Music: Down on the farm: What made a festival in rural Schleswig-Holstein into one of Europe's biggest? Andrew Green explores the dream and the reality

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Nought to 200 in seven years. That's concerts per annum. From the back row of the grid in 1986, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in northern Germany has purred effortlessly into contention as one of the largest events of its type in Europe. The largest, claims the ebullient pianist and conductor Justus Frantz, founder and Intendant of the festival. Ticket sales last year soared above the 200,000 mark. Given the essentially rural nature of Schleswig-Holstein, where awaydays to Hamburg used to offer the last best hope for culture vultures, the achievement is on the miraculous side of impressive.

This year's festival boasts appearances from 30 orchestras, Anne- Sophie Mutter, Sir Georg Solti, the Kronos String Quartet, Jessye Norman and Gidon Kremer. The already renowned master classes in Lubeck are in the hands of such names as Tom Krause, Pepe Romero and members of the former Amadeus Quartet. The festival orchestra, selected from young players worldwide, is now invited to major venues around Europe.

If the overall design has come from Frantz, the dream belonged to Leonard Bernstein, whose memory is honoured by a 75th 'birthday' concert in August. 'Lenny would tell me that Germans possess a great musical heritage,' says Frantz, 'but that they also have an arrogant and monopolistic attitude to it, with 97 per cent of the population having no access. He said we must open things up, let people participate without having to wear black ties or ball gowns.'

The tone was set. For the inaugural concert in 1986, Frantz persuaded the prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein to soap-box a special narration to Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. Taut north German faces cracked and then crumpled as recognition dawned that 'pictured within' the text were leading German political figures, cruelly satirised.

Momentum has been building ever since, but Frantz insists the rapid expansion of the festival (it now covers some 40 centres in a swathe of territory from just inside Denmark round to the far side of Lubeck) has been 'an accident. More and more towns and communities have approached me, wanting to participate and offering all kinds of venues - manor houses, churches, barns and so on.'

For those sceptical of populist approaches to selling classical music, Frantz is not so much a sitting target as the obliging sort who enjoys providing the grapeshot. He's known to German television audiences as the presenter of Achtung Klassik], in which he introduces musical performances grouped around accessible themes - painting, or mechanical inventions. 'People said I'd be lucky to pick up a 5 per cent share of the TV audience. We get 20 per cent. In Berlin recently I came across some rough- looking kids in the street. They recognised me . . . said they were fans of hard rock, but that since they'd watched Achtung Klassik] they'd been buying classical music recordings.'

When it comes to press coverage for the festival, Frantz isn't content to see publicity ideas shepherded into the arts columns. 'We go for the front page. Even newspapers which used to give cultural news a low priority cooperate fully with us now because they know from experience there's nothing to lose by doing so. All sorts of people go to concerts for the first time in their lives at this festival. I remember a block booking of trade union members from Kiel who came to a concert in an 8,000-seater sports hall. Look . . . we can raise an audience of 4,000 for, say, a Prokofiev concert when in Frankfurt they'd get 400. What we're doing is freeing people by helping provide more musical choice in an age of muzak and noise pollution.' Suspicions of ego-tripping melt away with the knowledge that outside the festival he devotes time and energy to humanitarian work in and for eastern Europe - a subject for an article in itself.

The festival has retained a close identification with Schleswig-Holstein's barns - great cathedrals rising above the plain, begging to be used as concert venues. Frantz has known them since childhood. 'Many of them were in danger of demolition - they're so expensive to maintain. But we've found public money to preserve many of them and do something for music at the same time.' The thought of hundreds of concertgoers streaming into wooden barns has set fire chiefs hopping. In 1986, officials tried to impose a limit of 400 tickets when 2,000 were already sold. Frantz's solution on the night, he claims, was to drink gin with the firemen. They may have seen double the number that actually went through the doors, but by then were beyond caring.

Getting things off the ground financially that first year of 1986 required every atom of Frantz finesse. 'I told the artists I wanted that I had the cash, while informing sponsors I had the artists]' Given Schleswig- Holstein's narrow industrial base, sponsors have been sought outside the region - Audi and the confectionery firm Zentis, for example, and this year the Gottinger Gruppe insurance business, helping offset recession and a standstill in the nonetheless significant doses of state and regional funding. The budget for 1993 is a mountainous DM 16m ( pounds 6.5m). Ticket sales (at prices as low as can be dared) are split roughly equally between locals, other German nationals and foreign tourists.

There could hardly be a less intimidating atmosphere for introducing quantities of new, contemporary and imaginative repertoire. Within the context of a succession of 'national' themes - the Baltic States, Scandinavia and East Germany, for example - over one hundred new works have been premiered thus far. The input rises, says Frantz, as audiences appreciate the way programmes are devised to reassure as well as to stretch. This year dual national themes feature music and musicians from Poland and Great Britain. (Frantz is mindful of the historical connections between England and the Angeln area of Schleswig-Holstein: there's a branch of POSH - Patrons of Schleswig- Holstein - in London, with Sir Edward Heath as chairman.) Polish composers, Penderecki among them, have provided 10 new pieces. One will be performed in a cattleshed in Haseldorf, another in the 'acoustically outstanding' riding school in Wotersen.

Frantz hoped in vain for a comparable number of premieres from British composers. 'If you ask them to write a piece 'for next year' they react as if you're from another planet,' he laughs. To German ears, most of the British works on offer represent adventure of a sort - whether it's Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Delius and Ireland, or Michael Tippett and Jonathan Harvey. The long list of British performers to appear includes Julian Lloyd Webber, Margaret Price, Peter Donohoe and the Brodsky Quartet.

This year for the first time Frantz has introduced a series of eight Prom concerts in such centres as Hamburg, Flensburg and Neumunster, fashioned on the Royal Albert Hall model. 'I'm hoping Germans can show themselves to be as spontaneous as the British and really participate,' he says. Instead of Land of Hope and Glory, audiences at the Letzte Nacht in Hamburg will be invited to rattle off Gaudeamus Igitur as it appears in Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. I'll wager they follow the beat.

Festival continues to 22 August (box office: tel/fax 01049 431 56 91 52)

(Photograph omitted)