As Lichfield enters the festival spirit once again, Terry Grimley catches up with its new young director...
It may be at the northern end of Birmingham's cross-city line, but it seems that for many citizens Lichfield is a small faraway place of which they know little.
As an Australian who used to think nothing of a 100-mile roundtrip to hear a concert, new Lichfield Festival director Richard Hawley finds it a bit strange that it doesn't draw a major part of its audiences from its much larger neighbouring city.
"People say they've heard of the Lichfield Festival, or even that they've head of Lichfield, but they've never been," says the 32 year-old former CBSO orchestra manager.
"I think the festival is quite strangely placed geograpically, in the bottom corner of Staffordshire. The world seems to think of Staffordshire as a non-place. The festival needs to appeal to to the city, the district, the county and the region - does Staffordshire own it, or does the district own it?"
While such big strategic questions remain to be pondered, this year's festival got underway last night and tonight brings one of its most spectacular events to the Cathedral.
Children from more than 20 schools in the National Forest area will join internationally- renowned saxophonist John Surman, soprano Marie Vassilou, baritone Richard Chew and Viva, The Orchestra of the East Midlands, for the premiere of Howard Moody's Songs of the Forest.
The culmination of two years of musical workshops in the National Forest, Howard Moody's new piece draws texts from Lichfield's own Lunar man, Erasmus Darwin, and the "Bard of Needwood", Francis Mundy.
On the other hand, if you don't fancy that you could go to the Lichfield Garrick at the same time to hear jazz singer Clare Teal give her first performance since picking up her Best Vocalist gong at the British Jazz Awards in Birmingham on Tuesday.
So, in the most-worn clich> of festival directors, there really may be something for everyone.
"I've been talking to a lot of people about the perception of the festival and what they think it is," says Richard Hawley. "There's still a perception that it's an elite classical music festival, which I guess is how it may have started, but there's always been a strong element of community and education."
From a big city perspective, the range of events in the festival may seem a little quaint, running from top classical stars like Felicity Lott and French- Canadian pianist Marc-Andr> Hamelin to screenings of such extensively-aired films as Vera Drake and The Incredibles. As Richard Hawley points out, this is a festival city without a full-time cinema.
"On visual arts we can't compete with people like Ikon and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery," he says. "But I'm trying to shape perceptions of what the visual art element is. It's now in four venues within the Close and we've got Christopher Le Brun coming, and that's quite a big deal. He's bringing new bronze sculptures and oils, almost all of which are for sale.
"We've also got a little summer taster for Brilliantly Birmingham, and the jewellery workshop is soldout twice over."
Having inherited two-thirds of this year's programme from his predecessor Meurig Bowen, Hawley has been giving a lot of thought to what makes a special festival event.
So, for example, next Tuesday there is that old box office stand-by, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but presented by Clio Gould and the Scottish Ensemble alongside tango master Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, thereby taking listeners through the seasons in both hemispheres simultaneously.
There is a similar collision of musical cultures the following night with Bollywood Brass Extravaganza, which juxtaposes the Bollywood Brass Band with current British Open champions the Foden's Richardson Band in an evening of brass band and Bollywood classics, including the music of A R Rahman.
However, it's fair to say that such ingenious pieces of planning have provoked less of a crush at the box office than such predictable successes as the two Hall> Orchestra concerts with the Elgar Cello Concerto and Sir Willard White singing spirituals.
The festival has a loyal core following but of course the debate about renewing audiences extends far beyond the boundaries of Lichfield with the 22-35 age bracket a crucial target. In the past Hawley has been involved in experiments to repackage chamber music in a cabaret setting.
"It's about trying to do something that hasn't been done before," he says. "I think a festival has a responsibility to encourage people out of their box.
"It shouldn't just be providing what they can get everywhere else. It should be providing extraordinary things and widening horizons. I'm going to have to work out very quickly how to do that."
* The Lichfield Festival continues until July 13. Full details from www.lichfieldfestival.org