Why this is the year to cross Angela Hewitt's Umbrian music festival off your bucket list

Gorgeous music (and food and wine and scenery) in the heart of Italy? 'It is pure magic,' she says.

Gorgeous music (and food and wine and scenery) in the heart of Italy? 'It is pure magic,' she says

'Most of our audience come from all over the world to stay for the entire week, and they get to know each other and remain friends.' — Angela Hewitt on the Trasimeno Music Festival, of which she is artistic director.

You probably know Angela Hewitt as a concert pianist, giving 100-plus performances a year, or as a recording artist with more than 50 titles on Hyperion Records. But what you may not know is that Hewitt also runs a weeklong classical music festival every summer in Italy's Umbria region.

Since founding the annual Trasimeno Music Festival in 2005, she has been welcoming music fans to the area at the end of June to enjoy concerts performed by herself and friends in breathtaking churches, piazzas, theatres and castles. Between concerts, visitors can take advantage of all the riches — food, scenery, architecture — the heart of Italy has to offer.

"Had I known all the work involved, I might have had second thoughts," she reflects, as the festival's 15th edition looms, "but it has in fact turned into one of the greatest things in my life, and a great source of joy and fulfilment."

Highlights of this year's festival include an homage to Barbara Strozzi with soprano Emöke Barath and the reputed baroque orchestra Il pomo d'oro; a concert of recent chamber works by Mark Simpson, Kaija Saariaho and Jovanka Trbojevic; an evening centred around Ian McEwan's novel The Children Act; and a closing concert at which Hewitt will play Bach, Mozart and Ravel on her Fazioli piano.

We've always dreamt of splurging on a trip to Italy to experience the Trasimeno Music Festival in person. Is this the year?

We asked Hewitt to convince us.

What compelled you to start the Trasimeno Music Festival 15 years ago?

To make a very long story short: In 2002, I found a piece of land in Umbria for sale on the internet. Situated right on a hill overlooking gorgeous Lake Trasimeno, it was perfect — just that there wasn't yet a house! So, I had one built. Then, in 2004, I discovered the Castle of the Knights of Malta in Magione, not far away from my property. When I walked into its breathtakingly beautiful courtyard, I knew I simply had to have a festival there. It is pure magic.

How has the festival evolved?

The Basilica di San Francesco is one of the concert venues of the Trasimeno Music Festival. (Luca Aless/Wikimedia Commons)

We began in that first year by having all of the concerts in the Castle in Magione. As great as that place is, by expanding to other venues we have been able to present chamber orchestras in some glorious churches in Assisi (the famous Basilica of San Francesco), Perugia, and Trevi, as well as using some theatres that are real jewels (Cortona, Trevi, Bevagna). I choose all the venues for their "wow" factor and then match the repertoire to the location.

One of the best things I did, and indeed the key to the survival of the festival, was to start "Friends" Associations in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. which allow private donors to get a tax receipt in their own country, as well as supporting masterclasses and other events at home. Without that, I wouldn't be able to continue. We have also added special events with renowned writers (McEwan, Julian Barnes, Madeleine Thien), actors (Roger Allam, Simon Callow) and directors (Richard Eyre) which have been fascinating and enriching.

What are your best memories from past editions of the festival?

The opening of the 10th anniversary festival in the Basilica in Assisi with Jeffrey Tate conducting Mozart's Coronation Mass, and performing Mozart's Coronation Concerto with him and La Verdi Orchestra from Milan. What a location! Mozart and Beethoven with Sir Roger Norrington in the fantastic acoustics of San Pietro in Perugia; accompanying the likes of Gerald Finley, Felicity Lott and Anne Sofie von Otter in the castle courtyard; an evening of words and music with Julian Barnes and several musicians (including Barbara Hannigan). Performing the complete Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach in that church in Perugia. It was enough to make believers of us all! Oh, so many things! Playing An American in Paris in the piano duet version with Garrick Ohlsson, and trying to find enough room for me at the keyboard (he's a big guy)! And of course the four-piano spectacular in the beautiful Teatro Morlacchi in Perugia on Canada Day, 2017 — our 150th anniversary — along with Jon Kimura Parker, Janina Fialkowska and Charles Richard-Hamelin. 

