Fearlessly Toward the Mainstream: IGF Founder and Festival Organizer Tom Kerstens

A conversation between Tom Kerstens and Classical Guitar contributing editor Thérèse Wassily Saba.

Dutch guitarist Tom Kerstens has made London his home since the early 1990s. He first came to the city as a student and trained with Nigel North at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He travels regularly throughout Europe playing recitals and has made nine acclaimed solo recordings.

But as well as performing, he is driven to try to build a future for the guitar in the mainstream music world. He established the International Guitar Foundation (IGF) in 1993 with this very aim.

Tom Kerstens. Photo by Alessandra Freguja

I know IGF organizes several guitar festivals throughout the year, but during October each year, you actually run two festivals simultaneously at Kings Place in London and at the Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, which I think is a unique approach.
It comes from our desire to promote the guitar in the main concert halls of the United Kingdom.

The whole reason for founding IGF is to try to bring the guitar into the mainstream, and that means promoting it where classical and nonclassical concerts are being promoted—at the Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, and the Sage Gateshead. We heard that the Sage was being built three years before it opened, so we started approaching them immediately and they wanted to work with us. The same happened with Kings Place, which is a new London concert venue, so we had the opportunity to run both festivals at the same time.

The reason for doing it is economies of scale—you can offer overseas artists two concerts rather than one. Then it’s more attractive for the artist, and the fees are more manageable if we can offer them more than one concert.

The second tier of what we do is to run a Young Artist Platform, so it’s very important that the young artists have the opportunity to play two or three or four concerts over the same period. We do all the workshops, and the mentoring program involves those big venues.

Another approach, which is quite different, is the way you program the Young Artist Platform concert in a “support-band” style, which rarely happens in the classical music world. What started you on this approach?
It is because IGF is multi-stylistic; we promote guitar in all its facets. For example, in our summer festivals, we have rock, finger-style, jazz, pop, country-western, and flamenco; and in the nonclassical world, the idea of a support act is normal. So we did this first in our nonclassical concerts, and then we thought, “Why not do it in the classical concerts as well?” because the young artist then gets a real audience.

Has there been much resistance from the main artists?
Some people want to discuss it. Of course, the jazz and flamenco musicians are quite comfortable with the idea; they are used to playing a concert straight through, so they play for 60 or 70 minutes without an interval. If you do a warm-up act before that, they are fine with it, because their concert starts when it starts. But with the classical artists, we have had to talk them through this idea, and so far, everyone has responded very well; no one has said that they don’t want to do it.

Normally, a classical soloist would program for something like 45 minutes in the first half and 35 minutes in the second half. How do you organize the evening if you have a young artist performing first?
We give the young artist 30 minutes, and we vet the program. I know they are all playing very fast, but all the same, it’s got to be half an hour, so we do end up chopping some of their program. With the established artist, we do more 40 minutes, then 30 minutes.


I believe in shorter concerts, so when people send in their program, we often have a little discussion. We suggest that “less is more.” Some artists, like David Russell, always have a well-structured program, and then we would probably have a second interval.

‘We want to present a program
to a general audience that shows
the guitar in an interesting light.’


Another role of IGF has been commissioning new works from mainstream composers, and your list now consists of over 80 works for solo classical guitar and the guitar in ensemble; that’s where your G Plus Ensemble comes in.
Yes, it is called Tom Kerstens’ G Plus Ensemble. We mentioned [my name] because initially it was difficult to attract an audience, [as] people didn’t know what or who G Plus were. Then we added “Tom Kerstens” in small print, so at least people would recognize the name, but since we recorded the album with Real World, it has more of an audience.

Yes, you have been making your recordings with Peter Gabriel’s company, Real World, in his super studios in Box, near Bath [England].
The project started in 2009, and then we issued the first Utopia CD in 2010 at the Southbank Centre. We were the support for the singer/songwriter José González, and it was a sold-out concert in the Royal Festival Hall. It was quite interesting to play for an audience that was coming for a completely different style of music, but they responded really well to the music G Plus played.

The Utopia recording was the first in a series, wasn’t it?
Yes, there is a piece written for us by Joby Talbot called “Utopia,” and that became the Utopia Suite because he kept adding pieces to it; there are about eight pieces in the suite, and so we called the first album Utopia.

Tom Kerstens’ G Plus Ensemble. Utopia.

How did you come to record at Real World Studios?
We have a big festival and summer school in Bath and one of Peter Gabriel’s projects is Womad, a world music festival. They wanted to have a Womad Summer School, so we organized it for them with all the big stars that were appearing at the Womad festival. That’s how we got to know them. Then, when we thought of the G Plus Ensemble concept, we recorded ten minutes of it ourselves, and Phil Castang, who was working with us at the time, handed it to the people at Real World to see what they thought of it; the Womad and Real World Studios are all at the same complex in Box.

As it happens they had a new project starting: “jazz but not as you know it,” “folk but not as you know it,” and then “classical but not as you know it.” Apparently, Peter Gabriel listened to our recording and said, “That’s great; we must have it.” I had never met him until then, but the Real World Studios are an amazing place. They are really high-tech and there is a river running underneath the studio—in some of the rooms, you can pull up a hatch opening in the floor and see the river below. We are going to record our second album soon with music by John Metcalfe and Max Richter.

We often publish the music that we commission, such as Terry Riley’s “Barabas”—it’s a terrific piece. David Tanenbaum premiered it and it was the set piece for our Albert Augustine Competition in Bath in 1997. David did the premiere recording, and I also recorded it on my Black Venus recording. Our commissions all come from the same philosophy, which is that we try to bring the classical guitar into the mainstream.

And you also encourage your Young Artist Platform performers to play music from your commissions.
You can imagine that I have a lot of people writing to me offering concerts with Dowland, Bach, Barrios program, basically what they have learned at music college, and what they continue to play. That repertoire really would be of no interest to concert hall organizers and artistic directors because it is not distinctive; you would only get gigs in specialized guitar festivals with such programs, or in guitar societies where they keep listening to the same repertoire—it is the philosophy of, “they know what they like, and they like what they know.” But that is not what we want to do. We want to present a program to a general audience that shows the guitar in an interesting light.

The music establishment, the BBC, and the newspapers will pick it up if we are working with mainstream composers. This is what I say to some of my young players on the Young Artist Platform, who are very reluctant to play anything that they were not taught by their teacher or that hasn’t been recorded on CD by all the famous guitar players. Guitarists are looking for the wrong thing—they are looking for surface gratification. A lot of guitarists don’t understand the difference between “art” and Gebrauchtsmusik—music written by people playing the guitar, which falls under the fingers easily, sounds nice, and maybe is entertaining, but it’s not art; art is something else. I explain to them, “These mainstream composers are writing pieces for musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, so maybe you should look at the piece!”

If you play any piece from our commissioned works, which are mostly written by non-guitarists, you will be confronted with lots of problems, but you learn an enormous amount when you try to understand what a piece is about and how to make it work in performance, because you are exposed to people with great ideas but who don’t know the guitar. It makes you a much better player. But it does need some pushing; that is why we are linking the Young Artist Platform with the IGF Commissions List and also with the London International Guitar Competition.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.


The issue also features Sharon Isbin, Frantz Casseus, a special focus on guitar festivals & competitions, and much more. Click here for more information on the issue.