Chris Howlett, cellist and Founder of Sanguine Estate Festival and the Bendigo Chamber Music Festival in Australia catches up with us to talk about his career and life as a musician combining different creative strands. 


Chris Howlett, cellistWhat does your career currently look like, and how did it all start for you?

I'm a professional cellist, first and foremost. I went to the Australian National Academy of Music here in Australia, and then studied in Vienna and in London. This is always core to what I am and who I am: I'm always the most happy when sitting up on the stage with chamber music friends and colleagues, about to embark on an incredible piece of music. But my life is full of different elements.

Alongside my colleagues, I’ve started two festivals here in Australia: the Sanguine Estate Festival, a small chamber music festival with an audience of about 140 held at a winery, and the Bendigo Chamber Music Festival, a larger scale and more traditional with fifteen concerts over five days and a strong community element. Over the pandemic, I also started the Australian Digital Concert Hall: an online platform through which we can broadcast concerts. To date we have completed 1100 broadcasts and raised 4.5 million Australian dollars, and although Covid lockdowns are now a thing of the past, the platform continues to enable people in more isolated rural areas in Australia to experience live music. I recently sold this company to a larger production company.

I'm also a loving dad of two children and have a beautiful wife, Ellie. So life's busy!


How did you come to set up a festival?

Sanguine Estate was a wine sponsor of my trio (the Melbourne Piano Trio), who I just cold-called and said, 'I love your wine, would you sponsor my trio?'. And it was an evolution from that: Howard Penny (another of the Festival Directors) had just moved back to Australia from Vienna to be head of Strings at the Australian National Academy of Music. We were driving back from a winery one day and I mentioned that I'd really like to start a chamber music festival. His response: ‘Oh, I was thinking about that, too!’. We put a business case to the Sanguine Estate, and the rest is history. Proof that the ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ motto can be very true. Bendigo has been a follow on from the success of Sanguine, and all because of one cold-call when I was at the University of Melbourne as an undergrad. When we started the Australian Digital Concert Hall, the sponsorship we received from Kawai (piano makers) was for four weeks, originally. We didn’t know whether we would sell one ticket or ten tickets, but four years later we still have that piano!

"...Proof that the ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ motto can be very true."

Why chamber music?

As much as I enjoy playing a Haydn Cello Concerto, I much prefer the collegial nature and repertoire of chamber music to sitting in front of an orchestra. Our trio is like a good friendship: one or other of us can be away but when they return it feels like we’ve been rehearsing every day.


Where did you learn the skills you needed to set up a festival?

I learnt it all through running my own chamber group. It's not that much different - you have to come up with a programme, book a venue, sell tickets, do a trio concert (making sure that you thank all the donors for supporting the concert etc.) - it's all the same as a festival, just on a different scale. Education has always been a passion and so I learned how to call up local regional schools and say, ‘we're doing a recital nearby on Thursday night, would you be interested in us coming to your school on Friday morning?’, for example. As a student, those school incursions were not only super important from an educational point of view, but from a touring perspective it was how we paid for the hotel the night before!

"Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and just ask!...perseverance is key."

When you used to ring these places, what was your success rate like?

It was fifty-fifty…I think many schools are on a pretty small budget, so even $100 or $200 is a commitment. You have to hope that there's a school that has one teacher that absolutely loves music or appreciates the arts, and then that's your hook to be able to come in. Some people are just going to say ‘no’, and that's fine, too. It’s not because they don't respect you, it's just because for so many different reasons they can't make it happen.


Life sounds really busy - how do you manage all your commitments?

I try to get my cello practice done and then clear the things that need an answer that day first thing in the morning. I don't do the rehearsal schedule first and leave the emails to last, because the rehearsal schedule isn’t an active thing. Instead that can be done while I wait for other people to return my emails. That’s my main daily strategy, but otherwise for the festivals I have a plan that spans many months, where I have to tick things off: build the website, make the programme, design the programme etc etc. 


What advice would you give to someone hoping to go into a career like yours in the future?

Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and just ask! It’s easy to send an email and just step back, but a call can be so much more efficient but you must be prepared for people to say no to you - perseverance is key.


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