John Metcalf: Vale of Glamorgan Festival – ‘Journey to 50’

May 7, 2018 by

Composer John Metcalf, who this month celebrates the beginning of his 50th year as Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, charts the Festival’s development and takes a searching look at music in Wales then and now


When I put together the programme for the first Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1969 I didn’t imagine that it was a labour of love that would continue to be such a large part of my life 50 years later. In that time, many aspects of the musical culture of Wales have changed significantly.

In 1969 the Welsh National Opera was still a year away from having its own professional orchestra. The much-loved amateur chorus was also until 1973 part of the company.  There was no BBC National Orchestra of Wales and of course there was no St. David’s Hall and no Wales Millennium Centre. All these initiatives were realized during this time. Clearly our predecessors had vision, belief – and resource.

In music, in the interim, festivals filled some of the gaps. They aspired to world-class standards and were an important platform for the presentation of new work. So it was to the Director of the Llandaff Festival, Christopher Cory that I turned for advice in setting up a more intimate but adventurous festival in the Vale of Glamorgan.

From the outset the festival was pioneering. It was among the first to present music in private houses – atmospheric venues soon becoming one of the festival’s defining characteristics. In the 1970’s the Festival was among the first to advocate and benefit from commercial sponsorship. In 1979 we also began a ten-year project, to commission, develop and present new works of small-scale music theatre.

This led to my leaving Wales.  In 1986 I joined the Banff Centre in Canada as one of the artistic directors and David Ambrose took responsibility for everyday planning and programming.

When in 1991 I assumed a more direct role once again the Festival took its boldest decision yet. Since it had become clear that the language of contemporary music had broadened out to include music that could potentially reach a wider public, we decided to focus exclusively on the works of living composers. This ushered in a golden period. World-renowned composers like Arvo Part, Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich attended for celebrations of their work and the Festival received the Prudential Award for the Arts in 1994.

The evolution of the Festival continued in the new century, outstanding performers from all over the world championing the music of  living composers. The Festival became one of Wales’ musical success stories with 3,500 attendees in 2017 coming to experience new music in a spirit of real enquiry and enjoyment.

But how does the backdrop look in 2018?

It is certainly the case, as the well-known phrase goes, that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. In the past those funders were variously the Church, the aristocracy, business and the state. For better or worse their values, prerogatives and wishes informed and influenced arts and culture.

The dominant influence now is commercial. The words ‘music’ or ‘film’ are routinely followed with the word ‘industry’. How odd if we were to refer to the ‘poetry industry’? While there is no better arbiter of markets than commercialism, to what extent are there other values, moral, ethical, intellectual, cultural, political, educational, spiritual or artistic that we would wish to inform our cultural life and who might support them?

During the early years of the Festival’s existence there clearly was a vision for the future of music in Wales. Are the resources that supported that vision stretched and at risk? Is there a danger that the gains of that era may be allowed to decay and atrophy?

For its part the Vale of Glamorgan Festival looks positively to the future. I am confident that it will continue on its adventurous path, leaving an increasingly substantial and sustainable legacy of vibrant musical work that will speak passionately, thoughtfully and deeply of our time.

But how in 2069 how will the legacy of the coming 50 years measure up? Will devolved government in Wales in the post-Brexit era deliver a similar story of successful growth and development? The jury’s out on that.  As the lines from Viola’s monologue in Twelfth Night’s tell us  “O time thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me to untie! “

Vale of Glamorgan May 9 to 16


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