By Peter Reynolds

Presteigne Festival: Countless and Wonderful are the Ways to Praise God / Choral and Orchestral Concert

Sunday nights at the Presteigne Festival are reserved for the most ambitious concert. It says much for the trust that festival audiences place in the vision of the festival’s director, George Vass, that St Andrew’s Church was packed for a concert of contemporary music on a bank holiday Sunday. At the centre of it was the fabulous Royal Holloway Choir, one of the leading collegiate choirs in Britain, its 20 or so voices producing a big focused sound. The festival orchestra attacked this unfamiliar music with real conviction under the sure hand of George Vass.

Despite an overcast rainy bank holiday evening outside, the music in the concert’s first half was radiant and full of light. Works by three generations of living English composers jostled against new music from Finland and Latvia, closing with a rousing work by the Irish-American, Tarik O’Regan.

Gabriel Jackson’s Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God made a great opener to the concert with its airy dancing rhythms and the choir’s simple dignified hymn-like delivery of words by Russian author Doris Kareva.

The premiere of David Matthews’s newly orchestrated Three Housman Songs (given by soprano Gillian Keith) has a similar glowing light, responding to the nature imagery of Housman’s poetry. A hundred years ago, Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth clothed Housman’s words in music reflecting the folk-revival, but Matthews brought them a new free elemental wild other-worldly sense of pantheistic fantasy.

A setting of William Blake’s Love and Harmony by the up-and-coming Toby Young captured something of the same atmosphere, mirroring the metaphysical ideas of the words in music whose daring simplicity did not always avoid the commonplace. But what seemed to especially capture the audience’s attention was Epifania by the Latvian, Peteris Vasks: its slow simple hushed chords, melting into one another drew the audience into a world where time itself stands still. Sheer magic.