autumn Cambridge Music Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with concerts running from today (September 30) to Wednesday, November 10.

12 Ensemble who will be performing at the Cambridge Music Festival 2021
12 Ensemble who will be performing at the Cambridge Music Festival 2021

Justin Lee has been the artistic director at the festival – which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary – since 2012. During that time, this annual convergence on Cambridge of many of the finest classical musicians in the world has continued to grow.

Under Justin’s leadership, CMF has featured the likes of Murray Perahia, Nigel Kennedy, the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Borodin Quartet, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, London Mozart Players, Isata Kanneh-Mason, and the Chineke! Orchestra.


Last year, he led the festival through the pandemic – no small feat, given that the festival receives no public subsidy or Arts Council support, with corporate sponsors and individual donors providing 70 per cent of CMF’s income. He kept the music going with various online events, including a series of films of the Dunedin Consort.

At this year’s event, which runs at various venues around the city, there will be a series of nine film commissions and performances from such established names as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Stephen Hough, Mahan Esfahani, 12 Ensemble, The Takács Quartet and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Justin says: “When we founded in 1991, it emerged out of a tri-annual event. There was one in ’91, one in ’88 and one in ’85 – I don’t know if it goes back further than that . My suspicion is that in 1985, that was the Bach/Handel anniversary [both composers were born in 1685]. 1991 would have been Mozart’s anniversary [he died in 1791].

“The lady who set it up at that point did it every three years, and she then retired in 2009 and I was appointed in 2011 and put on my first festival in 2012 – and since then it’s become annual and I’ve taken it in a slightly different direction.”

Justin Lee, artistic director of Cambridge Music Festival
Justin Lee, artistic director of Cambridge Music Festival

Justin, 54, elaborates: “It used to be three weeks long and was like an umbrella event for everything that was happening in Cambridge in November. When I took over I kept it in November, because it was hard to know where else in the year to put it as there were so many things going on, but I decided to make it annual and focus on very high-level artists.

“Then gradually we’ve expanded the programmes, in terms of variety, through that decade. So in 2012, for example, we had Murray Perahia, who’s one of the world’s greatest living pianists, Alison Balsom, who’s a trumpeter who’s well known to the UK audience certainly, and then in 2013 we had Nigel Kennedy...

“We had Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the composers, at the festival in 2014 and 2016 – so we’ve had all sorts of things. We’ve had members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, we’ve had lots of the UK’s leading orchestras and choirs... We’ve attracted some very, very high quality, and the general aim is to try and bring things that might not happen normally in Cambridge.”

Justin describes Stephen Hough, who is scheduled to perform at West Road Concert Hall on Thursday, October 7, as “arguably this country’s leading pianist” and The Takács Quartet – due to appear at the same venue on Wednesday, November 10 – as “one of the world’s leading quartets” (their leader, Edward Dusinberre, is from Cambridge).

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Picture: Kaja Smith
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Picture: Kaja Smith

“And then we try and go slightly off the beaten track,” says Justin, “so Mahan Esfahani is this fantastic harpsichordist. I like to take on things like this because a lot of people think, ‘Oh no, harpsichord, that feels very old and it’s perhaps not quite my thing’, but this guy is just phenomenal.

“He is a very charismatic performer, and he not only plays the music of Bach – as he will when he plays next month [at Downing Place URC on Wednesday, October 20] – but he also commissions new pieces and he’s a really interesting guy, so that should be good.

“Then we’ve got the Max Richter programme with the 12 Ensemble. Max Richter is very famous around the world for his film music and other things. He’s classically trained but it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly where he fits in the world of music.

“His regular collaborators are the orchestra 12 Ensemble, which is 12 young string players, and they’ve been to the festival a number of times, but for this programme they’re actually expanding to 22 – so that’s just something a bit different again.

“It’s about trying to get that quality but also variety, so it’s not just Beethoven, it’s all sorts. I think it promises to be really exciting.”

Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Pianist Stephen Hough. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke

See the full programme at cambridgemusicfestival.co.uk.

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