Vale of Glamorgan Festival, opening concert

May 22, 2019 by

Celebrating it’s 50th birthday, I recall some fond memories of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival the past few years. Highlights would be the discovery of John Tavener’s music, meeting cheery composers such as Tom Green and Dobrinka Tabakova and getting to see some delightful places never visited before in the Vale. The efforts of composer John Metcalf and his team are what makes the events so special and have helped them flourish for these five decades.

The opening for this year was a surprise and a delight. An antique, self playing street organ from 1890’s Netherlands called Astrid, was centre stage on the Glanfa Foyer at the Wales Millennium Centre. Owned by collector Francis Stapleton, this remarkable little instrument has been lovingly restored with additional contemporary amendments, with composer David Roche being project Co-ordinator. Here the mouth-watering prospect of hearing ten new works (with eight by Welsh composers) was palpable. The gaudy imagery upon its exterior sees two bathing beauties posing for us as we listen, along with a sickly colour palette. This aside, the eye bulging sound is sour and chattering, gloriously pushed to its limit by ten composers hellbent on pushing the instrument to its limits. This was proven by the fact it stopped working mid piece during Lynne Plowman’s Emergency Exit, a frantic exercise in its mimicry of alarm sounds.

Garth Glyn’s Pendramwnwgl was an absurd opener, though harking back to light organ music of the past. Steph Power’s Tulips, or the Madness of Crowds had a delightful melody and much charm to spread about. Guto Puw is never one to shy away from dense music and here his piece Ffantasia V, we got his typical heady atheistic. David got one of his own testing works, Uniquely Physical tried on Astrid, another example of the workout the organ goes through. Ben Wallace gave us merry, Latin inspired music in A.S.T.R. and remained hard to resist, a fine way to wrap up things. Astrid then played some more down the bay (outside the Centre) and then on the next day got to be showed off all over the Vale. Keep yours eyes peeled for this amazing organ around Wales this summer.

The opening night concert with BBC NOW was electric, a variety of music showcasing the composers’ of the world. Tabakova’s Organum Light got another outing in its pristine air, a tonic in its medieval refinement. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and his Vientulais Engelis (Lonely Angel) was a piece of crystalline beauty, if slightly too long. Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen offered an intimate offering, with subtle work harking back to the sacred minimalists. Though touching, it did not move me as much as it should have. A Welsh premier of Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra only proves how little his style has change during his creative life. Though two pianos and percussion were typical of the composer, the piece had fluttering episodes, jazzy and frantic. We’ve just heard it all before.

Five gifts for an Old Friend by Ben Wallace made a great opening to the second part of the concert. These lavish dance numbers are witty, giving you the sense of just how much enjoyment the composer had writing the piece. Cartoons of yesteryear and Hollywood romance pierce the score with rampant vigour. Blue Lab by Claire Victoria Roberts being a less than interesting persuasion in a jazz like atmosphere, experimenting in the sonorities heard within the orchestra. Mark David Bowden’s Decent (a world premier) has flashes of intrigue though did not sustain much of its length, even with its drama and force.

David Lang and his simple song #3 is the sumptuous, Oscar nominated piece from the film Youth (Michael Caine as a conductor!) that was equally moving and inspired. Lang usually does not let you down and his music is gradually becoming more mainstream. Soprano Elizabeth Donovan sang with clear conviction, with a real mastery of the subtleties that lay within. Tamsin returned on violin to add extra intrigue into the song, complementing the tonal bliss of the score. Both singer and violinist then played in John Metcalf’s Aria of Polly Garter from his 2016 opera Under Milk Wood. Even with the Lark Ascending like opening, this did little to capture the imagination, even with the pleasantries in the lyric and orchestra. Some of Dylan’s poetry was lost in the muddle that English opera easily falls into. Metal would end the night by Graham Fitkin, a clamouring end to the night with scaffolding poles featuring in the percussion. This had fire in it, a certain steamy attitude that alerted the audience frequently. Conductor Ryan Bancroft maintained a brilliant focus out of the players here, the orchestra being themselves eternally polished in their execution.

My only regret is that I’m missing the rest of the concerts. I urge music lovers to go and check the festival out.

Astrid the Street organ can be seen in Aberystwyth’s Muiscfest, 27th July till 3rd August 2019, in Bangor and the National Eisteddfod.

Vale of Glamorgan Festival continues till 24th May 2019.

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