By Clare Stevens

The Presteigne Festival 2018 opened on Thursday 23 August with the Welsh premiere of Juliana, a one-act chamber opera by Joseph Phibbs with a libretto by Laurie Slade, inspired by August Strindberg’s 1889 play Miss Julie, updated to the present. Staged by Nova Music Opera in St Andrew’s Church, it was directed by Richard Williams; the cast of three singers and instrumental ensemble of eight players were conducted by George Vass, artistic director of both Nova Music and Presteigne Festival. At a time when budgets for any kind of artistic enterprise are shrinking, collaborations and co-productions are essential and Vass is particularly skilled at developing such relationships: Juliana is a co-production with Cheltenham Festival, where it was premiered in July, and St John’s Smith Square in London, supported by the Arts Council of Wales, PRS for Music Foundation and RVW Trust.

The story is not a happy one: taking place over the course of Midsummer’s Night, the action explores the relationships between Juliana (soprano Cheryl Enever), daughter of a multi-millionaire businessman who has just set off for a trip abroad; the businessman’s manservant Juan (baritone Samuel Pantcheff); and the housekeeper Kerstin (mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones). Juan’s flirtatious conversation with Kerstin is interrupted by Juliana, bored and looking for company; she and Juan ‘dance, snort coke, cuddle, share dreams and go off to have sex’, as the programme note explains. But with the dawn comes reality and the realisation that they cannot have a future together. The opera ends with Juan encouraging Juliana to believe that her only means of escape from her life in thrall to her abusive father is suicide. ‘If it hurts, take the hit,’ he sings. ‘Pain is the price of freedom.’

Joseph Phibbs has won critical acclaim for his orchestral and chamber-scale instrumental works, but this is his first opera, and he acknowledged in the pre-performance talk that he realises having seen it in performance that some scenes are too long. For me this was Juliana’s main flaw, but it was outweighed by the fact that Phibbs had succeeded in creating long, lyrical lines for the singers, notoriously a difficult task in English, which does not lend itself to being set to music. He also succeeded in making the text audible, though this did result in a separation between sung episodes, which were sparsely orchestrated, and more complex instrumental passages, which sometimes represented chatting, laughing or birdsong rather too literally.

All the singers gave strong, vivid, musically secure and often very moving performances, although the effects of their limited rehearsal time and the gap of several weeks between the premiere and this second performance were occasionally apparent – Samuel Pantcheff in particular needed to inhabit his character with more confidence. The instrumental ensemble was first-rate, providing an atmospheric backdrop to the action. Juliana provided a sombre but extremely powerful opening to the festival.

The first piece, ‘Reflections’, in Edvard Grieg’s suite Stemninger (‘Moods’), which opened Joseph Tong’s piano recital the following afternoon, picked up the melancholy atmosphere of the opera, and indeed there was a lot of darkness, death, and pain in the festival programme as a whole. It featured music by composers from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – marking the centenary of their existence as independent republics – and from the Nordic countries, so perhaps an element of ‘Scandi-noir’ in the subject matter was unsurprising. Tong’s impressive recital included the first world premiere of the weekend, Cydonie Banting’s The Gate of Dawn, which takes its title from an early 16th-century city fortification in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and is infused with folk melodies and the sound of bells.

The Baltic strand allowed George Vass to include some of the most famous works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, which proved hugely popular with festival audiences. St Mary’s Church in Pembridge was packed for a performance of his setting of the Passion of St John by the Choir of Royal Holloway, University of London, with four singers from St Bartholomew the Great, London, and members of the Presteigne Festival Ensemble, conducted by Rupert Gough, director of the choir, which was resident at the festival for the weekend. They formed the choir for the Festival Eucharist in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, on Sunday morning and gave accomplished performances of works by Peteris Vasks and Tonu Korvits in the Sunday evening concert in St Andrew’s with the Presteigne Festival Orchestra conducted by Vass.

