History of the Festival

A Festival History

by Catherine Beale

The Presteigne Festival celebrated its twenty-fifth year in 2007, and its thirty-fourth in 2016 with courage in its commissioning and renewed infrastructure underpinning its organisation, while retaining remarkable accessibility – of its music, performers and composers.

Presteigne set itself a challenge in its quarter-centenary year, the previous Festival, having been a great success. Presteigne 2006 had welcomed its first non-British Composer-in-Residence. Latvian Peteris Vasks spent a week in the town, where language was no barrier, Vasks winning all hearts by beaming with pleasure and beguiling with his music. The Marches were an appropriate setting for a composer exploring the relationship between man and nature, Vasks’ lyrical music suggesting a planet precariously poised between idyll and disaster. The Festival seized the opportunity to explore other Baltic music too, besides featuring new pieces from James Francis Brown, Thomas Hyde, John Joubert, Geraint Lewis and Huw Watkins, and celebrating Adrian Williams’ fiftieth birthday. How to move on for the twenty-fifth after that? Beyond seventeen world premieres of pieces by living composers for the 2007 Festival, Artistic Director George Vass went to the other side of the world – to bring Peter Sculthorpe, officially an Australian National Treasure, on a rare visit to Britain. There was a complementary exhibition of Sidney Nolan’s haunting Antarctican pictures. The subject-matter of the fragile environment was like a phrase mark from Vasks the previous year, overarching Nolan’s works, to Sculthorpe’s 2007 Festival Finale piece, Cello Dreaming with its mood of regret for “the destruction, mostly through greed and thoughtlessness, of Australia’s environment” (Sculthorpe). Any anxiety, though, was counter-balanced in 2007 by celebrations to mark George’s fifteen years of directing Presteigne Festival. With characteristic playfulness, a digeridoo came too (and opened the first concert). George was first invited to conduct the orchestra in 1989 by the Festival’s founder Adrian Williams. From 1993,

George succeeded Adrian as Artistic Director. Besides ensuring the Festival’s financial survival, George has continued to raise the standard of excellence, and has been courageous in putting the works of living composers at the core of Presteigne’s programme. He has continued to encourage outstanding young performers, while personally being one of the reasons that Presteigne Festival’s hallmarks include informality and friendliness. In a fitting tribute to George’s contribution, in 1999 the Festival was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for the excellence of its programming, and in 2003 it was shortlisted for the prize. BBC Radio 3 also chose to record at the twenty-fifth Festival. In 2009, Rian Evans reviewing for The Guardian highlighted Presteigne’s “unselfconscious mix of classical and contemporary music. It’s notable that audiences here receive new works with as much enthusiasm – often more – as old ones.” George has furthermore successfully negotiated the difficult terrain between developing the Festival and heeding the rumblings of successive auditors. Such rumblings usually passed across the dining table of the half-timbered Old Priory, Titley, home of Festival Board Member Joan Hughes, and meeting place of the Festival’s Board for as long as anyone could remember. Joan, remembered fondly by many of the audience as Secretary of the Patrons, died in 2006, and her contribution to the Festival was marked by a Memorial Concert in 2007, at which Cecilia McDowall’s motet, Ave Maris Stella, a favourite of Joan’s, was sung by the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir.

Partly as a result of the loss of Joan, 2008 saw a restructuring of the Festival’s executive organisation. The growth of the Festival meant that it was not practical to continue to rely on the (occasionally somewhat haphazard) volunteer efforts of Board members, helpers and Festival-week employees, so George’s work was underpinned from that year by the employment of a part-time General Manager in Presteigne and Festival Producer in London. This has enabled George to devote his energies more to his artistic role, while being a little less distracted by the administrative minutiae now demanded by a festival of this kind. These changes have also proved highly beneficial to the Festival. 2008 saw astonishing ticket sales of 86% of concerts. Looking beyond the bottom line, 2010 saw the execution of an ambitious educational project, masterminded by Festival Producer Alison Porter and two years in the planning, fund-raising and execution, bringing together artists, composers, musicians, and schoolchildren from a handful of schools on both sides of the border, in a literal and artistic exploration of five local landmarks.

