George Vass tells Christopher Morley about some of the surprises in store for this year’s milestone Presteigne Festival.
Rather like last Easter, the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts comes slightly earlier than usual this year. The festival’s long weekend traditionally takes in Bank Holiday Monday, which the calendar decrees has to be on August 25 this time round.
Not that George Vass, the artistic director, has any problems with that, as he’s been thinking about Presteigne 2008 for a long time.
“I usually start planning festivals two years before they actually happen, and I just couldn’t wait to do some final tinkering with the programme for this festival, and work on 2009 and 2010 as well.”
A combination of careful financial control and a hugely supportive board enables Vass to work that far ahead. This year’s six-day event costs about £92,500 to mount – “a not inconsiderable sum!” – as he wrily comments, but the triumph of last year’s silver jubilee celebrations gave a tremendous impetus to this year’s preparations.
“Last year’s festival was such a success in every way – 16 new works, BBC broadcasts, fantastic press and a record audience of over 82 per cent.”
That record audience is a tribute to the continuing attractions of the Presteigne Festival, drawing people to this charming little town tucked just inside the Welsh border in what used to be known as Radnorshire, with a characteristic blend of standard repertoire pieces, detours down neglected musical byways, and its famous “nose” for approachable and rewarding contemporary music.
Established performers share the platform with new young talent (Vass’s activities as a choral and orchestral conductor, as well as his artistic directorship of London’s Hampstead and Highgate Festival, keep him up to speed), and many of the country’s most respected composers and critics mingle in the streets, pubs and restaurants.
Every Presteigne Festival has special threads running through the programme, and this year (its 26th) is no exception.
“We’re celebrating the major anniversaries this year,” Vass tells me.
“Fifty years since the death of Vaughan Williams, with his rarely-heard Violin Concerto. I’m really excited to be working with Tamsin Waley-Cohen, the soloist in this work. The Dante Quartet are playing the Second String Quartet – another truly amazing piece, and Stephen Johnson is talking about RVW too.
“There is some Messiaen for the centenary of his birth. Obviously we can’t do the big orchestral/choral pieces at Presteigne, but we do have Poèmes pour Mi , with the wonderful Gillian Keith, accompanied by Helen Reid. And the lovely early Theme and Variations for violin and piano.
“Michael Berkeley is celebrating his 60th birthday this year, so as he has been our president for many years, I have programmed a wide variety of his music which balances very well with this year’s composer-in-residence, Joe Duddell.
“Joe’s a big Shostakovich fan, like me, so there is a mini-feature including the Second Piano Trio (Kungsbacka Trio), Third Quartet (Dantes again) and Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of the A flat String Quartet.”
Along with the small matter of planning and organising 23 events during these heady six days, George Vass is also active in the festival as a pre-concert speaker and, most importantly, as conductor of the popular orchestral concerts. How does he manage to rehearse so much and so productively with the orchestra within what has to be a very limited time?
“The festival orchestra are just the greatest group of professionals and work very hard whilst in Presteigne,” he enthuses.
“Strangely enough, we tend to have a little more rehearsal than is usually afforded to contract orchestras, but then the programmes are pretty tough with so much new music.
“I believe half the battle is that the players are relaxed and most can actually walk to work with beautiful countryside all around – Presteigne is a great stress-buster for us all. My most important job is to have all the repertoire I am conducting at my fingertips by the time I arrive in Presteigne on August 18, the preparation has to be thorough and I really need to know what I’m doing with three concerts’-worth of music, which include two premieres.”
We go on to discuss the enthusiasm of returning composers and performers.
“Presteigne has become something of an annual gathering for composers of all generations,” says Vass.
“Joe Duddell returns this year as composer-in-residence, with his third Presteigne commission; Matthew Taylor – he’s long been a great supporter of Presteigne – will visit (his Fifth Quartet is a festival commission), along with Cecilia McDowall, James Francis Brown (his new work for clarinet and string orchestra is performed at the opening concert), Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Berkeley, Adrian Williams (a new tone poem for chamber orchestra is given as part of the closing concert), Geraint Lewis, David Bruce, Huw Watkins, David Matthews and John Joubert,” continues the breathless list.
“Artists coming back this year are Gillian Keith (her third visit), harpist Sally Pryce (her second visit with her new duo partner, the flautist Adam Walker who made his BBC Proms debut recently), clarinettist Catriona Scott and the Dante Quartet who were at Presteigne two years ago.
“Once artists have played at Presteigne, they seem to want to return every year – I’m just so very happy everyone wants to keep coming back – they are certainly welcomed by their audiences and just love the whole atmosphere of the place.”
With this stylish young flute and harp duo he’s just mentioned, how did George Vass get away with not programming the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto?
“Oh, you’re referring to the last night concert I suppose! Well, Joe Duddell wrote a spectacularly good piece for the 2004 Festival, Mnemonic, and was asked specifically to make it a little more ‘hard-edged’ than the average flute and harp piece – we loved it so much that it just had to be revisited and I know that Adam and Sally will do a superb job.
“Gill Keith in Finzi’s Dies Natalis – usually performed by a tenor these days, but originally intended as a soprano piece – her voice is absolutely right for it – and I get to conduct one of Britten’s early masterpieces, the Sinfonietta. Preparing it, you’d never think it had been written by an 18-year-old – amazing stuff and so original.”
And planning is already well ahead for 2009. as Vass explains.
“Well, quite a bit of Haydn next year (the bicentenary of his death), as you might expect from me; birthday celebrations for John McCabe and Peter Sculthorpe (who will be visiting from Australia; we’ve commissioned a new saxophone concerto from him for Amy Dickson).
“Fabulous new works from Martin Butler, Gabriel Jackson, David Matthews and Adrian Williams, with Huw Watkins as composer and pianist-in-residence – another bumper year. I’m looking forward to it already.”
n The Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts runs from August 21 to 26. All details on 01544 267800, website presteignefestival.com