Sintra Festival, 55 years promoting excellence in classic music

Among an extensive list of hundreds of names that includes some of the most renowned artists in the world, the Festival de Sintra highlights some of the artists that came in the past, such as the legendary conductors Alain Lombard, Cláudio Scimone, Eduardo Fischer or Gustav Leonhardt; pianists Aldo Ciccolini, Arcadi Volodos, Boris Berezovsky, François-René Duchable, Fazil Say, Grigory Sokolov, Helène Grimaud, Imogen Cooper, Ivo Pogorelich, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Kátia Labèque and Marielle Labèque, Leif Ove Andsnes, Leon Fleisher, Antoinette Lévêque de Freitas Branco, Maria João Pires, Nikolai Lugansky, Paul Badura-Skoda, Sequeira Costa, Stephen Kovacevich or Vladimir Ashkenazy;

We also cherish the presence of violinists such as Igor Oistrakh, Ivry Gitlis, Sándor Végh, Pinchas Zukerman or Augustin Dumay ; cellists as Mstislav Rostropovitch, Paul Tortelier or Truls Mørk, and singers as Barbara Hendricks, Dame Felicity Lott Jennifer Smith and Peter Schreier. Many others at a superlative level have given us the honor of their presence, making the Sintra Festival a national reference in Portuguese classical scene.

We have to go back to 1957 to trace the origins of Sintra Music Festival, which first started off as ‘Sintra Music Days’ under the auspices of Sintra Town Hall and its then President, César Moreira Baptista. Other instrumental personalities in those initial years were Joaquim Fontes, Manuel Ivo Cruz, António Pereira Forjaz and pianist José Sequeira Costa.

Their goals, as exposed inside the brochure’s keynote address to that very 1st. edition of the Festival already mentioned “(…) the need for Sintra to create new events to attract tourists, but also (…) make up for a shortcoming in the country’s cultural life.”

Through a rare blending of sensitivity and vision, the Festival was quick to assert itself and fulfill the above-mentioned aims, soon rising to distinction within Portugal’s great cultural initiatives. And here it is inevitable that we mention Lady Olga Maria Nicolis di Robilant Álvares Pereira de Melo, Marchioness of Cadaval (1900-96), the great patron of the arts and friend of music and musicians. Through her lifelong dedication to promoting culture, and classical music in particular – thus continuing a centuries-old tradition of her Italian family line –, the Marchioness, who made a home of the Piedade estate near Sintra, forged for the Festival a firm place in the map of international classical music.   

Besides making a name for herself as a promoter of up and coming talents the likes of Nelson Freire, Roberto Szidon, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim or Jacqueline Dupré, who were later to become world-class artists, the Marchioness took on a decisive role in the Festival. Through her efforts and connections, many internationally acclaimed artists performed in Sintra. Often she would let them stay in her house, and the soirees and casual music-making that thus originated became the stuff of legend.

Being a part of Sintra Festival, be it as a performer or as a member of the audience, assumed in some cases a special aura, for the opportunity it presented of visiting places not normally accessible to the public and therefore almost secret, while, on the other hand, the events that took place in palaces reminded musicians and audience alike of the rich musical traditions associated with those venues. And, what’s more, without a rigid stage/stalls separation and no curtain whatsoever, allowing for an unusual proximity between performers and listeners and enabling a more intimate experience of music and music-making.

Piano, pianists and the Romantic repertoire always constituted the bulk of the programme, but in the course of its 64-year long history, the Sintra Festival embraced other artistic expressions or genres, such as dance, chamber music, the symphonic repertoire, opera and plays. Another hallmark of the Festival was the coexistence of big, flashy international stars of classical music and of promising, young Portuguese musicians, asserting the Festival’s important role in nurturing talent. 

Due to the Carnation Revolution (1974) and subsequent political turmoil, the Festival was interrupted, not to be resumed until 1983, again on an annual basis. In 1988, the Festival assumed a “threefold personality”, each with an autonomous programming and scheduling, and consisting of the traditional Music section (headed by Luís Pereira Leal, from Gulbenkian Foundation), the ‘Dance Evenings at Seteais Palace’ and, thirdly, the ‘Queluz Evenings’, a series of historical reenactments taking the royal Queluz National Palace as its scenario that started off separately in 1985, with dancer and choreographer Armando Jorge acting as its artistic director.

From 2003, the Festival incorporated a dance section to its official programme, with choreographer Vasco Wellenkamp sharing the artistic direction with Luís Pereira Leal.

With a clear commitment by the current Mayor, Dr. Basílio Horta on decentralization and education through the arts, the presentation of Sintra Festival concerts in different geographies of the Municipality and its performances specially thought for the school public, meets the purpose underlying this strategic vision.

From the 53rd. edition of the Festival, in 2018, when Gabriela Canavilhas took over as Artistic Director, the Festival adopted the principle of having a theme guiding its programme each year (‘The Magic Mountain’, in 2018; ‘From the Court to the Streets’ in 2019), while aiming to address the whole of Sintra county and its vast population. Underlying the belief on the benefits of education through the arts and the need to forge and widen its potential audience, a renewed effort and emphasis have been put on ‘reach-out’ initiatives and decentralized events/concerts, thus mirroring the diverse social contexts which make up Sintra’s reality today and ensuring the Festival’s relevance for tomorrow.