History of the Festival

The Presteigne Festival at 40

by Catherine Beale

How did it start?

The first Presteigne Festival was held from 18 to 25 September 1983, after composer Adrian Williams moved to Presteigne and, with local musicians Gareth and Lynden Rees-Roberts, decided to (in Adrian’s words) ‘do something’ to further first-class musical performance on the Welsh border. Interest in music in the area was already evident in the Knighton and District Concert Society (since 1962), Wyeside Arts Centre at Builth Wells (opened in 1978) and, in Herefordshire, Madley Festival (1965) and Border Marches Early Music Forum (1982).

It was after a rehearsal of the Halcyon Ensemble at Knill Court, the home of highly musical medics, Drs David and Helen Humphreys, that Adrian first mooted the idea of a festival – a suggestion enthusiastically received. St Andrew’s Church became its home thanks to its extraordinary acoustic qualities and generous size. A meeting in Cardiff, in October 1982, of Gareth, Adrian and Gavin Hooson of Theatr Powys, with Roy Bohana, Music Director of the Welsh Arts Council and Nigel Emery of South East Wales Arts Association raised a core question: ‘Where’s the money coming from?’

Gareth, Adrian and Gavin returned with a £500 guarantee against loss for a new festival, provided that it form part of a programme of year-round arts for the local community, run by a formally-constituted body. Thus, at a packed meeting at St Andrew’s Church Hall on 28 January 1983, Mid-Border Community Arts Association was founded ‘to foster and promote the knowledge and appreciation of the arts’, through concerts and recitals, theatre, exhibitions, lectures and festivals, and to coordinate, through a newsletter, such events in south-west Shropshire, north-west Herefordshire and east Radnorshire.

If a festival were to be held in the first year, MBCAA events would need to raise significant funds in only a few months. It was an immense challenge, but the endeavour benefited from the support of Michael Berkeley. Michael, MBCAA founding President (and Presteigne Festival’s ever since) wrote in his Introduction to the first Festival programme, ‘To start a new Arts Festival you need organisers of considerable flair and courage. Everyone agrees that the arts are important, but actually doing anything about it tends to be another matter.’

The twelve-strong MBCAA committee and members worked ceaselessly. Lynden launched the newsletter, typed up by Adrian Vernon Fish and duplicated by Sister Claire at the Carmelite Convent. Early events included touring theatre, concerts (including one by violinist George Ewart, accompanied by Adrian Williams at The Rodd – recently acquired by Sir Sidney and Lady Nolan), a jazz night, dances from disco to Viennese, and, the highlight, a full seventeen-hour performance (in Victorian dress) by Adrian Vernon Fish and Dawn Pye (the Fish-Pye duo) in a High Street front parlour, of Erik Satie’s Vexations that went the 1983 equivalent of ‘viral’. Newspapers and television from London to New York, and Johannesburg to Sydney covered Vexations; it put Presteigne and its festival on the map.

MBCAA membership climbed to over one hundred, and the festival became, against the odds, a reality, with some financial support from the RVW and Finzi trusts, and Presteigne and Norton Town Council. After a quarter peal of bells and music in the churchyard from Ludlow School Band, the first Presteigne Festival was opened on Sunday 18 September by Lord Croft (Patron, with Sir Huw Wheldon and Sir Sidney Nolan) at an Art and Craft Exhibition on the upper floors of the Shire Hall (Judge’s Lodging).

The first Festival staged one evening event per day. The music included four concerts: the Royal Welsh Male Voice Choir on the opening night; a recital by Brian Rayner Cook accompanied by Adrian Williams, including the premiere of Adrian’s new song cycle The Morning Waits; a David Russell guitar recital (recorded by BBC Radio 3); and, to close, the Locke Brass Consort of London, led by Crispian Steele-Perkins.

Several other elements of today’s Festival were already evident: future National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke gave a poetry reading of the winners of a new Welsh Poets Competition; Presteigne Film Society showed The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Watership Down for children; local amateur dramatic group, the Dog and Ferret Players, performed the melodrama Hiss the Villain as part of a Victorian evening; a ceilidh was held at the Norton Arms Hotel; and Sunday’s Evensong (sermon by the Bishop of Hereford) was sung by the choir of St Woolos Cathedral, Newport. During the daytime, Brian and Glynis Radford gave lecture recitals at local schools on both sides of the border, demonstrating their collection of early instruments.

The Festival was a great success, drew good audiences, realised a profit (an extraordinary feat, though, ironically, it left the guarantee against loss unclaimed) and the following year received a Welsh Development Award for the Best Community Project. Gareth’s successor as Chair in 1984, John Mason, added a further important element in 1985, at the suggestion of Herefordshire’s County Music Advisor. A two-day string course held just before the Festival, in conjunction with the English String Orchestra and conductor William Boughton, would raise the Festival’s profile, offer local young musicians a chance to perform, and supply an orchestral concert, something that could not otherwise be afforded.

