The annual fireworks have made a gradual comeback at the opening of the Bath Festival – and now they don’t detract from the music, says Neil McKim
I went along to the recent opening of the Bath Festival – probably my 25th successive year of attendance – and what struck me was the real feeling of festival that always descends on the city.
There’s something unique about the Bath Stone and its golden glow in the evening sun and the streets almost seem designed for a street party. But when Joannna MacGregor took the helm as director a few years back, and relocated the festival opening away from the Royal Crescent there was an outcry from locals. She was accused of depriving the city of its annual ‘fireworks’. But this was missing the point. Her mission was to place music back at the centre of proceedings.
Although the sight of fireworks over the Crescent was undoubtedly a beautiful spectacle it was taking attention away from the festival’s music. In the 1970s the opening night was a quiet affair with candles being lit in the Royal Crescent and Circus and this had gradually escalated with addition of the firework display, until by the 1990s thousands of visitors descended on Bath’s Victoria Park for ‘firework night’ to have picnics on the lawn below the Crescent, while over the road hoards of teenagers endured drunken rites of passage in a night that ended with lines of police horses. Somehow, the music had got lost.
MacGregor and her team now include venues all over the city for music, from small cafes to the Georgian splendour of the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms. The main doors of the Abbey are thrown wide open as local choirs and ensembles play, while samba and jazz can be heard around the streets. What’s more – it’s all free for people to wander around. The city feels re-engaged with the international festival that is taking place and which continues to host top classical performers – this year sees tenor Mark Padmore, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough among the line-up.
The following evening I went to see keyboard legend Booker T play at Bath’s Pavilion. It was packed with locals and visitors of all ages dancing the evening away. This humble municipal hall, renowned locally for its Tuesday roller disco, was here transformed for a top-quality performance by the writer of ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Soul Limbo’ – familiar to most as the calypso theme to BBC’s Test Match Cricket.
For years, people have talked, some nostalgically and some with contained rage, about when former director Michael Tippett hired Led Zeppelin to play at Bath Recreation Ground in 1969, with the sound being heard bouncing off the surrounding hills. The latest opening night fireworks were launched from one of those hillsides, creating a vast spectacle over the music-filled city below.
For more information on the Bath Festival see: www.bathmusicfest.org.uk
Neil McKim is production editor of BBC Music Magazine