On 11 December, the 30th St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival begins in London. We talk to its artistic director, Stephen Layton, who will also be conducting two concerts in a choral event that, over its 30 years in existence, has become a firm favourite in the festive fixture list…
The St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival has been under your direction for around two thirds of its 30 years. How has it developed over that time?
It has got bigger over time, and the audiences have grown immeasurably – these days many of the concerts are very well attended indeed. I'd also say it's become more of a purely choral-type festival than it used to be, when there were more instrumental concerts in it. I think it highlights the fact that choral music is very much the thing at Christmas.
How would you describe the festival's typical audience?
We get a lot of people from right across the world, who know about this festival because it's been well publicised over the years. It's an interesting festival to come to because you'll get a popular Handel Messiah, but also you'll get some thought-provoking early music programmes. People know that, and respect it.
St John's Smith Square is just down the road from the Houses of Parliament. Do you ever get any MPs or Lords popping in for some festive choral respite?
I think so, yes. Occasionally, I will turn round at the end of conducting, say, the Messiah, and I will recognise a few well-known faces who have chosen to come along as part of their festive celebrations!
The event does not just consist of sacred festive music, does it?
The programme develops organically as the artists involved suggest to us what they would like to perform. There always seems to be a fair balance between sacred music and secular elements too. It's not a religious music festival, it's a Christmas festival, and that incorporates all things secular and Christian from across the globe.
How do you choose the ensembles taking part?
Every year there's something new, but we also have some time-honoured friends. The likes of the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford, for instance, have been appearing here at least as long as I've been involved. In contrast, this year sees Siglo de Oro join us for the first time. It's a good thing to bring in new groups, so that will always happen.
In terms of the number of high-quality choral groups around, we live in a golden era. Does that make programming the festival all the more fun?
Yes, but on the other hand it's quite a thing for any group to put on concerts in St John's Smith Square – they need to attract an audience and have a programme that will do pretty well. And so, while there are many groups out there, there are not hundreds of them jumping up and down at the prospect of trying to fill the venue's 760 seats, which is not an easy task, even at Christmas!
Does the word 'Christmas' in the festival's title prove a frustrating restriction when it comes to programming it, or does it provide a creative spur?
I think gives creative freedom. When you say 'Christmas' you can also add 'Advent', which already gives you a broader remit. There are so many things that might have been performed around Christmas time historically that are not necessarily absolutely Christmassy themselves, plus it's always possible for a group to have a good number of Christmas things and mix in something else that reflects one of the composers of those festive works in some way. The options are endless.
How do you as artistic director fill your time during the festival?
My role really comes in to play before the festival begins, in terms of discussing what we're going to programme, who we are going to invite to perform, and working out what works we might suggest to groups that they might or might not like to sing. During the festival itself, I'm there for some concerts but not all of them - as I am conducting two concerts myself, I also have to be rehearsing those. One of the things that makes the festival special for me personally is that the last concert, which in recent years has been the Messiah, always takes place on 23 December, which is my birthday!
Time to come off the fence. Aside from your own concerts, are there any in particular you're looking forward to this year?
Oh, that's a terrible question to try and answer! I think I'll answer it by saying that I always enjoy welcoming a new group to the festival for the first time. And as that group this year is Siglo de Oro, I'm especially looking forward to their concert.
For full details of the 30th St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival, click here
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.