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A vacation in Welsh border country

KEITH BRAMICH introduces our six day visit to the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts

Music and Vision at the Presteigne Festival

Welcome to Welsh border country and to the Presteigne Festival, which begins this afternoon with a children's concert, an opening reception and then an evening concert. Tonight's concert at St Andrew's Church (literally a stone's throw from the border between England and Wales) introduces some of the festival's main characters - John McCabe, composer in residence, will hear a performance of his Sonata on a Motet (click to listen), oboist Ruth Watson (who lives in Presteigne) will play Marcello's Oboe Concerto in D minor, and harpist Catherine Beynon takes a break from her employment with the Royal Danish Orchestra to play Mozart's Concerto in C, K 415, arranged for harp and orchestra. Conducting all the orchestral concerts at Presteigne is George Vass - a man under great pressure during these six days of music, not only because of a heavy rehearsal and concert schedule, but also because he is the Festival's artistic director and must, for example, speak at receptions, welcome artists, sponsors and visitors, and guide the Festival through its six days of music-making. This year, George welcomes the Vanbrugh Quartet, who will play on Friday and on Sunday, in programmes including Winter's Edge by composer Ian Wilson from Belfast, and John McCabe's String Quartet No 5. (Have you read Music & Vision's review of the Vanbrugh Quartet's recent CD of McCabe Quartets?). George Vass has brought his own Canterbury Chamber Choir to Presteigne this year, and on Monday you can hear their rendition of Rodney Stephen Newton's Six English Folksongs (click here to listen), accompanied by Catherine Beynon.

Ruth Watson, George Vass and the Presteigne Festival Orchestra rehearse the Marcello Oboe Concerto on 26 August 1999. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith Bramich

I'll attempt to set the scene by describing the town hosting the festival. Presteigne was county town of what used to be Radnorshire. When the British government shuffled the boundaries and created new counties with names like Powys, Presteigne found itself a county town without a county - a medium-sized but sleepy town, complete with a court room, a jail, assembly rooms, many public houses and a large church, straddling the border in beautiful countryside between Wales and England, and ideally placed to attract visitors from both countries. In 1982, along came composer Adrian Williams, looking for a town large enough to host an important classical music festival, and the Presteigne Festival was born. Adrian's ten years as Artistic Director culminated in 1992 with a celebration of the European Community in newly commissioned music - composers from twelve countries were invited to the town to hear their premières. Now Presteigne, known as 'town of festivals' attracts an assortment of events throughout the year, including a folk music festival - Sheep Music.

Broad Street, Presteigne on 26 August 1999. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith Bramich

Possibly less well-known than the neighbouring music festivals of Cheltenham (whose artistic director Michael Berkeley lives near Presteigne, and who is Presteigne Festival's President) and the Three Choirs Festival - this year at Worcester, Presteigne manages to hold its own, in spite of its location in a sparsely populated rural area. Presteigne attracts well-known artists and fills local halls and churches with visiting music-lovers, and usually hosts a recording for BBC Radio 3. This year, the BBC will record Monday evening's recital, which includes Alice Neary and Gretel Dowdeswell's world première of John McCabe's Cello Sonata and which also features clarinettist David Campbell, and includes music by Brahms and Schumann.

Tickets are still available for most of Presteigne's concerts by phoning the box office on +44 (0)1544 267800, and the full programme of events is listed on the Festival website. If you can't visit personally this year, Music & Vision will be here until the final concert on Tuesday night, and will endeavour to keep you informed over the six days of the Festival, with an emphasis on the music of John McCabe. On Saturday, for example, Basil Ramsey will review EMI's re-release of McCabe orchestral music, to coincide with the Presteigne Festival Orchestra's evening performance of Red Leaves. Also on Saturday, Christopher Morley (chief music critic of the Birmingham Post) will interview John McCabe, and visitors to Music & Vision can hear this interview from Sunday.

We hope you can enjoy the Festival - either by visiting personally, or via our pages.

Copyright © Keith Bramich, August 26th 1999

A Message of Welcome

This year the Presteigne Festival celebrates seventeen years with a feast of exciting events in and around the cultural capital of Radnorshire. We are particularly pleased to have John McCabe as our Composer in Residence in his sixtieth birthday year, and highly honoured that he has written a new work for Alice Neary and Gretel Dowdeswell, commissioned with support from the Arts Council of Wales. With a particularly wide mix of music, there is something to suit everyone's taste this year, from Vivaldi and Bach through Mozart and Haydn via Brahms and Schumann to the composers of today. There are 'mini-features' of music by Alun Hoddinott and Graham Fitkin, and each programme includes at least one work by a living British composer - no less than eighteen contemporary works in all.

George Vass. Photo copyright Fritz CurzonA new departure in 1999 is to have three events specifically designed for children; the Festival Orchestra give a Children's Concert and there are to be two storytelling sessions by Jeanette Hodgson and Michael Harvey.

Last year's Presteigne Festival was short-listed for a Royal Philharmonic Society Prize won by the Barbican Centre - some measure of the success being currently enjoyed by our friendly but ambitious festival.

I hope that your visit to the 1999 Presteigne Festival will stay long in the memory, and that you will continue to return year after year.

Have a wonderful festival.

George Vass
Artistic Director