You’re an old hand at festivals as a player, but do you remember the first time you ever ran a festival?

Yes, I certainly do. It was 1995 and it was Fauré’s 150th anniversary. I thought, “Nobody’s doing anything about one of my favourite composers. If it was Mozart, if it was Schubert, everybody would be jumping all over it.” I was literally sat at my kitchen table doodling. If I could make up some concerts what might they be? Before I knew it, I’d got a sketch for 12 concerts and thought, “I’m just going to go for it.” So, I wrote to my great friend Trevor Green, who was then the Chief Exec or whatever of the BBC Phil in Manchester, and said, “Look, would you come in with me on four orchestral concerts but I’ll do the programming.” I mean, what a nerve! [laughs] I had a plan for eight chamber concerts as well, so I went and booked the halls and then thought, “Now I have to find the money.” Talk about nearly killing myself! It was an expensive operation but I had amazing artists. Yo-Yo Ma came and we did an all-French recital programme. Having to do it all from the ground up taught me loads about what it takes to put on something.

Kathryn Stott, AFCM, Australian Festival of Chamber Music
Kathryn Stott. Photo supplied.

What are the things you love most about chamber music festivals?

I love the meeting of new people, the collaborating, and the sense of the unknown. Of course, it’s nice to have a degree that is known, because you’d be on edge for too much. What’s exciting is being in the same place so you socialise together, off the usual radar. You have to produce in a very short time, and that has its stresses too, but it can sometimes produce amazingly exciting things. There’s a high-risk element in it so the skill is to pick people you believe will deliver.

Do you remember your first AFCM?

I do! It was Piers’ first one, so 11 years ago.

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And what are your strongest memories?

First of all, travelling to Australia. It was the first time I’d ever been here and I remember thinking, “God, it’s a bloody long way for a festival.” When you arrive, you’re exhausted from the journey but you look outside your window at Townsville and it’s not bad – you’re not overlooking a car park or a skyscraper [laughs]. And then there’s that feeling opening the curtains in the morning with this glorious sunshine and thinking, “Wow, is this where we’re actually going to be working for the next 10 days?”

So how long have you known Piers and how did you meet him?

We both studied at Royal College of Music where we had the same teacher, Kendall Taylor. I was just finishing my studies as Piers was coming to London so we hardly knew each other, but we just kind of became friends over the years. We kept bumping into each other and became colleagues and we were put in the same series a couple of times. I don’t think of Piers as just a wonderful colleague – though of course he is – but I do think of Piers as one of my close friends. We do make plans to have nice dinners. It doesn’t happen very often as we don’t live in the same city – I live in Manchester – but once a year we might go and have a big blow out!

How many times have you been to Townsville now?

This year is my fourth visit. I would never have taken this on if I hadn’t been before. I’m coming here now and looking at things differently. When I’m sitting in the audience, I’m busy weighing up how this is working or why that takes a long time to do. I’m also getting to know people in the audience, all those hardcore people who’ve been coming for years. There’s always a level of anxiety among people who are wondering how it’s going to be. Change is sometimes frightening.

When and how were you asked to take on the Festival, and how hard did you have to think about it before you said yes?

I actually got a phone call from Piers very late at night. I was on my way back from being out with friends and I was in the taxi at about one in the morning. “Oh, it’s Piers,” I thought. “I’ll take it.” We were just chatting and then suddenly, he said, “How would you like to take over Townsville?” He just came out with it and I thought, “Oh my God! Piers, I’ll be home in a minute, I’ll call you back.” So, I called him back and we had an initial chat. I guess I was not as shocked as I might have been at 11 in the morning. My initial reaction was “Wow! Amazing!” I said immediately that I’d love to, but obviously it’s then that you have to think properly. But then we spoke again and I spoke to the chairman of the board, and everything happened quite quickly really. I think, for me, it’s really important that Piers suggested me. I think that gives a lot of comfort to everyone – if that’s the right word – that he has faith in me and that I know what I’m doing.

Are there general philosophies you have going forward? What are the kinds of things that you’re thinking?

It’s basically a successful formula that works. I don’t want to come in and say that one of your favourite items is going. The Concert Conversations are the things I’ve been asked about the most. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and asked, “You’re not going to get rid of them are you?” Why would I do that? I’m taking note of what people really love about this festival, and those things are not going to change, but I might look for, let’s say, an alternative venue for something. Or say let’s try something in a slightly different format. It might be good to have a few people doing things out and about, because I think it’s also important to try and attract some younger audiences into the Festival mix. I’m also keen to bring some people here that have never been. There’s a great history of people who have been many times and that’s all good, but now I want to bring a new set of people who will come back in turn as time goes by. So, my stamp will be subtle, but I have to put my own stamp on things otherwise there’s no point in me being here.

How are you hoping that people will respond to your first AFCM?

I’d really hope that people will come with me and be onboard. And I hope people are excited by things that they’ve heard and that they start to trust me. I think that’s the big thing, because I know from curating or creating things before that you want people to say, “Kathy Stott? Oh, she probably won’t put on something that’s rubbish. I might not like it, or I might not want to hear it again, but that was really interesting.” It’s that willingness to come on a creative journey and appreciate the people that I’ve brought over here and from around Australia – because it’s not just about bringing people from overseas, it’s about how you integrate them with the home-grown talent. Of course, my knowledge of Australian musicians is never going to be as great as an Australian, but I know enough to feel confident, and I on’till learn, and I have friends around me.

Kathryn Stott’s first Australian Festival of Chamber Music runs July 27 – August 5.

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