‘Music in Context’ is the idea behind a unique concert series at Notting Hill’s 20th Century Theatre. Irina Knaster, founder and artistic director of ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts, explains its origins and why Notting Hill is the perfect location

An ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts concert will always feature exciting, international-level performers playing masterpieces of the classical repertoire, but it will also offer an exploration of the cultural context of the music being performed. Irina’s aim is to explore music through the prism of the art, literature, ideas and philosophies of its time, be it Rameau and the intellectual milieu of 18th-century Paris or Schumann’s influence on Fauré. ASPECT’s autumn season is running at the 20th Century Theatre in Notting Hill, and provides an enticing showcase, as Irina explains…

The story of ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts

Irina Knaster

What can you tell us about ASPECT’s autumn season?
This is the first time we’ve been able to present four concerts in a season. The Foundation has been building slowly and carefully, we’ve taken time to find the right venue and an audience interested in following our musical journeys, and to attract the right calibre of artists. This season is a big step forward: it features three of our specially devised series. ‘Great Muses’ focuses on inspirational figures, and we’ve now turned the spotlight on Alma Mahler, Clara Schumann, Misia Godebska and Baron van Swieten. Another series is ‘Musical Capitals’, and this season we’re exploring both Paris in the Age of Enlightenment and 19th-century Prague, when Smetana and Dvořák were first creating Czech national music. Our new series, ‘Composers on Composers’, examines the relationships between composers who had a mutual influence on one another, and begins in December with ‘Schumann and Fauré: Kindred Spirits’. Therefore this season is an excellent showcase of our ideas. 

Who are the artists taking part?
Some are friends of mine. We began by engaging professional musician friends who needed support and we’ve been inviting them back ever since. Interest [in the concerts] has grown so much within the profession that we can now invite the very best in the world, provided the idea interests them. Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is a great example. He’s just been nominated for a Gramophone Award and has signed to Deutsche Grammophon. I heard him play at a private concert, approached him and invited him to take part in one of our projects. Mahan is an eloquent speaker as well as a great performer, and the chance to participate in a concert like this immediately appealed to him.

Let’s talk about your motto, ‘It’s more than a concert…’ – what inspired the setting up of ASPECT?
The inspiration came from a series of similar concerts in New York given by my friend Leon Livshin, a pianist and an intellectual. As well as performing, Leon also spoke about the music’s cultural and historical context, its creation and background. It was fascinating and truly inspiring. I decided to create a similar concert format in London.  
A standard concert format lets the music speak for itself, which is wonderful. However, our concerts are for those who are looking for something more, something that illuminates new aspects of music they already love and lets them discover music they don’t yet know.

The story of ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts

ASPECT has found the perfect home at Notting Hill’s 20th Century Theatre

ASPECT is also about supporting and promoting artists – is that a big issue in the industry today too?
It is a big issue, particularly for mature musicians. These days there’s a general tendency to support young, beautiful and talented musicians. However, there are many musicians with vast experience and artistic maturity who are so immersed in their music they don’t have the time to promote themselves. They need to have a good agent or be adept at social media, which is not where most of them are putting their energies. To be a fine musician requires constant and gruelling focus on practising, performing and expanding your knowledge of music.

How do audiences react to the concept behind ASPECT?
We often have people approaching us saying, ‘I didn’t know this series existed, I didn’t know you did this in Notting Hill!’ and these people keep coming back for more: we see many familiar faces at every concert. For us this is the greatest achievement, not to mention the letters we get. Sometimes someone has got home from a concert and written a page-long letter saying, ‘It was raining heavily, the Tubes were on strike, it was my first time coming to your concert… but it was worth it. I discovered so much! Thank you!’ That’s amazing and very rewarding.

Is Notting Hill the perfect location for the concerts?
Notting Hill has always been a gem of London for me. It has a unique dichotomy – it still has the history and integrity of old London, yet it is cutting-edge and eclectic.

This autumn’s concerts are taking place at the 20th Century Theatre – why is that the perfect venue? 
Originally we tried various different venues, but couldn’t find the right energy, aura and ambience. Then my dear friend Paul Johnson, who’s a great writer and a resident of Notting Hill, suggested that I take a look at the 20th Century Theatre. I had no idea it existed, even though I’ve been living in London for 13 years! The theatre turned out to be ideal for our purposes: it’s the perfect size and has such a wonderful intimate atmosphere, just the right setting for chamber music! 

This will mark your fourth season, Irina – where do you see ASPECT going in the future?
Our ambition has always been predetermined by time and money. The concerts are being backed financially, but we’re looking for more sources of support, the idea being to have as many events as we can. We also want to put on concerts for the younger generation: we’d like to attract younger audiences. These days it’s so easy to push a button and listen to music, but it’s very important for young people to have that live experience.

For full details of the autumn season, visit