What is the festival experience like for visitors from abroad?

We aim to give our audience the complete experience from the moment they arrive until the moment they depart. They have their choice of hotels — anything from a country farmhouse to a hotel on Lake Trasimeno to five-star luxury in the centre of Perugia. We transport them to all the concerts. There are three gala dinners during the week, before the concerts. If they like, they can also go on guided tours of Perugia and many of the famous hill towns of Umbria (Assisi, Spoleto, Gubbio), or for a wine-tasting or other activities. We have pre-concert talks (with former CBC host Eric Friesen). And for our special donors, an exclusive event held in a private villa or some other very special location (sometimes even my own house on Lake Trasimeno). Most of our audience come from all over the world to stay for the entire week, and they get to know each other and remain friends. That's one of the greatest things about it.

What guides your choices of artists and repertoire for this festival?

Angela Hewitt directs the opening concert of the 2018 Trasimeno Music Festival in Italy. (Trasimeno Music Festival)

The festival is very much led by my choice of repertoire. Often I will decide on a work to perform, and then find the most suitable (and available) artists to do it. Or else if I know a certain artist has an excellent program suggestion, then I will take it up. As I play myself in all but one of the concerts, this is a major priority: it has to be repertoire that I want to perform and that I know the audience will enjoy.... I often mix genres such as vocal, chamber, and solo, in the one concert, as long as there is a unifying thread.

How "hands-on" is your involvement in the daily operations of the festival?

Totally hands on. There are basically only five people running this festival, including myself, most of whom work for free. And then more volunteers as the festival approaches. I see every inquiry that comes in (which I answer personally), every booking, every donation (I also try to thank every single donor personally), I do most of the fundraising myself, I do the negotiating with the artists, choose the program, perform ... even do the seating plans! So you see, this festival is really a gift from me to my friends and fans around the world. I don't make a cent from this festival. I do it all for nothing. It definitely has my personal stamp on it, and I think that makes it quite unique. There is nothing commercial about it, unlike many festivals. Though of course we are happy when we're able to pay all our bills! Our sponsors include Fazioli Pianos on which, of course, I perform.

At this year's festival, there appears to be a focus on vocal music. How did that come about?

Finnish soprano Anu Komsi (right) will be a featured artist at the 2019 Trasimeno Music Festival. (Päivi Karjalainen)

Just by chance, I guess. I wanted very much to invite Anu Komsi, who is a great singer and who is married to another great musician — Sakari Oramo, the Finnish music director of the BBC Symphony (and with whom I performed Messiaen's Turangalila at the Proms last year). They have a house in Tuscany, and it's wonderful to continue our friendship in this way. Then, when I found out that Anu has a twin sister, Piia Komsi, and that they had already performed Couperin's beautiful Leçons de ténèbres at their own festival in Finland, I thought how atmospheric that would be in a late-night concert in the church in Perugia. I only have to play the organ for it — the first time in public! 

How has running this festival enriched your life?

Every year I think I can't do this again. It's simply so much work, all year round. So many notes to learn, so much administration. But then when I'm touring around the world and see all the close friends who have become part of the Trasimeno "family" over the years and who are so happy to be a part of it all, I think I simply must go on. And of course working with all these wonderful artists. With many of them I have subsequently done other projects (a U.S./Canada tour with Anne Sofie von Otter; events in New York and Vienna with Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes; a series of concerts at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre thanks to actor Roger Allam with whom I performed T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and on it goes). Those are precious relationships that have begun at my festival and which might not have happened otherwise. Of course I could go on giving my 100 concerts a year just as a soloist in the standard concert programs, but to have something like this that I create myself — that's very enriching.

The 15th edition of the Trasimeno Music Festival runs from June 29 to July 5, 2019. For full information, head over here.

Pianist Angela Hewitt performs a recital at the 2018 Trasimeno Music Festival. (Trasimeno Music Festival)