Times may be tight, but we're hooked on classics

Classical music festivals are on the increase across Europe despite the tough economic climate. Adrian Mourby reports

Summer is upon us, which means that cultural tourists will once again be dusting off their sandals and dinner jackets and heading for the airport.

The classical music festival has taken root and blossomed during the past 20 years. At times it can seem as if every Italian town, Swiss village and Croatian seaside resort is wooing cultural tourists. And the remarkable thing is that despite the economic woes affecting Europe, the number of festivals on offer is actually on the increase.

Barry Cheeseman, manager of cultural tours for Kirker Holidays ( kirkerholidays.com) says more and more musicians seem to be starting their own festivals, though, in reality, these often turn out to be nothing more than a couple of concerts over a weekend. "We find clients really like festivals devoted to a single theme or composer – the Sibelius Festival in Lahti is very popular, as is the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt, and the Liszt Festival in his birthplace of Raiding."

And Andrew Blair, who runs Opera in Style ( operainstyle.com), thinks British enthusiasm for cultural travel is undimmed. "We haven't noticed any measurable decline in bookings over the past 18 months, either new requests or from existing patrons. This strengthens my belief that those with a passion for opera will still go to the ends of the earth to indulge in their love of a composer or artist. Almost every Ring cycle we feature is a sell-out and the most satisfying result last year was the business we derived for Köln's Ring, which hasn't been performed for some years and was a first for us."

This flies in the face of the fact that the number of Brits travelling in the eurozone has declined. Though Cheeseman has noticed that while business is holding up, clients are playing it safer now. "The number of people prepared to spend a great deal of money for a short holiday has declined because audiences are not as committed or interested as they were even 10 years ago," he says. "Torre del Lago is still popular thanks to Puccini, and the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg is still a top seller, but we have definitely seen a decline in both the number of people wanting top-category tickets and the interest in more unusual operas."

But still new festivals crop up. One of the most successful is Grafenegg ( grafenegg.com), which was launched in 2007 in a Metternich castle just outside Vienna. Grafenegg now brings audiences of 30,000 to listen to major performers including Daniel Hope, Anne Sofie von Otter, the LSO, Cleveland Orchestra and the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gergiev.

"Grafenegg has exceeded expectations," says executive director Johannes Neubert. "We have built first-class concert venues and are able to present the cream of European and US orchestras. These days, orchestra touring tends to be more and more focused on a certain number of top venues and festivals. Due to the recession, many orchestras have had to reduce their touring activities and now ask for more competitive fees."

Another reason Grafenegg has succeeded is because it was set up well, with corporate and state sponsorship. "A festival needs financial security to get through its first five years at least. The rise of Grafenegg would not have been possible without the stable support from the government of Niederösterreich and the continuing commitment of our sponsors. None of them let us down, even though they have experienced a rough time over the past years," says Neubert.

In picturesque Bologna this year, the city is sponsoring its second Martini Festival ( accademiadegliastrusi.it) launched to celebrate local composer Padre Giovanni Martini (1706-1784). Similarly, in the Slovenian resort of Piran, the Tartini Festival ( tartini festival.org) is now in its fourth full year celebrating the work of Piranese composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692 – 1770). Both events marry the cachet of a little-heard composer with architecture that appeals to tourists.

Milan Vrsajkov, who set up the Tartini Festival with his partner, says that last year the recession did not greatly affect attendance. "Last year, 1,500 people came to our 10 concerts. We do not know yet how many people will be coming in 2010. This year, everything is much more difficult because of the recession but we hope that next year's festival will be better. We have a budget problem. Much depends on the money we receive from our sponsors, the ministry of culture and the municipalities of Piran, Izola and Koper. But we are relying even more this year on ticket sales. That's why we invited certain musicians; they are coming for a 'friendship' price."

These chamber festivals are much cheaper to run than orchestral events as orchestra members have to be paid at the union rate (and are therefore expensive), whereas soloists can choose to play together for expenses – or less – if they wish. However, getting from a bunch of enthusiasts in a heritage venue to a viable festival with an international profile is a big step. As well as financial backing, the festival needs a tourist infrastructure.

Earlier this month, Zakopane in Poland launched its first Spring Jazz Festival ( zakopane.pl). Thanks to its winter tourism, the Polish ski destination has much of the tourist infrastructure necessary for a festival. But the three-hour transfer from Krakow airport may count against it, especially for cultural tourists who may not want to devote more than a long weekend to the festival of their choice.

What Zakopane does have this year, however, is celebrity violinist Nigel Kennedy who will play as well as act as its artistic director in subsequent years. Sometimes, a big name need not be a dead composer. In 2007, the conductor Zubin Mehta began a summer festival, Festival del Mediterraneo ( lesarts.com/es/festival_mediterrani.html), at the Palau de las Artes, Valencia, which was based almost entirely around works that he wanted to conduct. Next year, in Quebec a new summer opera festival is planned with Placido Domingo as artistic director.

It may be a rocky road but there is no shortage of festivals that want to go down it.