Presteigne in 2009-10 held its first competition for young composers. The winning piece, by Matthew Sheeran, was performed at the 2010 Festival. Musically, 2008 welcomed Joe Duddell as Composer-in-Residence (the late-night performance of his Parallel Lines by the pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips and the thrilling percussionist Colin Currie stays in the mind) and celebrated the sixtieth birthday of Presteigne Festival’s President, Michael Berkeley. Joe caught everyone out at the last concert by standing up to tell the audience what the Festival had meant to him. This thoughtful gesture led to a new feature in 2009’s programme, in which festival-goers (audience, composers, patrons, musicians) attempt to ’ ‘My Presteigne Festival’. A notable landmark was passed when the total of new pieces commissioned by Presteigne Festival moved past eighty. The first St Andrew’s Hall art exhibition was staged and featured images of musicians by six local artists. In 2009 the musical spotlight was trained on Huw Watkins, a major force in Welsh music both as a composer and as a performer. John McCabe’s seventieth birthday was celebrated by surprising him with seven newly-composed Haydn Fantasies played by Huw. The image of Hugh Wood, Alan Mills, John Hawkins, Matthew Taylor, David Matthews, Peter Fribbins and James Francis Brown on stage with Huw and John (a Festival Vice-President) at the end of the pieces seemed to sum up much of what Presteigne is about. 2010 offered further delights, including composer Hugh Wood in residence, the culmination of the Creating Landscapes education project, a new commission from Alexander L’Estrange celebrating the 500th anniversary of the rare Flemish tapestry that hangs in St Andrew’s Church, and the winner of Presteigne Festival’s first composition competition.

How did it start?

The first Festival was held from 18-25 September 1983, after local composer Adrian Williams and musicians Gareth and Lynden Rees-Roberts decided to bring first class musical performance to the Welsh border. Presteigne became their focus after Adrian recognised the extraordinary acoustic qualities of St Andrew’s church. To finance the week-long festival (the only public funding was a £500 guarantee against loss from the South East Wales Arts Association) various fund-raising events were staged. They included a play by Theatr Powys, an organ recital, a midsummer ceilidh at Kinsham, Viennese waltzing at the Memorial Hall, summertime jazz in Knighton and an end of year disco for local pupils. Most bizarre of all was a sponsored performance in July of Erik Satie’s Vexations – four lines of music repeated 840 times non-stop from 7am until midnight. The performers, Adrian Vernon Fish and Dawn Pye (the Fish Pye duo) donned Victorian costume and played in Archie Dobson’s High Street barber’s shop. With every ten repetitions a hand bell was rung outside on the pavement. This eccentric marathon captured the imagination of the local, then national and international press, who descended on Presteigne, resulting in coverage on BBC’s Nationwide, in France, via South Africa to Sydney.

The Presteigne Festival was on the map! The organisers of these Festival-funding events formed the Mid-Border Community Arts Association (MBCAA). The 1983 Festival set a pattern that was followed for the next six years. On the first night, an Art Show was opened at the Shire Hall for the duration of the Festival (receiving 800 visitors in 1985, including Lord Gowrie, then Minister for the Arts). A Festival Eucharist was established on the Sunday, and the concerts (some of which were recorded from the very first year by BBC Radio 3) were interspersed with other arts events, including poetry readings and talks by writers. Current movie releases were shown by the Film Society, and theatrical shows staged by the Presteigne Players, producing memorable performances such as that by Garry Banks as Count Flatula in Presteigne’s Revenge, 1983.

