This weekend sees a virtual twinning between the Welsh Marches and Lithuania, with the 29th Presteigne Festival featuring a strong input from that proud Baltic country.
George Vass, the Festival’s Walsall-born artistic director, told me how all this came about.
“We did a Baltic theme several years ago, when the Latvian Peteris Vasks was probably one of our most successful composers-in-residence ever,” he said. “The Lithuanian strand for this year came about after a meeting two years ago with Daiva Parulskiene, the Lithuanian cultural attaché in London and ex-manager of the Lithuanian Music Information Centre.
“She told me that no British festival had ever made a feature of Lithuanian music, and she thought Presteigne would be an ideal platform for their composers.
“Daiva was hugely helpful and supplied me with several recordings and scores by composers I had never heard of. I was impressed with what I heard and thought the Presteigne audience would be interested in hearing something a little out of the ordinary.
“Our musicians playing the music have been knocked out by the quality. I’m especially pleased that Zita Bružaite, chairman of the Lithuanian Composer’s Union, is coming to the Festival and has been able to accept a commission from us.”
This kind of international association adds to the festival’s international profile but does it also add significantly to its funding?
“Our partnership with the Lithuanian Embassy has enabled us to undertake a number of elements which simply wouldn’t normally fall within the Presteigne festival’s current remit,” said Vass. “In April they arranged a festival launch party for us in London, they organised the shipment of sheet music from Lithuania and helped us greatly with Bružaite’s travel to and from Vilnius. This unique partnership has benefited the festival in many ways.”
Approaching its 30th anniversary, the Presteigne Festival has grown in importance from a modest provincial event to something noted and cultivated on the national and international stage.
“There’s a huge amount of support for the festival among the local community, with many families giving accommodation to visiting artists,” he said. “And there is a growing interest in what the festival can achieve with its outreach programme.
“Last year we undertook a major community education project, Creating Landscapes, which made strong new relationships with five primary schools in Powys and Herefordshire.
“It was such a success that a further project, Singing Histories, will begin next month. And our Sounds New initiative took live music – a flute and harp duo – into day centres, hospitals and care homes. The older people adored it.”
The Presteigne Festival has a policy of cultivating homegrown composers, many of them geographically rooted in the surrounding area (Adrian Williams, Huw Watkins and John Pickard to name but three). How does Vass pick his featured new voices?
“It’s a case of listening to a great number of recordings, going to concerts and researching new talent,” he said. “There is a particularly rich vein of young composers on their way up, and in future years I hope to be able to introduce music by some of these richly-talented individuals.
“I am very pleased we are able to showcase the works of Joseph Phibbs as our composer-in-residence this year.
“His commission, Night Interludes, is dark and reflective and makes good use of the orchestral forces available. For the last two years we have also run a composers’ competition, in partnership with Birmingham Conservatoire. That is a great way to discover new talent.”
Vass said the Presteigne Festival was doing “reasonably well” in these straitened times.
“We are grateful for the continued support of various funding bodies,” he said. “Our sponsorship is down a little on last year but this has been balanced by an increase in support from individuals and good ticket sales.
“But we need to constantly develop the festival and keep pushing boundaries further with outreach, co-productions and even small-scale touring.
It’s the festival’s 30th anniversary next year, and Vass said the focus would be on British music old and new, together with a wide range of music from living composers, the 20th century and plenty of standard repertoire too.
* The Presteigne Festival runs from tonight (Thurs) to Tuesday. Details on 01544 267 800