Presteigne Festival is special for many reasons. It has a pre-eminent reputation for commissioning new music, through-provokingly woven amongst more familiar repertoire by its artistic director of more than twenty years, George Vass. It is a lovely Festival for reasons of geography – the different venues are nestled amongst the Powys hills in what was historically known as Radnorshire (this poetic name is still alive and well in the local imagination). Festival-goers are whizzed around by bus to save on time, petrol and parking strife, giving audience members a chance to get to know each other. What’s more, Presteigne is at the centre of an artistic community that includes many writers, artists and makers of note, as well as a host of talented non-professionals, so there is much to excite the eye as well as the ear.
This was the second time I have visited the Festival as a participant and one of the many pleasures is the time spent with the other performers, composers and commentators, whom one meets there. This year the place to gather when not at a concert was The Workhouse, rather unpromisingly sited on the industrial estate but in fact a source of the best food (and gossip) in town. As well as hosting exhibitions (currently some interesting photographs with accompanying new poems by Liz Lefroy), it sells textiles and ceramics. Most attractively of all, its car-park was the only location in town where I could get five bars of signal on my mobile phone. After resolutions not to be glued to my technology all week, the desire to Tweet approving noises about the work and performances I was hearing was just too much.
This year’s Polish theme, in part to honour the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik’s birth, brought a number of Polish composers to the Festival for the first time and occasioned the commission of Pavel Lukaszewski’s Requiem. Stephen McNeff was Composer-in-Residence and a significant number of his works were on offer, including a new Oboe Concerto, Songs for the Virgin of Guadalupe (thrillingly performed by Rachel Nicholls), and Madrigali dell’Estate and Prometheus Drowned, both of which were written for me. I also heard some wonderful new songs by Toby Young which made me even more eager to take delivery of those that he is currently writing for me.
It’s relatively easy to get a first performance of a work but the second can be very elusive, which often contributes to a piece slipping out of the repertoire even when it is of quality. Presteigne Festival’s loyalty to the work it has generated is admirable – not every new piece can be a winner but it’s good to see things getting another hearing a few years down the line. and the body of work built up over the years has proved significant and lasting.