From 1984 Adrian put the Festival in the hands of the MBCAA committee, chaired from 1985 by the late Morris Dodderidge. This left Adrian free to concentrate on composition. In 1985 he was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival, and won the prestigious Guinness Prize. In 1989 Adrian reclaimed the reins of Presteigne Festival and made two significant changes. The Festival was separated from the other arts events. The MBCAA, today abbreviated to Mid-Border Arts (MBA), continues to stage these, making Presteigne, year-round, a vibrant centre for the arts. Adrian’s other significant change in 1989 was his appointment of George Vass as director of the Festival Orchestra. The conductor William Boughton, founder of the English String Orchestra in 1980, first brought a string orchestra to the Festival in 1985. It was made up of young people from Shropshire, Herefordshire and Radnorshire who came together to rehearse for two days before giving a concert at the Festival that year. They were lodged with local families, a custom that persists today. George, being based in London, had the necessary contacts to bring together young professional musicians to play at the Festival. For some of them, the Presteigne Festival has remained a fixture in their diaries ever since.

The next three years were a progression towards the tenth Presteigne Festival, the ‘open borders’ festival of 1992. That year, twelve composers, one from each of the (then) EC countries wrote new works as part of the European Arts Festival. That festival, Adrian’s last, was a great popular success, the roof of the Leisure Centre nearly lifting off when Zulu group Shikisha performed. Also appearing that year was percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Other leading musicians brought to Presteigne in the first decade included Alexander Baillie, Brian Rayner Cook, Osian Ellis, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Anthony Goldstone. In recent years Anne Queffélec, Alice Neary, Gretel Dowdeswell, Sarah Jane Bradley, Stephen De Pledge, Anthony Marwood, Chenyin Li and the Sorrel String Quartet have performed here.

The Festival commissions new works annually, and since the mid 1990s the Composer-in-Residence feature has brought top living composers to the town. These have included John Joubert, David Matthews, Hilary Tann, Michael Berkeley, Rhian Samuel, John McCabe, Paul Patterson and Nicholas Maw. A unique atmosphere is conjured up at Presteigne; composers have an opportunity to mix with one another and to work with the musicians; local hosts support their guests by attending their performances; and many unseen voluntary contributions are made by local people, from forgoing parking spaces to lending manpower to move equipment or steward events. As one critic said in 2002, ‘it feels like Aldeburgh must have felt in the very early days when things were very small scale and very modest but you had people of distinction just rolling around the streets and open for people to come up and say “I really liked your piano trio last night. Wasn’t that fantastic?” And everybody gathers in the pub … there’s no barrier really – everybody feels that they’re in this together.’ (Michael White interviewed on BBC Radio 3, 26 August 2002) Presteigne Festival has been fortunate indeed in some of the support that it has received, particularly from Michael Berkeley, the Festival’s President, from the late Lord Croft and Morris Dodderidge.

Most of all, however, the Directors gratefully acknowledge the support of the local community, without which it could not stage the Festival. They are keen to acknowledge this actively, and have in the past, sent professional musicians from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into local schools to give many primary and secondary pupils their first experience of classical instruments and music. The Board would like to expand this work by taking music into some of the residential homes – for young people and old – that are in the area. At the first Festival in 1983, Gerald Finzi’s Let us Garlands Bring was sung by the leading baritone Brian Rayner Cook. It was fitting, therefore, that the twenty-first anniversary should be celebrated with the commission of A Garland for Presteigne to which ten composers featured over the years have contributed.

The ‘magic’ of the Presteigne Festival is cherished and will be fostered in the future. George Vass and his fellow Directors intend that the Presteigne Festival should continue to nurture talented performers at the start of their careers, whilst introducing audiences to the joys of contemporary music in the friendly atmosphere and beautiful surroundings of the Welsh Marches. These are modest aims, perhaps, but a coming of age should be accompanied by growing wisdom. The Presteigne Festival is mature enough to acknowledge its limitations, but has lost none of its youthful uncompromising passion for excellence.

© 2010, Catherine Beale – a new version of an article first published in the 2003 Presteigne Festival Souvenir Programme