Lower Machen Festival

Classic star Hannah Stone

Classic star Hannah Stone

First published in Music

It is late June and the festival season is in full swing. Whatever your tastes there is something out there for everyone to enjoy on a warm summer evening (or, more accurately, as you put on your sou’wester).

I spent much of last week at one of the gems of the Classical music calendar ‘The Lower Machen Festival”.

Having not attended for some years I was quickly reminded of what I’d been missing. Here was world class music-making on the doorstep. Just 10 minutes’ drive away and I was able to hear the highest possible standard of music played in the most perfect of surroundings.

The calibre of artist was truly astounding. The distinguished piano virtuoso Peter Donohoe enthralled the audience with Schumann, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. There were two internationally- renowned harpists in Hannah Stone and Catrin Finch. There were diverse chamber groups the Baroque music of Passacaglia, the Eroica‚ string quartet in Debussy and the Schubert ensemble in Romantic piano quartets. There was also a memorable opening orchestral concert at The Riverfront featuring Gareth Jones‚ polished young band the Welsh Sinfonia. The artistic directors of the festival, Peter and Alison Esswood, are to be congratulated for putting together such a programme of excellence.

Welsh music was particularly well represented at this year’s festival with new music from Geraint Lewis (featuring Catrin Finch in his programmatic harp concerto), a festival commission from Lisa Mears, and another new work from the composer/pianist Huw Watkins, originally from Gwent and with a rapidly expanding international reputation. This commitment to introducing contemporary music is to be applauded.

Youth and education were also themes running through the event. With this in mind there were afternoon masterclasses given by pianists Lucy Parham and Peter Donohoe. One evening showcased the talents of two of Wales‚ most prominent young stars Hannah Stone (Royal harpist to HRH Prince Charles) and the baritone Gary Griffiths. Other performers were even younger with a memorable afternoon recital given by the 2012 Young Musician finalist Christopher Dunn on the tuba and there was a welcome appearance by singers from St Joseph’s High School directed by Nick Bristow.

As is often the case with so much happening in a short space of time audience sizes were variable and some of the midweek concerts suffered for this. By contrast there were good numbers at the highly successful opening concert at The Riverfront and for the wonderfully intimate piano recitals at the end of the week.

The closing concert of the festival , devoted to the music of Chopin, was played by one of the country’s leading pianists, Lucy Parham, with readings from Dame Harriet Walter and Guy Paul, in a portrait of the composer.

Now I look forward to another festival that in Usk, and a visit of two legends (no other description would be sufficient) of the jazz world as the clarinet of Acker Bilk and the trumpet of Kenny Ball bring some of the sounds of New Orleans to Gwent.

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