The Sligo Baroque Festival
aims to present high-quality performances of baroque music in a friendly and informal context. There is always a mix of performers, some with an international reputation, others at an early stage of their careers. A goal of the festival has always
been to foster the development of young performers. Sligo Festival of Baroque Music is run by a voluntary committee with Nicola Cleary as Artistic Director.
How has your festival been affected by the Covid-19 health crisis?
The big question that the committee faced from early March was, would the Festival be able to celebrate its 25th anniversary at the usual time in late September, or at all this year? Or would Covid-19 make it impossible? The 2020 programme plans were
well advanced by March, when they had to be suspended, while the country came to grips with the pandemic. As spring became summer, the prospects were no clearer, but we were determined to make something happen – we did not know exactly what - within
the limits of what was permitted and possible in Covid conditions so that 2020 should not end without some form of a live baroque music occasion in Sligo.
By August, with nothing yet organised, the possibilities and constraints had become more definite. Cultural venues could now host events with a maximum of 50 people under one roof, with strict social distancing and hygiene guidance. We felt that it would
be possible to plan a modified festival within those limits, though some cherished features would have to be left out – the masterclasses, the schools outreach, the late-night concert, the opening reception. While international artists were ruled
out, due to travel and quarantine restrictions, local and national musicians were keen to be involved in breaking the ice of the great culture freeze. The Arts Council and other generous funders and sponsors maintained their support, and were patient
and flexible in regard to what could be done in the circumstances.
The issue now was to find a venue which could accommodate audiences with social distancing. Churches were willing, but only available mid-week, as their Sunday services ruled out other events within a few days either side. The Hawk's Well Theatre, which
has a 340-seat auditorium, successfully pioneered the organisation of some fully compliant events in early September, and agreed to host the Baroque Festival at the end of the month.
Tentative bookings were confirmed with the performers. A scaled-back festival of four concerts, rather than the usual seven or eight, would take place, with audiences capped at around 40, to allow for musicians and theatre staff within the limit of 50
people per event. Each concert would run for about an hour, so that no interval was required. All tickets would have to be booked in advance, whereas previously most had been sold on the door, and weekend passes which admitted to all concerts could
not be offered, as every seat had to be allocated to ensure social distancing. The audience would have to wear masks while inside the theatre. The programme was printed, and for good measure, a short Covid-compliant free public celebration of the
25th anniversary was arranged for outside Sligo City Hall, with an address by the Mayor, and the Irish Baroque Orchestra playing selections from their evening concert.
There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation as the festival dates approached, but at the last minute, serious doubts emerged, as Covid incidences surged across the country. New rules came in, and Dublin and Donegal were escalated to Level 3. Could
the IBO still travel from Dublin to fulfil their engagement? Would those who had booked tickets now have the confidence to turn out? Yet the sun shone, and all was well. As the IBO were travelling for work, they could go to Sligo, and the loyal fans
who were thirsting for live music showed up, smiling behind their masks. The atmosphere in which the festival took place – perhaps the first live music festival In Ireland since March – was one of joy that it was happening. The staff of the Hawk's
Well were brilliantly efficient, the arrangements worked, and audience and musicians alike felt safe to enjoy the music.
Did digital content play a large part in your festival prior to this crisis?
Previously we had posted some video promos of extracts from festival concerts on our website and social media. We saw this year's festival primarily as an opportunity to restore live music to a live audience – even if the audience had to be fewer than
usual. Live-to-live is what festivals are about. Of course we now have to look at digital too, and we did consider streaming, but there just wasn't enough time to organise it in the short interval between confirming the venue and the date of the
festival. It's not just the technology but arrangements with the performers about consent and copyright. We'll work on this for 2021. We would not have been keen on streaming live concerts which did not have an audience present - there is a place
for such broadcasts, but they don't make a festival.
Regardless of whatever restrictions are in place, do you think that your 2020 programme will inform what you plan for 2021?
We will have to plan on assumptions similar to this year – that the Covid level will be low enough next September to offer a programme of at least the same scope, and hopefully more – but be ready to adapt quickly if the situation changes.
What would you say was your biggest takeaway from the 2020 iteration of the festival?
It's absolutely crucial to have a competent partner venue to take care of the public safety arrangements. Also, publicity needs to be calibrated - this year it was kept less than usual, due to the reduced number of tickets available. Not all were taken
– perhaps the advertising was too little, or people were reluctant to travel, or wary of it being perhaps the first music festival to take place after six months of Covid. Maybe next year the ads need to refer to the safety side as well as the music.
For more information on the festival, please visit www.sligobaroquefestival.com