Classical music festival fails to pay its performers

Musicians, caterers and other suppliers are among those still owed tens of thousands of pounds by the organisers of Serenata

It was supposed to be the perfect summer weekend – a classical music festival in rolling Dorset countryside. From the oyster bar to the helipad, Serenata promised a memorable experience. But for the musicians and suppliers who have yet to be paid, it has struck a distinctly off note.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the organisers of Serenata, billed as "Britain's first classical music festival", face court proceedings for failing to pay debts of nearly half a million pounds.

Anthony and Lesley Malpas are accused of owing thousands to caterers, suppliers and well-known musicians, including the classical boy band Blake and the clarinettist Emma Johnson.

On Monday, court proceedings were started by Andy Loos, a portable toilet firm that says it is owed more than £20,000. It is the first of Serenata's estimated 120 creditors to take legal action.

The Serenata website describes last year's event as a "rip-roaring success", and the Malpases are planning a repeat event in June. It has been moved to the Hurlingham Club, in south-west London, though a Hurlingham spokesman says no contract has yet been signed.

Yesterday, Mr Malpas acknowledged the debt but pledged to repay it. "We had a disappointing turnout, which left us with a shortfall. So we faced two options: either we wound up the company, and everyone lost their money," he said. "Or we could capitalise on the fact it had been successful from an artistic perspective, and do another festival, which we would make a success."

Many of those out of pocket are small businesses: one local marquee firm is apparently owed £50,000 and a nearby restaurant is £35,000 down.

The trouble began when tickets, priced at £60 per day, failed to sell. Lavish launch parties, one held at Spencer House in London, failed to drum up more sales, and rain blighted the opening day.

Altogether approximately 1,500 tickets were sold, with the biggest attendances on the Friday and Saturday, which were headlined by Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson. Both demanded their fees up front, but others were not so hard-nosed. Blake have so far received only half their fee and Emma Johnson just 20 per cent.

Mark Thistlewood, a musician with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, spent months putting together an ensemble. "We're owed 85 per cent of our fees," he says. "The players are owed £400 to £500 each."

Mr Malpas, 63, is a businessman and the author of The Multi Dimensional Universe, a book that "depicts the psychic journey of the author's life". Lesley Malpas, 43, is the co-founder of the Chosen Foundation, a ministry "formed to train believers in the principles of biblical coaching".

Mr Malpas said he had no previous experience in setting up a festival. However, in 1998 he organised a three-day religious event in Dorset, called Be Not Silent. He denied yesterday that that event also ended in debt. "That was not a festival. It was a conference. It was totally different. And everybody was paid, 100 per cent."

Asked why they have registered four companies under the Serenata name since October, Mr Malpas said: "We had to form a new holding company because people don't like investing into a company that owes money, unfortunately."

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