Despite the fact that it always seems to me to herald the onset of autumn, the annual Presteigne Festival is always a welcome event, with devotees returning and newcomers all set to marvel at the special atmosphere of this long weekend in the beautiful Welsh Marches.
This year the festival celebrates its 35th birthday, and for the last 25 years of its sessions the artistic director has been George Vass. The Walsall-born conductor has happy memories of this impressive quarter-century.
“There have been so many highlights in the last 25 years that it’s really quite difficult to single out anything in particular, but I think our policy of having a composer-in-residence each year has greatly helped to mould the shape and musical variety for which the festival has become known,” he says.
“I’m also extremely proud that Presteigne has welcomed so many world-renowned composers including Robert Saxton, the late Peter Sculthorpe, Peteris Vasks, Judith Weir and younger pretenders such as Joseph Phibbs, Ian Wilson and Huw Watkins – Huw also regularly performs as a pianist at the festival.
“As well as programming new music, it’s also great to explore chamber music, and we’ve been particularly lucky in finding a number of like-minded string quartets of the younger generation who are happy to join the search for exciting new repertoire. We’ve welcomed so many world-class artists to Presteigne over the years and they have all fallen in love with the place, the people and that very special sense of community, always prevalent at festival time.”
A vital aspect of the Presteigne Festival’s work is the commissioning of new music, and George comes out with some stunning statistics.
“Amazingly, by the end of 2017, we will have premiered no fewer 168 works, including 35 specially commissioned orchestral pieces.
“Our superb festival orchestra players are tremendously important to the Presteigne community. They take six days out from their busy schedules to come and work with me on three programmes of often extremely challenging contemporary and 20th century music. Their playing is refreshingly bright and alive and in all the years I’ve worked with them, they have given their utmost musically.
“As chair of the British Arts Festival Association for several years, I’ve discovered that to make any sort of festival a success, it is hugely important to have a well-balanced and supportive board and I consider myself to be extremely fortunate in this regard. The festival also has an amazing management team, headed by the festival producer, Alison Giles and the finance and box office manager, Hilary Marchant – both contribute hugely to our continued success.”
George enjoys co-operating with the directors of other festivals, such as Meurig Bowen (once at Lichfield, now at Cheltenham) and Michael Berkeley (Bowen’s predecessor at Cheltenham).
“I love commissioning and working in co-operation with other organisations, and this year we have Meurig Bowen’s beautifully devised portrait of Erik Satie ‘Memoirs of a Pear-Shaped Life’, first seen at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2015, and with the French pianist Anne Lovett and actor Christopher Good taking on the role of Satie, it’s absolutely ideal for a late-night performance at Presteigne.”
What are the threads of this year’s Presteigne Festival?
“This year’s Festival is first and foremost about celebration – commissions include six ‘Bagatelles after Beethoven’ from Martin Butler, Michael Zev Gordon, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Gabriel Jackson, David Knotts and Jack Sheen; variations on the folk-tune ‘Lovely Joan’ from Sally Beamish, Michael Berkeley, Christopher Gunning, Thomas Hyde, David Matthews, Matthew Taylor, Huw Watkins and Adrian Williams; a new string quartet from composer-in-residence Edward Gregson; a piece for cello and piano by the Herefordshire composer Robert Peate based on the famous Victorian viaduct at Knucklas, near Knighton; and a new unaccompanied choral work from Cecilia McDowall.
“There are a number of successful Presteigne commissions from previous years including James Francis Brown’s ‘Trio Concertante’, John McCabe’s Cello Sonata and Hugh Wood’s retreatment of an early song cycle, ‘Beginnings’ for mezzo and string orchestra. We’re also celebrating two other important birthdays, those of John Joubert (90) and Hugh Wood (85).
“Finally, we have a mini-feature of Danish music and musicians. This includes works from a range of Danish composers including Nielsen, Langgaard and a number of contemporary voices, two concerts from the Copenhagen-based Gramophone Award-winning Nightingale String Quartet and a talk by the Scandinavian music expert Daniel Grimley.” (Daniel is the nephew of Terry Grimley, the formidable ex-Arts Editor of the Birmingham Post).
The Presteigne Festival is not only about music. It also includes exhibitions, talks, walks and films. How are all these aspects co-ordinated?
“We have to embrace the fact that not all of our audience are music-lovers. This year in particular, I feel there is a good balance of supporting events. Alison Giles masterminds the ever-growing accompanying programme and there is plenty of Presteigne-based expertise to draw upon. Film editor Tony Lawson is curating a season of three movies mirroring the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s and this is complemented by a talk, ‘The strange death of the counter-culture’, by writer, broadcaster and performer Ian Marchant.
“2017 is also a hugely important year for the Sidney Nolan Trust, based on the edge of Presteigne at The Rodd. They’re marking the famous Australian painter’s centenary with year-long activities worldwide and, as Sidney was our first president, we also have Nolan-related events running throughout the festival.”
Volunteers are vitally important to the successful running of any festival, as is the availability of catering establishments to dovetail with the timing of events. Sadly, at Presteigne (and as well at Lichfield) that latter requirement was not always the case (as I have nagged in the past), but things have improved in both venues.
“We’re hugely grateful to our volunteers,” George says.
“As Presteigne is a small town and with so few hotel rooms, a growing number of local hosts provide overnight accommodation for over 70 visitors – performers, composers and management staff. Without this support there could be no festival. Similarly, restaurants, cafes and pubs provide an excellent service and are hugely supportive of the festival. Things have improved exponentially over the last 35 years!”
- The Presteigne Festival runs from August 24-29. All details on www.presteignefestival.com or 01544 267800.
- The Really Big Chorus is one of the world’s largest community choirs, with over 10,000 active members, and 190 of them will be performing Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the English Symphony Orchestra, Bryan Kay conducting, in Coventry Cathedral on Saturday (7pm). Details on 0247 652 1210.