The 2015 Festival can be considered an outstanding success on several different fronts. It attracted healthy and appreciative audiences to St.Teilo’s Church and to the National Trust’s Newton House. It featured appearances by some of Britain’s most notable musicians and actors and it was notable for the performance of two Welsh premieres. Significant financial support was provided by the Colwinston Charitable Trust and the Leche Trust, as well as by the Llandeilo Fawr Town Council and this enabled the Festival to maintain the artistic standards for which it has become renowned, thereby further enhancing its ever-growing reputation for musical excellence.
This year the Festival opened with a notable ‘first’, when Professor Heini Gruffudd of Swansea University, introduced the Welsh premiere of Jame Whitbourn’s “Annelies”. Professor Gruffudd’s mother had been a refugee from Nazi Germany, where his maternal grandmother had died in the notorious Bergen Belsen concentration camp, and it was highly appropriate therefore that he should have been the one to preface this first performance in Wales of a setting of a libretto (by Melanie Challenger) which had been based on “Ann Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” With the title role sung by Elin Manahan Thomas, supported by the musicians of Armonico Consort, this was an ambitious opening event, by any standards, and the capacity audience expressed the warmest of appreciation at the end of the performance.
The second of the two premieres was to be two nights later, when the charismatic baritone, Roderick Williams, having delighted the Royal Albert Hall audience with his two separate appearances at the 2014 BBC Promenade Concerts, included in his programme a song cycle by composer Tim Torry entitled ‘The Face of Grief’. For this performance, which was attended by the composer himself, Roderick Williams was accompanied by pianist Susie Allan.
In between these two events the National Trust’s Newton House had played host to a memorable day of music-making, with a recital by the renowned violinist, Madeleine Mitchell, as well as an afternoon programme of piano trios by pianist Clare Hammond, with violinist Sara Trickey and cellist Gregor Riddell. Speaking of cellists, they don’t come much bigger than the iconic Stephen Isserlis, who had delighted another capacity audience with his Monday night recital, partnered by pianist Tom Poster, and the Festival week was to continue in this vein, with the scintillating brilliance of the Vida Guitar Quartet (again in Newton House) and a closing concert by the highly regarded Carducci Quartet, fresh from their acclaimed performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Library of Congress. Jazz aficionados were treated to what has now become the traditional evening in the Cawdor Hotel, when the inimitable Salena Jones displayed her consummate mastery of the art of jazz singing, supported by a trio of Ronnie Scott regulars which included the peerless Geoff Eales on piano.
Back in St.Teilo’s it was time for the spoken word, and leading British actors Joanne David and Henry Goodman returned to the Festival, with pianist/writer Lucy Parham, to bring the sad story of Robert Schumann’s relationship with his wife, Clara, and the composer Johannes Brahms, to vivid life.
The traditional closing choral event featured another return appearance, when the young singers of Côr y Cwm repeated their triumph of two years previously, under their remarkable conductor, Elin Llywelyn Jones, in front of a capacity, and highly appreciative audience. As in previous years there was a full programme of free Lunchtime Recitals and Coffee Concerts, with performances by highly gifted local musicians, including students from both the Chethams School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and it is worth mentioning that one of these drew the largest attendance in the Festival’s short history, when an audience of over 350 crammed into St. Teilo’s for the lunchtime event.
Finally, the Festival was able to develop its crucial programme of musical education, with visits to local schools by members of the Vida Guitar Quartet and members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. If not for any other reason, the mixture of delight, coupled with such enthusiasm on the part of the youthful participants in the various master classes would, in itself, be eloquent and adequate justification for what we are striving to achieve in Llandeilo each summer.
From all the positive feed-back we have been receiving it is clear, I think, that the 2014 Festival was one of the best ever. Those present at the gala opening event will not need reminding of the thrilling performance of Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus”. It is a very long time indeed since this magnificent work was last performed in this part of Wales and I think we can congratulate ourselves on what was a truly memorable experience, with the John S. Davies Singers recapturing the choral perfection which had marked last year’s performance of “Messiah”. Wonderfully supported by the brilliant playing of the Westward Chamber Orchestra, and with four outstanding vocal soloists, all it needed was the inspirational conducting of John himself and, as always, this remarkable maestro obliged!
Of course, the higher the standard of an opening event such as this, the more difficult it is to maintain such musical excellence throughout Festival week. It is good to be able to report therefore that, just as it had started, so it continued. We were expecting something very special from the St.Petersburg String Quartet the following night and we were not to be disappointed. The perfection of string tone in Borodin’s exquisite second quartet had a rapt audience hanging on every note and the rapturous applause of a full church said it all. That was not the end of the Russian magic however for, on the following day, the members of the quartet were at Tre-gib (Ysgol Bro Dinefwr) in Ffairfach, where they gave a master-class for music pupils from that and other schools in the area. This, I know, was the experience of a lifetime for the young pupils concerned and an illustration of the rich potential for musical education which stems from the visit of such distinguished Festival artists to Llandeilo.
The stage was now set for a quite different kind of virtuosity, involving woodwind, rather than string, players. When one speaks of woodwind prowess the first name which would come into most people’s minds is that of the world’s leading clarinet virtuoso, Michael Collins. When he and the other members of the famous London Winds ensemble broke into the opening bars of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri overture we suspected that we were in for another evening of delight, and so it turned out.
The brilliance of the Eden Stell Guitar Duo’s recital in Newton House had the audience on the edge of their seats and was a valuable reminder of what “real” guitar playing is all about, in an age when “four chord merchants” enjoy such huge reputations. This time there was a very successful master class in the Civic Hall for over sixty pupils from Ysgol Teilo Sant, Llandeilo C.P. School and Ysgol Ffairfach, who must have gone away with their eyes opened to this exciting new world. The traditional Jazz evening at the Cawdor attracted another capacity audience and there was an evening of exquisite song from the Sicilian diva Nuccia Focile, with her fine accompanist, Garry Matthewman, who contributed some delightful solo items of his own).
Then came something totally different. “”An Odyssey of Love” told the absorbing story of the relationships between composer Franz Liszt and the two remarkable women in his life. Two of Britain’s most familiar actors, Joanna David and Henry Goodman, portrayed the characters to perfection, with the wonderful music of the composer beautifully played by concert pianist, Lucy Parham.
Even after all this there were still two treats in store. For the final concert in St.Teilo’s one of Wales’s newest young choirs, Côr y Waun Ddyfal, made their Festival debut to great acclaim. The “Welsh” evening has of course become a Festival tradition and it is a consistent joy to welcome such ebullient young singers, who never fail to bring with them that infectious enthusiasm which audiences find so appealing. On this occasion however the choir were joined by a young musician who is fast becoming something of a legend in Wales, where his record of successes in the Urdd and other eisteddfodau has marked him out as someone very special. Charlie Lovell-Jones had been in Italy on a school trip until the day before but fortunately he made it back to Llandeilo in time. Having done so he proceeded to give a brilliant account of himself and it is obvious that this is a young musician who is going places!
Which brings us to another superb young musician, who can be said to have already arrived. Cellist Laura van der Heijden won the BBC Young Musician title in 2012, to huge acclaim, and it was she who rounded off this lovely week of music-making with a recital in the beautifully restored Aberglasney Mansion. Partnered by a superb pianist in Alison Rhind Laura demonstrated a consummate mastery of her instrument, as well as a maturity beyond her years. On a perfect summer evening, in such a charming setting, this was the perfect way to bring the Festival to a close.