Twenty-two years at the helm of the Presteigne Festival have not dulled artistic director George Vass’ appetite as he swings into action for this vibrant annual fixture in this charming little town hugging the Welsh borderland.

The festival was founded 32 years ago by the composer Adrian Farmer and a few friends and colleagues, and since his arrival 10 years into the event, Walsall-born George has established a strong coterie of performers, composers and indeed audience-members who return enthusiastically year after year.

He has also established some well-loved traditions, the most recent of which is devoting the Thursday night which opens this long weekend devoted to music and other arts with a double-bill of chamber operas, as he explains.

“St Andrew’s Church is such a fabulous acoustic for the human voice and lends itself beautifully to chamber opera, so it seemed natural for the festival to mount small-scale opera performances.

“Our relationship with Nova Music Opera is a strong one (I’m artistic director of both organisations) and we have similar artistic goals – NMO aims to commission at least one new work each year which is toured to five or six venues. This means the festival can be involved as a commission and production partner and that we have exciting new pieces each year in a near ideal setting.

“This year the double-bill consists of a brand new World War I-based chamber opera, Airborne, from Cecilia McDowall which audiences in London found extremely emotionally charged, and a reworking of an earlier Presteigne Festival commission by Stephen McNeff entitled Prometheus Drown’d, which tells the strange story of the death of the poet Shelley at Livorno, Tuscany in 1822.

“I believe this is the way forward for contemporary opera – simple set design and low-tech productions that enable singers and actors to tell their stories simply and directly, add an ensemble of six players as an accompaniment and you have a near perfect set-up for touring. I don’t envisage us ever doing larger repertoire pieces and certainly not ‘down-scoring’ full-scale opera for small forces, but I’d love to do a Sondheim one day – I’m a huge fan.”

The Presteigne Festival has seen some changes since George’s arrival in the early 1990s, but he believes it continues to stay true to its original ideals.

George Vass
George Vass
 

“We present a pretty high standard of performance with younger artists who are always willing to take a chance and work hard on contemporary works,” he says. “The Festival Orchestra regularly receives wonderful reviews, and I’m frankly astounded at the standard of playing that goes on in the group – they seem to pick up the idiom of the music far more quickly these days, and it is really important to do that with such a limited rehearsal schedule. The most important thing is that we have a mutual respect for each other – it really is the only way to work – I try to be as much an enabler as possible, I doubt I could ever be a real maestro and throw my weight around – I’m just not made like that.”

Every Presteigne Festival is built around themes dreamed up by the ever-inventive George. In a way this year’s themes have suggested themselves: the centenary of the birth of the Polish composer-conductor Andrzej Panufnik (conductor of the CBSO in the mid-1950s); the Dylan Thomas centenary; and the 75th birthday of a huge Presteigne favourite, composer-pianist John McCabe. I suggest to George that he does seem to have a knack for exploring the music of a particular country.

“I really wanted to do Panufnik this year because I’ve always admired the music and the man; it took huge courage to leave his country behind and to come over here where he wasn’t known at all,” he replies.

“Our Polish friends at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw and the Polish Cultural Institute in London have made our Polish theme possible. The AMI have been particularly helpful financially, enabling us to commission a major work (a setting of the Requiem) from Paweł Łukaszewski – he’ll be joining us at the festival.

“I don’t know about the ‘knack’! There’s so much fabulous Polish music and I’m particularly happy to be performing Grayna Bacewicz’s Concerto for string orchestra. It’s a fabulous piece and in my opinion, up there with the Bartók Divertimento and the Stravinsky Concerto in D.

“As far as the future is concerned I’m looking at the Sibelius/Nielsen anniversary for next year, and that is throwing up some very exciting possibilities – two fabulous composers whose music I’ve always loved.”

The Presteigne Festival has always been renowned for its blend of contemporary music with established classics as well as works just a little off the beaten track. Finding funding for new commissions is always something of a headache, but George seems to be surmounting the difficulties successfully, telling me of the festival’s various partnerships.

“It is becoming more difficult, but I’m trying to commission jointly with other organisations, and the support of the Welsh Arts Council can never be underestimated; they are so approachable and intuitive in so many ways.

“We have six premieres this year and I’ve seen all the scores – they are works of the highest standard, and I’m so happy that the Presteigne Festival is held in such high esteem by composers, artists and our fantastic audience.

* The Presteigne Festival runs from August 21 to August 26. Details on 01544 267800.