CLASSICAL MUSIC / For festive, read restive: It's late June, and arts festivals are bustin' out all over. At the last count there were more than 500 of them. Michael White has had enough

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The Independent Culture
ORGANISING riots is easy under English common law - a minimum requirement of three people and some noise - and you could say the same of festivals. Why else are there so many of them? A survey last year by the Policy Studies Institute identified 527 arts festivals in Britain, squeezed largely into May, June and (the festive peak) July; and that wasn't counting one-day events, religious junkets and pure promotions of the kind designed to camouflage mediocre concert seasons in a fiction of coherent fun.

Festivals tend to be music-based, so that come mid-June, music critics take up residence on British Rail and juggle with a library of festive brochures that demand their festive presence on the same day in two dozen venues. Lesser people would seek a refuge in misanthropy.

The brochures tell a depressingly similar story. The three people and the noise are not the only requirements. Another is an evening with Evelyn Glennie. Then there's the late-night cabaret with Richard Rodney Bennett, the Firework Concert conducted by Carl Davis (Richard Hickox if it's choral), the John Tavener profile, and the Eastern European touring band who are unremarkable for everything but their cheapness. With a few exceptions, such as Aldeburgh or Huddersfield, which maintain a distinctive commitment to new music, British festivals are now dangerously off-the-peg.

As Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, admits: 'We've spawned an industry where artists are creating product to 'do' the festival circuit.' And although you can't blame the artists for that - Evelyn Glennie has a right to work wherever she pleases - you might want to blame festival directors for encouraging it. Depending, of course, on what you think festivals are for.

Historically, a festival was for the immediate community, a celebration linked to the church and / or the calendar of local trade. But few existing festivals have any history. A handful - Norwich, Three Choirs and (just) the Proms - date back to the 19th century; a slightly larger group - Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, Bath - were founded after the Second World War in an attempt to revitalise a stagnant British arts scene; but the majority only surfaced in the 1980s, in response to an injection of cash into regional culture that came from government and business sponsorship.

The rationale of these new festivals was, from the start, fragmented. Local authorities welcomed the chance they offered for self-promotion: for tourism, profile-raising, and drawing government attention to other local needs. Arts administrators took a purer line and welcomed the freedom to be what Gavin Henderson, director of the Brighton Festival, calls a 'subversive threat' to the routine of year-round cultural provision. Unburdened by the daily demands of building maintenance and company payrolls, a festival could be frivolous, risky, uncompromising. Henderson points out that some of the most commendable ventures - Wexford, Aldeburgh, Orkney - were set up in remote locations that could only have been prompted by a streak of visionary madness. And experience has proved that, in box-office terms, you can get away with things at festivals that would never sell on their own.

But when you look at what is happening now you find that festivals are not, on the whole, seizing the chance to become market leaders. They are becoming market-led, buying in packages of performers that tour the country and offer similar programmes in each place.

The advantage of the festival is that it gets a quality performance, and perhaps a star, far cheaper than it would a customised event. And what does it matter to an audience in Hunstanton if Evelyn Glennie has recently appeared in Bournemouth? Evelyn Glennie is no doubt very popular in Hunstanton. Its residents deserve the chance to see her.

But Ms Glennie's omnipresence hides a deeper issue: of hardening attitudes and tightening belts within local authorities. Many festival directors are under pressure to popularise their programmes, to focus their efforts more strictly on the local audience and abandon the purist indulgence of risk.

The latest instance is at Bath, where the director, Amelia Freedman, has just resigned - notionally to take up another job but in fact because she felt compromised by demands that she should broaden the base of what has always been an elegant, essentially chamber music programme. 'They want something less 'elitist', more community-orientated, and I didn't think that was true to the spirit of the festival. So, with regret, I left.'

The irony here is that even Bath, this year, had Evelyn Glennie; and she didn't reach her box-office target because she had other engagements too close in time and place - at Wells and in Bristol. Such are the dangers of too many venues relying on too few artists: you soon reach saturation point, and drift back towards the very stagnation which the post-war festivals set out to counter.

E M Forster fixed the standard in 1948, when he said that a festival should 'possess something which is distinctive and which could not be so well presented elsewhere'. That should be written in large letters over every festival director's desk. -

(Photograph omitted)