Festival director JOHN METCALF in conversation with PAUL CORFIELD GODFREY
PCG: The Vale of Glamorgan Festival has been going for quite a long while, whereas other festivals in South Wales, some of which have also specialised in twentieth century music, have died the death over the years. What do you attribute that to?
JM: Well, we’ve got so much going for us. It’s hard to know where to start; there’s really quite a lot of positives. You know what it’s like as a composer; you’re always a composer. So some kind of potential performance of your work is very important; because when you know it’s like when as a parent you have a young child – you don’t quit after five years, you don’t even give up after eighteen, you need to keep going. So it’s that long-term process of evolution, because the desire to express new music and to express all the aspects of the human condition doesn’t stop at any point even if the circumstances of society change.
So one thing we’ve got going for us is that we’ve been able to do it for a long time; and because of that we have a wonderful audience – a really knowledgeable, sensitive, interested audience. They know they’re not going along for an easy time; although, let’s face it, a lot of modern music’s really quite attractive these days. So the second thing we’ve got going for us is that really loyal audience base – a really liberal, intelligent audience who are prepared to make the journey with us.
A third wonderful feature about the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, which I doubt hardly any festival in Europe can better, is that we have the most superb venues. The Vale comes to the very fringes of the capital city in Cardiff, so we can use the national institutions in Cardiff – Hoddinott Hall, St David’s Hall, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – but also the Vale itself is a wonderful historical region with old castles and priories such as St Donat’s Castle, the newly restored Dyffryn House, the pier at Penarth. And once you start to programme music specially for those spaces (and you can do that to a certain extent) you can say to somebody “Why don’t you write something to be performed on the pier?” Because if you look around, you can play more than just Brahms quartets; and that’s another thing we’ve got going for us.
But I suppose the main thing is that while the music can still be very challenging, it’s also incredibly exciting and beautiful; and whatever the weaknesses of the post-modern era, the fact is that we are in a post-modern era, and what most people think of as being modern music is the music of people who flourished in the mid-twentieth century, and most of those are now 80 or 90 or dead, and are not with us any more. The musical tradition has moved on, and so there’s a variety of music and it’s possible to plan a programme that can frame pieces where people have a recognition of the language of the piece against pieces where they don’t have that; but it’s not all like going into a room where people are speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand a word of. If that happens, you switch off immediately because you think “I don’t understand anything”; while if you can build bridges to stylistic understanding, then that really helps the audience.
PCG: I think I would say that I’ve certainly noticed that the audience clearly trusts your judgment: that you’re not going to put something in front of them that’s meretricious in one way or another, that you’re not going to aurally assault them, even if in the concerts you’re going to give them something challenging. That’s certainly recognizable, even in terms of the sheer number of people who turn up to the concerts.
JM: A few years ago we did a piece called Canto ostinato by Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, and it’s two hours and forty minutes and highly repetitive. But we did it in such a way (in the foyer of the Wales Millennium Centre) that there were many comfortable seats where people could sit or lie down, but they could also leave and come and go. A number of people wandered by, and a surprising number stopped for twenty to twenty-five minutes – rather like listening to twenty or twenty-five minutes from a Wagner opera – and that’s the kind of listening span you’re required to engage with. It was done in such a way that nobody was trapped – they could come and go – but a surprising number of people went the distance. I sat through this piece, and after about an hour-and-a-half my focus wandered a bit. After a ten or fifteen minute period I connected again, and it was a wonderful experience. So yes, it’s not our intention to give the audience a bad time; so I’m really touched that you say we don’t do meretricious things; we do things out of belief.
Also it’s a Festival for contemporary work which is underrated. There’s lot of wonderful composers around with amazing ideas, and we try and make the Festival a place where they can come to work; and a place to savour the work of a composer in depth, so you can get some sense of what’s going on in the tradition. I remember you and me at a concert of Lithuanian music last year, agreeing on some things and disagreeing on others; but I hope we would both agree that we saw a range of music in a good context. You wouldn’t expect to like all of it, but there was plenty to excite and to challenge despite that old platitude that we wouldn’t agree on everything. I’d like to think it’s helpful having a composer programming the Festival, because you can truly respect the work of other people whose ideas may be very different from yours. So I think it’s quite exciting to go into a concert, and there’s a composer who’s come from Denmark and you’re sitting next to the composer. That is such an unusual experience; you really wouldn’t think that, but you can ask the composer “What was that third movement all about?”
PCG; I agree with you that’s it’s vital for composers to experience audience reactions directly rather than living in their own little bubble, and it’s also extremely valuable.
JM: I think if you totally dislike something (I sometimes say to composition students “If you really don’t like something, don’t spend any time on it.”) it’s like sitting there all afternoon and discussing the hobbies you’re never going to do – stamp collecting, hang gliding, whatever. But if you like golf, then tell me about golf, or if you like collecting rare prints, then talk to me about that. Don’t talk to me about what you don’t like; but the more you like something, the more engaged you are. We come back to children again; you know what they like, you love them better than anybody, you’re more engaged with their rights or wrongs, their progress, their lack of progress, their challenges, than you are with anything else. But if you have a blank spot, it’s better to say that “it’s a closed book to me” and move on.
