By Emma Lilley

The 2017 Presteigne Festival is in celebratory mood. Thirty-five this year, it is the 25th festival under conductor George Vass's directorship (he's celebrating his 60th as well) and its longevity, unstuffiness and gutsy resilience – given all the usual constraints of keeping such festivals going – are some of many reasons to be cheerful. As is its reputation as an unstinting flag-waver for contemporary music, and for promoting British talent in particular. The Festival is a place where living composers can be counted in coffee bars in handfuls or quizzed about their latest work while queuing for Welsh cakes and tea in the interval (a Presteigne 'tradition'). This year there is a new string quartet by composer-in-residence Edward Gregson and some 17 Festival commissions, all by British composers, and 38 performances of extant works by living composers (not all of them Brits), many of whom will be in audiences to take their bows before the Festival ends on Tuesday.

The opening concert lacked its usual opera commission – a new work by Joseph Phibbs had to be postponed but will be heard next year – so there seemed less of a buzz about the first night, but the programme itself felt both apt and tightly knit. In tribute to Peter Maxwell Davies, who died in 2016, the Festival opened with a chamber version of his Dances from his 1978 children's opera The Two Fiddlers, an irreverent amuse-bouche of a piece that reminds us of why Maxwell Davies is very much missed. His music is fun to play and to listen to, and in his desire to connect with as many different communities as possible he was never afraid to please a crowd. The Berkeley Ensemble dished up the work's toe-tapping Orcadian rhythms with élan and a good-humoured glint in their eyes, while violinist Sophie Mather's flawless playing had us from her first note. The irreverence continued with Poulenc's Sextet for piano and wind, with the superbly communicative Berkeley players alert to every jazzy nuance, and pianist Simon Callaghan working the ragtime moments in the Finale. In Michael Berkeley's mesmerisingly beautiful Seven a mantra-like motif lingered in the mind like film music, hinting at a slightly menacing but unknown narrative. The thread was picked up by Judith Weir's music drama, The Consolations of Scholarship (1985), written in the style of a Chinese Yuan drama from the 13th and 14th centuries. As a musical idea it comes at you out of left field but it commanded the second half, thanks to the authoritative, gloriously sonorous voice of young mezzo Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and the Berkeley's responsive ensemble. If anything the instrumental writing is more potent than the vocal line but when Afonwy-Jones was given words to sing rather than speak she sliced laser-like through the scoring, and her voice soared.