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Other side of the City

21 June 2013

Katy Hounsell-Robert interviews a man on a mission in the arts

IT WAS the eve of the huge five-week City of London Festival, when St Paul's Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, and hundreds of small city churches and medieval livery halls will resound with symphonies, masses, and recitals. The old squares and yards will buzz with more than 300 free open-air events, including modern and vintage jazz, modern and classical dance, beer- and honey-tasting, and a moving orchard.

The festival's artistic director, Ian Ritchie, sat calmly in his office overlooking the busy streets, to talk to me about the festival, the City, and broader aspects of music and spirituality.

He has found the City's obsession with material gain and risk aversion, especially since the recession, rather depressing. "There has to be risk-taking - not casino risk, but intelligent planned risk, both in finance and the arts, or nothing would progress."

He compared the situation to the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain. "The two are separate and asymmetrical. You need both, and you need the framework to be free. I feel it is important for the City to recalibrate its moral compass."

He recalled that, when the festival started in 1962, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Frederick Hoare, wrote that, while the City might seem to worship at the altar of Mammon, the festival represented inspiration and beauty, the other side of the City.

Mr Ritchie, in his programme introduction, quotes from Job about the hope of regrowth. "We as an arts organisation have a very specific and important role, of having a part to play in lifting the morale of the City," he observes. "Like the churches, we have a mission, a lay ministry, if you like - dealing with gifts of creation, music, and the arts, which we want to share with people and make a difference in their lives."

He has pushed hard to encourage a holistic approach to working. "For example, we don't see a church just as a place to hire for an event, or an arts group as about just doing their concert, packing up, and going. We like to make creative partnerships, which are not only a good idea in human and creative terms, but also in making resources go further.

"A young innovative opera company, Mahogany, wanted to perform Benjamin Britten's three Church Parables in Southwark Cathedral. They had already performed them in Russia, Aldeburgh, and Buxton, and had funding, but lacked the essential promotion vehicle. The festival has limited resources, but an up-and-running organisation to promote and bring people in; and so, by sharing resources, we achieve more."

Mr Ritchie has a similar arrangement with Gresham College for lectures, in which the college pays the speakers and gives the venue, and the festival supplies the publicity and festival theme. This year, it is conflict and resolution, and also the commemoration of the relationship between London and Derry forged 400 years ago to support the English and Scottish settlers there.

Past themes have been slavery, and the green issue, about which Mr Ritchie feels deeply.

The festival has a close association with many of the guilds, including the Worshipful Company of Founders, established in 1365. Every year, they cast the bronze medallions designed by the school pupils which are awarded for quality of effort in the arts.

Born in London of Scottish parents, Mr Ritchie grew up with music around him. "My father, a baritone, like me, spent four years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He gave recitals in the camp, and a composer donated a lot of sheet music, but all in German; so, as I child, I learned songs more in German than English."

The family also has its fair share of clergy. His paternal grandfather was domestic chaplain to the Queen at Windsor Castle, and with his wife is buried behind the choir in St George's Chapel. The Rt Revd Ronald Bowlby, a former Bishop of Southwark, is a first cousin once removed.

 r Ritchie says: "We need spiritual nourishment. I see music as having an inseparable role in this. Although it can be used to incite anger, it is an incredible instrument in pursuit of human and spiritual benefit."

After studying music at the Royal College during his gap year, he was offered a place reading Law and Music at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was also a choral scholar. He followed this with a postgraduate course in singing at the Guildhall School of Music, but by now had made a conscious decision to be outside "the divine triangle of composer, singer, and audience", and to co-ordinate and organise, and keep music for pleasure. He worked as a promotion manager for a leading music publisher.

He was first invited to be Artistic Director of the festival in 1983, but was shortly to be lured to Edinburgh to run the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. During that time, he also shared artistic direction of the St Magnus Festival, on Orkney.

"In the 1990s, I resolved to work only on projects I really cared about, and became involved in Musicians Without Borders UK, helping victims of torture and asylum-seekers. I was then asked by a composer-friend in Bosnia to help develop a music centre alongside medical therapists for children traumatised by the war. It was under the leadership of the composer Nigel Osborne, who had observed that traumatised children with access to music recovered more quickly than those without."

Mr Ritchie encouraged them to sing lullabies and local folk-songs together, and then to create their own music from their experiences. He has now been asked by the armed forces to use these skills to help soldiers recovering from traumatic experiences. The festival programme includes talks and discussions on music and how it relates to conflict.

Older and wiser, he returned as the City of London artistic director in 2005, and after this festival will move on to new pastures that give more space for creativity.

The City of London Festival begins on Sunday and runs until Friday 26 July. Box office: phone 0845 120 7502. www.colf.org

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