PCG: I would possibly disagree with that, because as a critic and also as a composer I would think it important if I didn’t like something (and it happens) then I would explain why I didn’t like it, or what I found wrong with the piece. But I would never try and be willfully destructive, because that is not what a critic’s about or to my mind should be. A critic’s opinion is still just their opinion; but to simply ignore something it to mind abnegating responsibility.
JM: But one has to start the programme with some belief in the music itself. There are so many pressures on the audience’s experience – a composer may have a position of authority in their own country, the performers may have commissioned that work, there may be other factors – but none of that matters to the audience. They haven’t gone there for the politics of the matter, but it’s really important (and it sounds hard to say) but you’ve got to be really strong about those sorts of decisions. The audience should not feel that a piece has been included purely because it’s so-and-so’s seventieth birthday, and only for that reason, or indeed for any reason other than this is the ideal piece for this concert. That’s what we’re all striving for: to raise the level of honesty and integrity, interest and challenge of the programming.
PCG: In the last generation of Welsh composers, it is interesting to note that Hoddinott, whose works were by and large written to specific commissions, tended to receive single performances with a possible subsequent recording, but very little of his music has survived into the current repertory; whereas William Mathias, a less significant figure when they were both alive, is still given; and I think there is an element of music finding its own level in due course. You are giving a lot of stuff second performances, or first performances in this country, giving time for music to appreciated again, and indeed properly re-evaluated. But a lot of composers don’t get the opportunity to hear works a second time round.
JM: I think it’s certainly the unglamorous role, and when we were planning the publicity for this year’s Festival it was said that we had to have more premières because people won’t be interested in simply hearing the third or fourth performance. What festivals tend to do is undertake one or two ‘festival commissions’ – and for a long time I felt that because of our particular role that we wouldn’t place an emphasis on commissioning new works, but rather that we would explore recent successful commissions, or very recent works most of which were written in the last ten or fifteen years. This is extremely unusual – but that’s what ‘contemporary’ means: not someone who died in 1970, or 1910 even. So we decided to take that approach. We knew we were trying to swim against the tide to some extent; but we thought it was worth trying to interest people in further performances of existing works. And the other thing we’re doing is reflecting the sea-change in the understanding of what music is. At the beginning of the twentieth century music was not only European, but it was German, and it was male. And to some extent it wasn’t even French or British; but whatever the perception of music was, there was no such thing as ‘world music’ – there was folk music (or whatever you liked to call it), but when you look at what there is now!
PCG: Did you want to say anything about the music of Sir John Tavener, featured in this year’s Festival?
JM: You were talking earlier about the legacies of composers. We planned the celebration of the work of John Tavener before he died, and obviously with music such as Tavener’s based on strongly held spiritual beliefs and a style which is certainly sophisticated but is also simple, meant that in his lifetime he got a very mixed press. But there’s no doubt that many many people across the world liked it. What happens when somebody dies is that the music takes its own course, as you said earlier. And so anything that you or I write or say about it will not change what he writes in the future; the work is there, and people will make their choice – to listen, or not. And in the immediate aftermath of his death what is clear is that some people really really love his music; it speaks to them directly, and it has its own particular challenges. So we’re honoured to have the chance to present two major works in one concert, and other pieces of his. And now his music will find its own path. I can’t second-guess what that path will be, but I know there are a lot of people who love the music
PCG: Apart from the featured music of Tavener, the programme for the Festival has a very wide-ranging spectrum of composers.
JM: I remember when I was a student having earnest discussions with composers (whose names I won’t mention) about whether women could really compose, because there weren’t many women composers. There was a time when Elizabeth Maconchy and Elizabeth Lutyens were fighting their way to find a place. You don’t even have that conversation these days; things have moved on. There were writers – Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte – but where were the composers? And so what that presents us with is a tradition of music that is quite altered. And it’s no longer just London, Vienna, New York, Paris any more; it’s Beijing, it’s Chile, and it’s a new tradition. One of the things the Festival is that it’s genuinely international; for example, we’ll have Ensemble Midtvest from Denmark coming, giving works by young composers. So the music is not simply coming from the usual places where there’s lots of wonderful music going on – except that if it’s going on there, we don’t necessarily need to do it here. So there’s a real diversity in our programme. We have for example a wonderful young Belgian quartet, their first appearance in the UK; but when I say Belgian, there are two French nationals, one Belgian and one Japanese person in the quartet. And that makes the point really. It’s not a particular tradition contained within a certain wonderful deeply ingrained tradition of chamber music playing with a hierarchy named after the leader; we’ve moved on.
So I feel that in Wales we can relate without fear to the whole wide world; that we can throw a window open that will benefit us extraordinarily. I know it’s idealistic, but it’s an ideal that I believe in. With the work that’s going on in Wales, we can become a world leader. We have an inspiring new director of Welsh National Opera with an interest in new work, and we’re representing that in the Festival. We have lots of outlets for new music in Wales, and if that is part of a cycle of change while elsewhere in some places things are in retreat, we are on the march; and I’d like to think that some of the idealism and the unfashionable liberal ideas that lie behind the programming means that while everybody else is fighting for what middle ground they can find, that leaves an awful lot of slightly higher ground very accessible.