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On 25 August 2003 soprano Gillian Keith and pianist Simon Lepper gave the first performance of A Garland for Presteigne -- a group of songs created especially to mark the Festival's twenty-first anniversary, and drawing on the riches of composers and poets associated with Presteigne and Wales. With all the different personalities involved and the apparent lack of communication between them, it was rather a miracle that A Garland for Presteigne was such a resounding success.

Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper on stage after 'A Garland for Presteigne'. Photo: Keith Bramich
Gillian Keith and Simon Lepper on stage after 'A Garland for Presteigne'. Photo: Keith Bramich

The cycle began with 'A Perfect View' -- a setting of the Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson by Rhian Samuel (born 1944) -- a reassuring vision of the Welsh mountains in the future, the words 'retelling itself' repeated at the end of the song, as a kind of echo.

David Matthews reworked his setting (originally a silver wedding present for Jane Manning and Anthony Payne) of For a Wine Festival by Vernon Watkins (a close friend of Dylan Thomas), providing uplifting and fiery word painting, then we heard Menna Elfyn's Wings of the Grasses in a simple, descriptive and effective setting by Hilary Tann, and then Words, James Francis Brown's sensitive setting of Edward Thomas, fast and powerful, but with a more mysterious central section, beginning on the words 'Strange as the races / Of dead and unborn'.

The composers represented in 'A Garland for Presteigne' take a bow. Photo: Keith Bramich
The composers represented in 'A Garland for Presteigne' take a bow. Photo: Keith Bramich

South African born composer John Joubert, a regular visitor to Presteigne for many years, arrived at the concert with his poet -- Stephen Tunnicliffe from Clun in Shropshire. Shropshire Hills describes the turbulent past of the Border Marches area -- both natural and man-made: 'Hills of Shropshire / calm our clamorous souls' is the refrain, extended on its third and final hearing. This powerfully resonant song, with its dark, unaccompanied start, along with the next one, provided the Garland with its emotional centre.

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Copyright © 5 October 2003 Keith Bramich, London UK

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