Wild Wales; Land of Song; Green Valleys: the clichés cluster. The Vale of Glamorgan Festival fulfils most if not all, in a wholly uncliché’d way. Subtitled ‘a celebration of living composers’, it could be forbiddingly severe, courting box-office disaster. But its chosen living composers are far removed from the erstwhile compulsory rebarberation, wilfully inaccessible to all but the chosen few; and its venues are mainly modest, ensuring full attendance without dispiriting areas of empty seats. Audiences are keen, loyal, manifestly satisfied, indeed delighted, with what they’ve come for, however unfamiliar, without its needing palliation by Trout Quintets and other such standards.
Venues modest: but only in size and resource. The concert with the première of a new piece of mine took place in the darkly evocative Old Priory Church at Ewenny. Whether or not this building is dedicated to a St Ewenny, I couldn’t determine. For sure it is a striking edifice, ancient and austere, unforgiving in chunkiness and denial of ornament, yet it is so harmonious in its rounded vaulting and cool spaces that the spirit is pacified, not starved. Its nave serves still as parish church: a low stone screen divides it from the priory half, separately managed, empty save for a rather antiseptic display of old carved stones mounted in rows upon the walls, very different from the same interior when painted by Turner, where everything lies higgledy-piggledy on the floor and cattle browse amid the rampant weeds.
Congregations (and audiences) are confined to the nave; the apse acts as magnet to eye and ear; both senses respond to this large mysterious space beyond, half-hidden, half-revealed, with its dim recession of ample curves and its extraordinary enrichment of the acoustic, making a natural echo-chamber. For this reason alone, the current proposal to fill the divide with an incised glass screen would be a pity: the musician’s wistful regret turns to active indignation seeing the proposed design — a shoddy mix of Coventry Cathedral and shopping mall; £50,000 up the spout.
The inbuilt echo-chamber has its problems for music, of course. It must be perfect for a small vocal group singing clear diatonic music. Busy Bach would be a jungle, classical outlines would blur, romantic harmony would mush and muddy. With this concert’s frugal forces — three line-instruments (viola, oboe and clarinet) centred around a harp — the innate post-romantic spareness of all seven ‘living composers’ also came into its own. A solo oboe was already ample, a solo harp juicy, harp with cello (a guest player in addition to the basic foursome) rich and ample, and my new Serenade in D flat, using the full forces, clearly pressing the limits. Not beyond them, however: and such warm amplitude of sound is always preferable to its opposite — tight mean boxiness. When the space was filled with audience, plus hundreds of flickering candles, the balance was just about right.
Between this evening event and its afternoon rehearsal, I’d explored the environs. A big house, less stately than shabby, shelters adjacent within the grim walls the Priory had required when, as originally, fortified against marauding pagan attack. The only aliens now are a pride of peacocks, fleeing with squawks before any intruder, dropping in their scuttle the occasional bejewelled tail-feather. I felt still more an intruder, arriving for the first time, in the small hours of the next morning, at my lodgings. This remote manor house had also been once, of necessity, fortified. But in more recent centuries the only enemy has been neglect, decay, ruin, nobly arrested and reversed by the present owners who run it as a B&B, restoring piecemeal as they can. Boasting an alleged 13 staircases, it is truly a ‘House of Crossed Desires’ — especially when, completely new to it, one desires a pee in the still of the night and sets off up and down through the labyrinth, occasionally opening a likely door to retreat at the snores, grunts, snuffles, or muttered ‘Oh no!’
In the morning light things are clearer; the nearby church and barns (there’s no village), the grounds, decorative and formal in the time of the last Stuarts, now ruggedly wooded with a scattering of sheep. The interiors are much more enjoyable, clustering chaotically in and out from a splendid central hall, double-height, richly ceiling’d, with a sumptuous ornamental fireplace, mellow panelling, a grand showy carved coat of arms, very nicely and suitably furnished, including an excellent grand piano tucked into a window bay and the long table laden with the wherewithal for a handsome breakfast.
Enterprises like this six-event festival, largely unsung though they be, truly keep music ‘living’, through the application of imagination combined with careful thought, in these straitened times.