Nicola Lisle speaks to co-founder Brian Foster about the Oxford May Music Festival, now in its seventh year

How often do you find a musical legend like Alfred Brendel, other world-class instrumentalists and some of the country’s finest scientific minds all grouped together in one festival?

Well, not very often, according to Professor Brian Foster, a particle physicist and Fellow at Balliol College.

Brian started the Oxford May Music Festival with leading violinist Jack Liebeck in 2008, and believes that the festival remains unique in its focus on science, music and the arts.

“I don’t know of another festival that does this,” he says. “And it’s going from strength to strength — not financially, but in terms of audience. We certainly had the biggest audience last year that we’ve ever had.”

For the first festival, Brian can remember sitting outside Balliol College at weekends trying to coerce people into coming along.

These days, with a healthy mailing list and Friends scheme, audiences regularly come down from London as well as much further afield — including one regular attendee from Los Angeles. Looking at this year’s programme, it’s easy to see why the festival has grown so rapidly in popularity. There is a rich variety of concerts — from the serious to the zany — interwoven with lectures from ground-breaking and award-winning scientists.

Some of the concerts this year are a little different from the usual festival fare. The Dark Power of Music — which features co-founder Jack Liebeck and his violinist wife Victoria Sayles, among others — opens with a film illustrating the passions of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata in music and dance, before continuing with performances of Beethoven’s masterful Violin No.9 in A major and Janacek’s String Quartet No.1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’. You will need to act fast, though, if you want to go to this one as tickets are selling rapidly.

“I think it’s because we haven’t had a film before,” Brian says. “It’s not a long film, but it’s an interesting one, and it’s one that Jack made very early in his career. They’re playing two great pieces of music, too. I didn’t know the Janacek before, but I listened to it when I was writing the programme notes and it’s certainly a very striking piece of music.”

Another slight departure from the norm is the concert by percussionists O Duo, formed in 2000 by Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell during their undergraduate days at the Royal College of Music. Known for their charisma and sense of fun, this is set to be an entertaining evening.

There is more fun to be had when legendary pianist Alfred Brendel and musical comedian Rainer Hersch team up for a rare double bill in which Brendel will give a recital of some of his humorous verse and Hersch will entertain with his unique brand of musical zaniness.

“Alfred Brendel is very much a highlight,” says Brian. “He’s a musical hero of mine. Of course he’s not actu-ally playing, but he’s a very amusing man. We’ve had Rainer Hersch before and he’s also extremely amusing, so that will be a fun evening.”

Interspersed between all this is a series of lectures, from mezzo-soprano Nicola Harrison talking about The Singing Mind to leading scientists tackling serious topics such as climate change, bipolar disorder, osteoporosis and much more, while the week ends on a high with the traditional festival finale.

Oxford May Music
Various venues
April 30 to May 5
Full programme at
Tickets: Call 01865 305305/