Christopher Morley meets Cheltenham Music Festival's human dynamo...

The 61st Cheltenham Music Festival kicks off tonight with a concert at the Town Hall from the CBSO conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

But Brabbins is not just conductor of this prestigious opening event; he conducts (by my count) six other concerts, including a day-long performance of the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Salomon Orchestra - and he is also now artistic director of this muchrespected international festival.

He takes up the post this year following in the footsteps of composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley, who revitalised during his 10-year tenure what had been in danger of becoming a moribund, predictable long fortnight in the concert calendar. How does Brabbins think this shift from one kind of hands-on musician to another will affect the enterprise?

"I guess I will put a slightly different emphasis on events at Cheltenham, a performer's perspective as opposed to a composer's. But nevertheless, many of Cheltenham's virtues will remain firmly intact. New music, innovation within tradition, young artists alongside venerable stars of the musical firmament."

"I hope so! Why have change otherwise. Take for instance the Festival Players and the Festival Academy.

"I have invited a group of individual musicians to come together especially for the Festival to put on two concerts. Alongside them are a group of young musicians - selected by me at auditions at all the Music Colleges in the UK - to work alongside the experienced professionals, to mount one concert in the Festival, to work with visiting composers and to perform in the community - in thelocal hospital for instance. I want to reach out to the town and its inhabitants, to take music to places that music doesn't always reach!"

Martyn Brabbins' choice of the CBSO for his opening concert reminds us of the very moving account of Tippett's A Child of our Time he conducted with the orchestra and its chorus earlier in the year. The programme features a world premiere by CBSO composerinassociation Julian Anderson, Bartok's Violin Concerto no.2 (Viktoria Mullova the soloist) and Tchaikovsky's Byronic Manfred Symphony. He explains his selection to me.

"Julian and I are old friends and collaborators, and to say I am pleased to open my first Festival with an Anderson premiere is to severely understate the reality! The CBSO know his music through his long connection with the orchestra, and I am a great admirer of this virtuoso team of musicians."

And Julian Anderson echoes Brabbins' admiration, speaking with warmth and sadness of his time as composer-in-association with the CBSO which comes to an end at the end of July.

"This position has been the joy of my composing life for the past four years. I will always remember working with Sakari Oramo, the CBSO and all the Birmingham musical organisations as the most fruitful, productive and sympathetic appointment a composer could imagine fulfilling anywhere. I am extremely grateful for it, and will miss it a great deal."

Described by its composer as "a short orchestral overture", Eden, Anderson's Cheltenham commission for the CBSO, has a sculptural inspiration.

"The title 'Eden' is a reference to the Garden of Eden as the ideal of primal simplicity and balance. My inspiration was the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, specifically his sculture 'The Kiss'. It depicts a couple locked together in ecstatic embrace.

"This beautiful image of sharing is mirrored in the use of 'hockets' in my work: melodies shared between many instruments of the orchestra. The special tuning in the piece --several instruments are tuned down a quarter-tone - is close to the natural overtone series: another image of primal balance. The tuning will not, I hope, sound 'out-of-tune'!

"I am delighted that Martyn Brabbins and the CBSO are giving this piece its premiere at Martyn's inaugural concert as Musical Director of the Cheltenham International Festival."

And Anderson concludes by paying renewed tribute to his Birmingham hosts over the last four years.

"I have loved every minute of this job. It's hard to express just how exciting and valuable it has been to me. I have relished getting to know Sakari who is an ideal conductor to work with; getting to know the CBSO well - a fabulous bunch of players; working with the amazing Birmingham Contemporary Music Group over all four seasons; and have learnt an enormous amount also from working with Simon Halsey and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus.

"Birmingham remains the most concentratedly musical city in Britain, to my mind, and that fact should be shouted from the rooftops!"

n Martyn Brabbins conducts the CBSO in the opening concert of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Town Hall on July 1 (7.30pm). Details on 01242 227979.