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KEITH BRAMICH visits Wales for the
opening concert of the 2001 Presteigne Festival


Welsh Culture Minister Jenny Randerson with Colin Kirkby, one of the Directors of the Presteigne Festival. Photo (c) Keith Bramich

'It's our National ambition to put Wales on the map' states Jenny Randerson, Welsh Minister for Culture, Arts and Sport, citing three festivals as particularly important in this political map-making -- Brecon Jazz, Hay-on-Wye and the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts. In a world where 'dumbing down' seems necessary for political correctness and advancement, Ms Randerson's delight at the prospect of an evening's orchestral music had to be tempered with a 'but please don't tell my colleagues'! Jenny was speaking on 23 August at the opening reception of the 2001 Presteigne Festival, and the ensuing orchestral concert in St Andrew's Church, sponsored by The Laura Ashley Foundation, was definitely worthy of the ambition mentioned.

St Andrew's Church, Presteigne, before the opening concert of the 2001 Presteigne Festival. Photo (c) Keith Bramich

The concert opened with the popular Serenade in G (1937) by Swedish composer Dag Wirén (1905-1986), played vibrantly and delicately by the strings of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra -- a group formed from dedicated young professional players led by Zoë French and conducted by the Festival's Artistic Director George Vass.

Continuing the Festival's theme of music from the North, the orchestra then played the Andante Festivo by Sibelius -- Finland's answer to Elgar's Nimrod. Slow, sustained and played with vibrato, this music has a raw power which builds gradually to a G major climax. A surprisingly big sound from this small band!

Freya Ritts-Kirby at the 2001 Presteigne Festival. Photo (c) Keith Bramich

Freya Ritts-Kirby played a beautiful Violin Concerto (1992) by contemporary British composer and Presteigne's composer in residence Paul Patterson (born 1942). The first movement, slow and mysterious at the outset has a solo part charged with feeling and well suited to Freya's clear-sounding high register. Freya's long, slow theme in the central movement was sensual and pure, ending first with harmonics above low chords in the orchestra, then with a long high note, held by the soloist and taken up by the orchestra. A whirlwind of a third movement, with its Bartók pizzicati, brought something of the sound world of the last movement of the Barber Violin Concerto.

Kathryn Thomas, Owen Dennis, George Vass and members of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra. Photo (c) 2001 Keith Bramich

After an interval, flautist Kathryn Thomas and oboist Owen Dennis (playing cor anglais) joined orchestra and conductor for the Concerto da Camera by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). An Allegretto amabile began with spectral chords in the strings, over which first Owen entered with a lyrical tune, and then Kathryn, faster and lighter. An andante was deeper and darker in mood, slow and meandering, opening with violas, cellos and double basses in octaves, and the final vivace, beginning with a fast unaccompanied duet for these two superbly capable soloists, ended with laughs from the audience at Honegger's witty throw-away ending.

The final item -- the Holberg Suite, showed conductor George Vass at his very best -- light springy Grieg and impressive ensemble work with a generous rubato.

Artists yet to come in this impressive festival in the Welsh border marches include the Eden/Stell Guitar Duo, the Schidlof String Quartet, The Galliard Ensemble Wind Quintet, Gillian Keith, the Ionian Singers and Chinese pianist Chenyin Li. The artists in this opening concert all appear again during the festival, but you'll need to be quick to catch them -- the Presteigne Festival runs until 28 August, and information is available online.

Copyright © 24 August 2001 Keith Bramich, Presteigne, Powys, UK





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