The inaugural course was held prior to the 5-15 September 1985 Festival. Twenty students participated and were lodged with MBCAA-member hosts in the town, a factor that contributed to the Festival spirit. The ‘highly successful experiment’, to quote MBCAA Chair (1985-87) Morris Dodderidge, was expanded by John into a week-long residential course preceding the three Festivals in 1986-88. To enable students to attend the string course, the Festival was brought forward in 1986 to late-August, before the school term began. It has remained there ever since.

Unfortunately, the string course, despite attracting sponsorship, proved too costly, but it did supply the enduring model for orchestral provision at Presteigne Festival, and for the hosting of performers by local families. From 1989, at Adrian’s suggestion, it was succeeded by a choral course, accompanied by ‘An orchestra consisting of college leavers conducted by George Vass’. Between them, orchestra and chorus supplied four concerts for the 1989 Festival.

Going solo

After winning the 1985 Guinness Prize for Composition, Adrian had withdrawn from Festival organisation to focus on commissions. He returned in 1988 and planned an ambitious Festival for 1989 – ‘an exhausting but fulfilling ten days’. MBCAA committee fears about the financial risks inherent in his proposed programme, and the amount of effort demanded, led Adrian to suggest ‘that we have a separate festival committee and [he was] confident of being able to raise one’.

By January 1989 that committee (Adrian, Barry Shears, Dick Thomas and Roy Price) had held its first meeting. The ensuing Festival was a success. Adrian reported that George Vass and the orchestra were ‘pleading’ to return. He did, and they did, and the 1990 and 1991 Festivals built on the new model. In April 1989 MBCAA Chair, Professor Joan Rees, introduced at the AGM, ‘a discussion about the Festival and its relationship with the MBCAA. It was felt that there were indications that the management of the Festival was fast outgrowing the management resources of the MBCAA, and that the relationship could become progressively worse for both.’

The issue was revisited by Joan’s successor, Daphne, Lady Ransome, in May 1990. Everyone would want, she asserted, the relationship between MBCAA and the Festival ‘to remain a close one… The Festival was a natural culmination of the annual programme and MBCAA members would still wish, and be needed, to give their help and support.’ That meeting agreed unanimously that discussion should proceed ‘with a view to the Festival becoming financially independent in 1991’. Once again, SEWAA was highly supportive, advising Adrian on extraction of the Festival from MBCAA and the establishment of its own constitution. This was formally proposed and seconded at the MBCAA’s November 1990 AGM. Ernie Kay, then Vice-Chair of MBCAA oversaw the separation and incorporation of Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts on 20 May 1991, serving as Presteigne Festival’s first Chairman until April 1992.

Adrian’s Artistic Directorship culminated in the tenth Presteigne ‘Open Borders’ Festival of 1992. This coincided with the European Arts Festival and was a celebration of the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Community. Adrian commissioned a piece from a composer native to each of the (then) twelve member states and brought them to Presteigne. Evelyn Glennie and Kenyan group Shikisha were among the musicians that wowed the audiences. Other leading musicians brought to Presteigne in the first decade included Alexander Baillie, Osian Ellis, Julian Lloyd Webber and Anthony Goldstone.

Adrian stepped down from the board after the 1992 Festival, and George Vass, already Orchestra Director, succeeded him as Artistic Director. In the course of its first ten years, the Presteigne Festival had grown from what seemed an unattainable aim into a European-wide celebration of Classical and contemporary music; from quartets and solo recitals to orchestral and choral concerts; from a single new song cycle to a dozen commissions recorded by the BBC. Thanks to the immense personal efforts of over-burdened MBCAA committee office-holders and dedicated members, Presteigne and the surrounding area had gained a year-round programme of quality arts events that endures today, thanks to Mid Border Arts, in addition to the week-long festival of high-quality music that had been the initial desire of its founders.

1993-2022: 30 years under George Vass

For his first decade as Artistic Director of the Presteigne Festival, George Vass explored the financial and musical resources available to him, the appropriate repertoire, and cultivated his audience. Various factors became clear: there was relatively little corporate sponsorship available to a festival producer here – local companies gave what they could, but at modest levels. A sparse rural population also meant that Presteigne and Norton Town Council and Powys County Council’s scarce resources were thinly spread. Warnings of cuts encouraged George to approach ever more trusts for funding, which opened up some rewarding and long-standing relationships. He also expanded the Festival’s venues to include Leintwardine and Pembridge, thus drawing in arts funding from Herefordshire and the West Midlands too.

Having to cut his cloth with care, George became extremely resourceful. Based in London, he was well-placed to recruit the best young talent – performers and composers – as musicians emerged from conservatoires and embarked on their career. He started programming concerts to achieve optimum value from visiting performers, combining them with the orchestra or with trios or quartets, and blending their repertoire, old and new, with ingenuity and skill. The Presteigne Festival has been nominated three times since 1999 for a Royal Philharmonic Society award in the ‘Festivals and Concert Series’ category.

