Christopher Morley previews the Presteigne Festival.
Arts festivals in the Welsh Marches seem to go in for longevity, such as those held in Ludlow, at Leasowes Bank Farm in Ratlinghope, and at Presteigne, launching its 30th festival today.
How does artistic director George Vass manage to keep the Presteigne Festival so fresh?
“We’re not only celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Festival, but it’s also my twentieth year as artistic director and, in all those years, I’ve made it my number one priority to keep the Presteigne Festival as fresh and vibrant as ever,” the Walsall-born conductor tells me.
“Obviously our various commissions and premieres keep the Festival vivid in everyone’s mind, but I’m constantly developing new repertoire strands and trying to achieve a good balance between contemporary works, 20th-century classics and masterpieces from the past.
“Having the input of a different composer-in-residence each year helps a great deal when programming – this year it’s the turn of Sally Beamish and I’m very much looking forward to performing what is truly beautiful music.”
The appointment last October of Alison Giles as Festival Producer has brought exciting changes to the Festival, as George explains.
“Alison’s interest in the visual arts and literature has meant quite a different look to the non-musical element of the Festival this year. We have no fewer than three exhibitions including important work by John Craxton, the outstanding British neo-romantic painter, and a very special exhibition of work by Sidney Nolan at The Rodd.”
George tells me how he is continually scouting out for new blood to bring to the Festival.
“I spend a great deal of time listening to performances of new music, and I try to get to as many young artist recitals and showcase events as I possibly can. Living in London does make life a little easier! I also take the advice of my fellow professionals John McCabe and David Matthews, who often point me in the right direction in choosing artists new to me.”
Many stalwarts return to the Festival year after year. How does George account for this loyalty from “regulars”?
“The Presteigne Festival has become an annual meeting place for open-minded supporters of new music over many years,” he explains. “There is a wonderful atmosphere in the town at Festival time, where the mix of composers, performers, speakers and audience is very special indeed,
“And don’t forget that the beautiful Radnor countryside has a great deal to offer too…”
And I agree, having seen the Festival make big differences to the town and surroundings over the years. George Vass warms to the theme.
“Whilst I’d like to think that the Festival has had a major effect on Presteigne over the past 25 years or so, I strongly believe that the town itself now has a wonderful sense of ‘presence’. It has always been an important place (at one time the county town of Radnorshire) and, thanks to the Presteigne Festival and other important annual events, Presteigne has become the true cultural capital of the Welsh Marches.”
From all the offerings in this year’s Presteigne Festival, two particular events stand out.
One is the opening concert, featuring the world premiere of the Presteigne Festival-commissioned Saxophone Concerto by the great Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, his compatriot Amy Dickson the soloist.
The other is more poignant, a Memorial Concert on Bank Holiday Monday for David Humphreys, one of the many Birmingham ex-patriates who retired to Presteigne, and who died last year at the age of 95.
The whole concert is devoted to oboe music, Nicholas Daniel the soloist, Tom Poster the accompanist, as David was oboist extraordinaire in the Birmingham University Musical Society Symphony Orchestra, among other ensembles.
Based at the University as a well-respected consultant chest physician, David and his cellist wife Helen (also a medic) participated enthusiastically in the musical life of the campus, and they continued their musical passions once they retired to the lovely Presteigne region.
David was among the most charming of men, and every year when we met up at the Festival which he had done so much to promote we enjoyed chewing over the good old times in Birmingham, whilst also relishing all the joys the current Festival was offering.
* Details of the Presteigne Festival on 01544 267800. www.presteignefestival.com