One of the most eagerly awaited events in our region's annual concert calendar gets under way tonight with the opening concert of the Presteigne Festival.
Now in its 23rd year, Presteigne has gained itself an enviable reputation for its adventurous yet audiencefriendly programming, its shrewd selection of rising young artists combining with established stars to achieve the highest standards of performance, and the general atmosphere of well-being it creates among the many visitors it draws to this beautiful little town on the edge of Offa's Dyke.
Artistic director and conductor George Vass puts its continual growth in fame and popularity down to "the sense of community within the festival.
"Having had discussions with many of the composers who have visited Presteigne over the years, I know that they, along with the average audience member, would much rather hear new pieces in company with masters of the past rather than being ghetto- ised into all-contemporary concerts. I believe that the Presteigne Festival audience is a very special and musically intelligent one and has developed, together with performers and composers, into a community all its own, where there is an enlightened attitude to new music and the artists performing it."
Every year the Presteigne Festival entertains a clutch of featured contemporary composers, and it has been said that there are more living composers per square mile here at festival time than anywhere else in the country. This year Walsall-born Vass also highlights the centenaries of two British composers no longer with us.
"Ian Wilson is composerinresidence this year - I have listened with great interest to Ian's music over the years, having played percussion in an early piece of his with the Ulster Orchestra in my previous life. This year he celebrates his 40th year, and I thought it would be super to keep Celtic connections going and have him over from Ireland. Like James MacMillan, he has a very strong Catholic faith, but this doesn't seem to present itself in an angry way, his music is beautiful and finely wrought, and I feel sure Presteigne audiences will love it.
"The selection of the other two featured composers was a gift in that the centenaries of Michael Tippett and Alan Rawsthorne are both celebrated this year; I can't imagine where music in the United Kingdom would be today without the effect of Tippett, he has been a major source of inspiration for so many composers, and the pieces being performed are all wonderful. I feel Rawsthorne is under-represented in the concert hall these days, and I hope we can redress the balance; I'm particularly looking forward to accompanying John McCabe in a performance of the first version of the Piano Concerto No 1, scored for string orchestra and percussion."
Many composers -- McCabe himself, David Matthews, Cecilia McDowall, Birmingham's own John Joubert are just a few examples -- bring themselves to Presteigne year after year, almost in the way that Aldeburgh attracts certain figures. How does Vass explain this?
"I think it is simply that the broader-minded composer of today does actually enjoy listening to the music of today; there are also chances to meet young artists with more than a passing interest in performing new work, and I am sure that, like Aldeburgh in the early days, the actual setting of the festival is very important; I always feel that the scenery looks at its absolute best in late August, and our venues have such excellent acoustics. We really are very lucky that Presteigne welcomes us all so readily each year.
Which brings me on to ask, unfairly, which of this year's young performers does George Vass find particularly exciting?
"Difficult one this, they are all so fantastic - I've worked a great deal with Rachel Nicholls and believe her to have one of the finest voices I've heard in a long time, so much so that I've entrusted her with the world premieres of three new song cycles by John McCabe, Cecilia McDowall and, with orchestra, by David Matthews.
"The Dante Quartet are currently at their absolute best, and are being joined by Thomas Carroll, a super young cellist, in Schubert's mighty String Quintet and John McCabe in the Elgar Piano Quintet; two of their concerts are being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast later in the year. I have long been a big fan of the pianist Gretel Dowdeswell, and this year she is joined by Carroll and two other wonderful chamber musicians, Katharine Gowers and Catriona Scott, for three concerts. Matthew Schellhorn is an awesome pianist who I feel sure will do great things, and Presteigne wouldn't be Presteigne without the Festival Orchestra - this year the best ever with some truly
magnificent young players."
I conclude by describing how Worcester has just seen the friendliest and most successful Three Choirs Festival in my memory. Can the influence of the famous Presteigne conviviality be spreading?
"I am overjoyed that Three Choirs was such a success," says Vass. "They obviously had to make difficult choices and thankfully those choices, though painful, were obviously the right ones. I'd like to think that the Presteigne effect is spreading, but at the end of day, the success of a festival is down to good planning, careful preparation and a great deal of very hard work - I only hope we can continue to be successful and friendly long into the future."
Tonight's opening concert of Elgar, Rawsthorne, Ian Wilson and Britten is given by the Presteigne Festival Orchestra in St Andrew's Church (7.45pm). Details of the festival, which runs until Tuesday, are available on 01544 267800 and www.presteignefestival.com.