Another early innovation, from 1994, was inviting a composer-in-residence to Presteigne. The presence of composers such as John Joubert, David Matthews, Hilary Tann, John McCabe, Rhian Samuel, Nicholas Maw, Robin Holloway, Hugh Wood, Huw Watkins, Cecilia McDowall and Cheryl Frances-Hoad eating in the restaurants or exploring the second-hand book and antique shops, brought an additional dimension. From 2008 the Festival began to commission a new work from each resident composer, thus accumulating an enduring legacy for the Festival. New pieces require particular focus, and performers enjoy exploring commissions in rehearsals with their composer.

From 1998 George started to feature the music of a particular country, usually marking an anniversary. This has enabled Presteigne audiences to welcome composers as notable as Pēteris Vasks, Zita Bružaitė, Paweł Łukaszewski and Peter Sculthorpe. At the first Festival in 1983, Finzi’s Let us Garlands Bring was sung by Brian Rayner Cook. It was fitting, therefore, that the twenty-first Festival, in 2003, should be celebrated with the commission of A Garland for Presteigne by ten composers who had featured over George’s first decade.

Despite the pressures of rehearsing and conducting two or three orchestral concerts in the week, George had to ensure that visiting musicians, composers and critics enjoyed themselves. There is no doubt that his personal qualities ensured that visitors had a memorable time at Presteigne and so enhanced its reputation as a friendly but demanding festival. As Michael Berkeley observed at the opening Festival, ‘we must establish the Presteigne Festival as a centre of excellence in the arts… never forgetting to throw in a good dose of fun – an essential ingredient to any endeavour.’

In George’s second decade at the helm, administrative support, particularly for applications to trusts, was introduced. Administrators also raised funds to increase education and outreach projects designed to bring music to those least able to access Presteigne Festival concerts – the elderly and local schoolchildren. Creating Landscapes (2010) and Singing Histories (2012) were landmarks, bringing live classical music to local primary schools, as at the first Festival. This decade, under the chairmanship of John Kendall, also saw the strengthening of internal structures and policies, in response to the demands of grant-givers and Charity Commissioners, and with a view to the long-term resilience of the Festival.

Meanwhile, awareness of the Presteigne Festival was expanded with the initiation of an annual chamber concert in London from 2005. Selected musicians perform a programme that gives a flavour of the Presteigne Festival. In addition, since 2011, one of the Festival concerts has been performed in Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol and/or Oxford, extending further still an appreciation of the aims of this Festival.

A desire to support new talent saw the Festival initiate a Composers’ Competition in 2010, which subsequently merged with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Composers Programme. In 2020 the ‘Evolve’ programme was introduced, under which a young composer’s work is featured at the Festival for five years, and new works are commissioned; Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade is the first. In 2022 the Festival extended this with its ‘Emerge’ programme, whose first postgraduate composer is Sarah Frances Jenkins. Further innovation came with the introduction in 2013 of chamber opera – on that occasion Britten’s Curlew River and Sally Beamish’s new commission Hagar in the Wilderness. Chamber opera or music theatre is now an annual feature.

In George’s most recent decade, he has brought to bear on an ever-tightening funding climate his considerable experience as a performer, programmer and procurer of funds. This period has witnessed a process of distillation which has resulted in a more intense and richly flavoured Presteigne Festival than ever. The Festival still runs from Thursday until Tuesday, as it has since 1997, but now includes opera, chamber music, recitals, orchestral and choral concerts – with a higher percentage than ever of new music (usually co-commissioned) as well as a service of the Eucharist. Parallel to this runs a programme of talks, walks, exhibitions and films. The result is that visitors can now mix their own Festival blend. The same period has seen the Festival gain its first RPS nomination for twelve years, and a listing in The Times top ten classical music festivals. In 2017 the Festival recorded its highest ever level of pre-Festival ticket sales.

This process of distillation was eloquently illustrated as a result of the Covid-19 crisis of 2020. The inability to meet for performances resulted in the Festival recording, in sound and video, concerts released daily during the usual Festival week, online, as Presteigne Digital. The orchestra also met to make its first recording, a CD released in 2021, of Presteigne premieres. The objectives of giving musicians much-needed performance opportunities (besides income), airing new works by living composers, and ensuring that audiences could still experience (free of charge) the essence of the Presteigne Festival sums up the commitment of everyone involved with this festival to the service of music.

The Festival at Forty therefore differs in many ways from the first: it is shorter and punchier and for those attending many of the twenty-five or so events in six days, it is a frenetic immersion in music in multiple forms. The Festival today reaches further than ever – into schools and care homes, going on tour, holding a London concert, moving online and publishing CDs, besides occasional BBC Radio 3 transmissions, as in its first year. Behind the scenes, its internal structures have been modernised and strengthened with a view to stability and resilience. In most other regards, including its range across music, film, poetry, drama, walks and art, its locations, its unstuffy approachability and its ambition, the Festival remains entirely recognisable. For four decades, it has remained steadfast to its core philosophy, that of serving the music – composers, performers and audiences. And at Forty, let’s hope that it’s just beginning.

© 2022, Catherine Beale – first published in the 2022 Presteigne Programme Book