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Well-known composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley (and Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Festival) lives nearby, is the Presteigne Festival's President, and spoke very positively about Presteigne at the Festival's opening reception. It was with music by Berkeley's father Lennox that St Andrew's Church Presteigne opened its doors on Thursday 21 August -- the exuberant, lively and slightly quirky Serenade for Strings Op 12. Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose centenary is marked this year by a number of important events, studied (as did Copland) with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and was, famously, a friend of Benjamin Britten. There's something here of the simplicity of Britten's writing in this Berkeley Serenade.

Next, young saxophonist Sarah Field gave an accomplished performance of Bennett's Saxophone Concerto. Written in New York in 1988 it provided another Anglo/American link. A dreamy, creamy, even frothy first movement, was marked by its changeable moods, fast intricate accompaniment, and a bubbly jazzy cadenza. A reflective slow movement preceded a fast, jazzy finale, during which the strings took up, tossed around and made fun of a raunchy sax sound. British composer and jazz pianist Richard Rodney Bennett (born 1936) studied with Lennox Berkeley in London. An association with the saxophone began when John Harle played the soprano sax part in Bennett's music for BBC Television's Tender is the Night.

Unlike Bennett, who moved to New York in 1979, his contemporary John McCabe, also a composer and a pianist, has remained in the UK and is a tireless supporter of British music and musicians, although this doesn't prevent him from maintaining strong links with many other countries ... Australia, USA, The Netherlands and Japan, for example, and, most recently, Lithuania. A recent appointment as a Vice-President of the Presteigne Festival adds to the impressively long list of organisations and individuals he supports.

The first half of the opening concert ended with McCabe's powerful Six-minute Symphony, given an impressive performance by eleven string players from the orchestra, the violinists and viola players standing. Written to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Guildhall Strings, this short piece is a complete symphony with all the structural elements one would expect. The texture is mainly dark and rich, the harmonies resonating with Englishness, the mood thoughtful and the whole, haunting and simple in feel.

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Copyright © 5 October 2003 Keith Bramich, London UK


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