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In a space of its own – The Presteigne Festival

James Francis Brown gives a composer's view of a much-loved contemporary music festival. Whenever I find myself feeling sorry about the state of things in classical music – when large record labels like EMI pack up, an orchestra folds or an opera company goes bust – I try to console myself by thinking about what might be coming up underneath. As a great tree falls in a rain forest the sudden shaft of light allows the plant-life below to spring to action.

I often think of this analogy with regard to music festivals; fresh initiatives emerge all the time, mostly with good intentions but often occluded by the proximity of some other dominating event or unforeseeable demographic or economic impediment. Contemporary music festivals have a harder time than most but some have made it through to the main light and matured into something we call ‘international’. I’m thinking of Huddersfield and Aldeburgh for example.

I don’t want to overwork the ‘greenery’ analogy but there is one festival that seems to be flourishing in a space of its own and with all the necessary nutrients to make special things grow. Presteigne. To give it its full title - Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts.

I won’t recite the history of the festival since its inception at the hands of Adrian Williams and musicians Gareth and Lynden Rees-Roberts – it’s all given on the excellent website below – but I’d like to give you an idea, admittedly from a composer’s point of view, about what makes this such a precious period in the cultural calendar.

I have been attending the festival for nearly twenty years now and the first thing I think of when the brochure lands on my doormat is the wonderful landscape. The lush fields and hedgerows with that poignant bright light of late-summer and the cool church interiors with the suggestion of centuries of local community service, of one sort or another, spanning the centuries. I also relish the space and profound calm of that part of the borderland between England and Wales.

To some this is a parochial view. To me this is fertile ground for the imagination – an imagination of almost any hue, where space allows thought. George Vass, the Festival Director knows all about this space and he cultivates programmes with the keenest awareness of what helps ideas to flourish. He finds thoughtful artists of exceptional (if not always fully recognised) ability and pairs them with living composers in such a way that some sort of growth is inevitable. The works themselves are carefully placed in proximity to much-loved repertoire so that one is never saturated by a particular identity.

It’s in this space that so many of the negative preconceptions about contemporary music dissolve - even reverse in expectations. One often imagines cliques and cabals of composers fiercely defending their musical territory and somewhat sullenly guarding the ‘them and us’ ghetto of contemporary music. In Presteigne, you will find composers of very different persuasions sharing their enthusiasm over a pint of cider in one of several pub-gardens that grace the town. You sense a birth of ideas here – as though the last few days of August represent a re-galvanising of the spirit. It’s certainly an affirmation of the things we composers live for.

This sense of composer camaraderie would ring a false note if it weren’t for the whole-hearted engagement and enthusiasm of the audiences – which swell each year, whatever the economic climate. To invoke the similarity with the Aldeburgh of the late forties, there is a feeling of being ‘useful’ when people flock to hear the pre-concert talks and collar the musicians in the street between performances to express their feelings about what they’ve heard. And they have long memories too. They greet returning musicians as old friends and are keen to chat about what’s been happening in the meantime.

Works by perennial festival composers such as David Matthews, Cecilia McDowall and the late John McCabe – composers who have done much to create the identity of the festival – are mixed with those of unfamiliar composers from the whole of the UK. There will often be visitors from further afield too; recent festivals, for example, have concentrated on composers from Poland, the Baltic States and America. Nipping in and out of tea-rooms on the high street is a wonderfully quaint way to discuss the latest international musical trends with new found friends.

Perhaps my view is slightly biased or idealised; there may be some grumbles and wheezes I haven’t noted or noticed. But it’s in the nature of Presteigne to concentrate the mind on growth in the most optimistic way. We should regard Presteigne as an important model of how any music festival might be run. It’s hard won; George and his helpers have to work tirelessly with unseen practicalities and harsh economic realities throughout the year in order to ensure success. They keep the struggles from us, the audience, and allow us to pick the abundant fruits – like apples from the generous orchards of the region. The 2015 Presteigne Festival runs from August 27th to September 1st.

 Visit the Presteigne Festival Website here.



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