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23 September 2009

An all-Australian orchestral concert - in Wales

Vale of Glamorgan Festival

Paul Stanhope Image: Paul Stanhope  

Paul Stanhope writes about the recent Vale of Glamorgan Festival (6-12 September 2009). The BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert of Australian music mentioned in the story will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 September at 22:30 (UK time) - on the internet, go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mw63c

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, held in the region in and around Cardiff in Wales. It also marks the continuation of a distinct and unusual connection with Australian music. The Vale festival, lead for its entire history by Welsh composer John Metcalf, first featured Australian music in 1994 with a retrospective of Peter Sculthorpe's music. Since then, festivals in 2001, 2003, 2005 and this year have had a strong focus on Australian themes. The featured composers this year were Brett Dean and myself (the only antipodean able to attend) with pieces by Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards as well as Welsh composers broadening out the program.

The centrepiece of the 2009 festival was an entirely Australian program of orchestral music performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. I can't think of the last time an Australian orchestra performed an entire Australian program. It seems bizarre that this should happen in Wales! This concert was performed by the BBC NOW in their brand-new rehearsal/broadcast/concert space known as Hodinott Hall in the Wales Millennium Centre (you may have seen the imposing spaceship-like building if you watch the BBC sci-fi series Torchwood). Seating around 350 people, it is a wonderful space with (fortunately) an enormous percussion stage to hold the vast requirements of the program which consisted of my own Fantasia on a Theme by Vaughan Williams, Brett Dean's ambitious and extraordinary Ceremonials (requiring huge orchestral forces) rounding off the first half, followed by the vast Symphony No. 5 by Ross Edwards. Conducted by the young German André de Ridder, the concert is also being broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Chamber works were also an important part of the festival with performances by the Solstice String Quartet and Sinfonia Cymru - both primarily comprising young players only recently out of college. The outstanding standard of the performances is testament to the quality of music graduates in the UK, and I was particularly impressed by the standard of string playing. In the final concert of the week, held in the beautiful St Augustine's Cchurch overlooking Cardiff Bay, Brett Dean's wonderfully evocative Short Stories for string orchestra was performed with great spark and attention to detail by the ensemble. In the same concert, the UK's most famous harpist and Cardiff local Catrin Finch and oboist Katie Bennington joined the orchestra to perform my oboe and harp concerto Yanihndi in what was a UK premiere and only the second performance of the piece (always much harder to get than the first!).

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival has recently enjoyed strong government and Welsh Arts Council support. However, like all arts companies in Wales at the moment, it is under review. Let's hope that it continues in the strongly independent way it has done for 40 years now. As an interesting local parallel, the Aurora Festival held in Western Sydney every two years (directed by Matthew Hindson) runs on a similar philosophy of performing only living composers and featuring one or two composers per festival. True to form, the Australian festival attracts only a tiny fraction of the funding available to its older Welsh sister. Aurora is a festival that deserves the strong support of audiences and sponsors alike - so if you are in or around Sydney in April/May next year, make sure you get along to a concert or two! Let's hope both festivals continue long into the future.

Further links

Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music (www.valeofglamorganfestival.org/)
Aurora Festival (www.aurorafestival.com.au/)

Paul Stanhope will be Musica Viva's featured composer in 2010. His music will be performed nationally by groups including the Pavel Haas Quartet and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.


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