The church service included the premiere of another festival commission, a beautiful setting of the Hymn to the Virgin Mary Regina caeli by David Bednall, which placed a quartet at the west end of the church while the remainder of the choir sang from the choirstalls, creating a magical effect. It is very unusual to be able to hear a new work twice in quick succession, but this piece was reprised, though with the solo quartet singing from the east end altar, in Royal Holloway Choir’s late-night concert on Monday evening, a highlight of the festival. They exploited the church’s lovely acoustic, opening the concert with the singers spread down each side of the nave as well as on stage for a spell-binding performance of the hymn Ave generosa by the 12th-century composer Hildegard of Bingen. Their entire programme of music dedicated to the Virgin Mary demonstrated choral singing of the highest quality, though the piece that may linger longest in the audience’s memory was Gabriel Jackson’s setting of Ave regina caelorum with its extraordinary and wonderfully effective inclusion of an electric guitar accompaniment, played by Ant Law.

The festival comprised 26 events, not counting all the entertaining and informative pre-concert talks, so it is impossible to do more than pick out highlights from the instrumental recitals and orchestral concerts. Composer-in-residence Martin Butler is also a skilled pianist and played many of his own works for that instrument, in addition to taking the solo role in his immensely entertaining ‘Concertante Dances’ for piano and orchestra. His witty orchestral settings of three Roald Dahl poems, ‘Dirty Beasts’, with expert narration by Sally Ripley, provided welcome relief from the Nordic gloom, as did Gareth Moorcraft’s inventive Dolly shot, for piano and wind instruments, another festival commission.

Of the Baltic repertoire, a stand-out piece for me was a concerto for two oboes and string orchestra by Peteris Plakidis, in which James Turnbull and Ben Marshall were the eloquent and agile soloists. Violinist Kristine Balanas and pianist Huw Watkins gave a mesmerising performance of Pärt’s Spiegl am Spiegl, intensified by following a tribute to the composer Oliver Knussen, well known to many Presteigne Festival regulars, who died a few weeks ago. One of his last composition pupils, Freya Waley-Cohen, gave a spoken testimony to Knussen’s gifts as a composer and teacher and a few glimpses of his unique personality before Balanas and Watkins played his exquisite Reflection.

A solo cello recital by Joanna Gutowska in Kinnerton Church demonstrated George Vass’s gift for structuring a concert programme, with suites by the 20th-century Spanish composer Gaspar Cassado and by J S Bach providing the perfect frame for works by David Matthews and Michael Berkeley and the world premiere of two short instrumental poems by Manos Charalabopoulos. These deft and impressionistic pieces, one of the most obviously contemporary works of the week, are representations in music of poetry by Homer and ‘Everything the Traffic will allow’ by Alan Shapiro; they were composed in 2017 as the Presteigne Festival / Royal Philharmonic Society Alan Horne Memorial commission.

Not all the music in the festival is contemporary, and the Navarra Quartet contributed works by Schubert and Beethoven and a stunning performance of Benjamin Britten’s searing third string quartet, written as he was in his last illness and premiered a fortnight after his death. Searing too was the song cycle Bright Travellers by Helen Grime, a setting of poems by Fiona Benson on the theme of pregnancy and early motherhood, performed by soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Huw Watkins and eloquently expressing a huge range of emotions. Their recital also included a beautifully-crafted song cycle with music by Watkins and texts by a range of poets, and a wonderful performance of Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies.

The festival also included three films on themes relating to the musical programme, introduced by film editor Tony Lawson; a poetry reading by Gregory Leadbetter; a talk by writer and broadcaster Ian Marchant about his recent history of the 20th-century counter-culture A Hero for High Times; several art exhibitions and three days of Open Studios. But classical music by living composers is at its heart, and George Vass is to be congratulated for not only commissioning new works but facilitating repeat performances. The festival finale included Coronach, a moving lament for string orchestra by Michael Berkeley, a 1988 Presteigne commission, and the fourth symphony by David Matthews, a tremendously lively and inventive work dating from 1991. The encore was a charming miniature by Adrian Williams, one of the founders of the Presteigne Festival 36 years ago, who was in the audience. Music-lovers in the Marches and beyond should be very grateful to him and his co-founder Gareth Rees-Roberts, and to George Vass and those who help to sustain this unique event.