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George Vass Interview

Posted on 10 August 2005. © Copyright 2004-2023 Composition:Today

C:T talks to George Vass, conductor and artistic director of the highly successful Presteigne Festival in the Welsh borders, and London's Hampstead & Highgate. Both festivals feature new music prominently, but also crucially pull in faithful audiences.

George Vass
Tell us something about your background.

I studied percussion, composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music and had my ears opened in my very first term at the RAM with performances of the complete words of Varèse – quite a shock at the time. My composition studies were with Richard Stoker and Paul Patterson and towards the end of my studentship at the RAM, I founded my own chamber orchestra, The Regent Sinfonia of London, with whom I gave concerts throughout the UK until the mid-1990s. I gave up professional percussion playing in the mid eighties to concentrate on conducting, and in 1989 was invited to form an orchestra for Adrian Williams at the Presteigne Festival; three years later, the festival board invited me to take up the position of Artistic Director. In 2004, I took on the Artistic Director’s job with the Hampstead & Highgate Festival as well, whilst continuing as a freelance conductor. As a conductor, I have premiered over fifty new works and have made premiere recordings of pieces by Stephen Dodgson, Cecilia McDowall and Donald Francis Tovey. I think I’ve probably been involved in the commissioning of over a hundred new works from British composers.

You have been artistic director to the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts since 1992. Tell us about the festival, its raison d'etre and your role there.

The Presteigne Festival was started in 1983 by composer Adrian Williams and local musicians Gareth and Lynden Rees-Roberts who decided it was important for there to be first class musical performance in the Welsh Border Marches. The acoustics of St Andrew’s Church were so impressive that Presteigne was chosen – and very wisely too! The promotion of new music has long been an important feature at Presteigne, and in 1992 (Adrian’s final year), the festival commissioned twelve pieces from composers from each of the (then) twelve EEC countries. As the interest in contemporary music became a stronger feature, I decided to introduce a composer-in-residence, which started with Hilary Tann in 1994 and has continued with composers including Robin Holloway, David Matthews and Judith Weir. The festival has also always actively supported young artists and composers – and I feel that in the last twelve years I have tried to promote a truly utopian vision of composer, artist and audience member all as equals in a very special, open-minded musical community.

My role is to programme, choose artists, find funding and generally make the whole thing happen. I am helped by an administrator in Presteigne and freelance staff during the actual festival itself.

You also run the Hampstead & Highgate festival. How does that compare, how does it differ (from Presteigne)?

Hampstead & Highgate is completely different in that Londoners have access to so much more live music than the audience in rural Wales. When I took up the post in October 2003, I decided on a local community approach, bearing in mind that the community concerned includes such luminaries as Stephen Kovacevich, John Lill and Angela Hewitt! Several composers live locally too, so I try to include their pieces, and there are plans for birthday celebrations for Hugh Wood and Paul Patterson in 2007. The history of the area is also very important and we try to feature music by a past resident of Hampstead and Highgate each year – Elgar last year, Walton this and Bliss next.

Hampstead & Highgate is a much wider spread festival geographically, and we use ten or so major venues over a period of twelve days. There are fewer concerts than at Presteigne, but we make sure that new music is always in evidence; our first composer-in-residence was David Matthews at the 2005 festival and I would very much like this idea to be developed further in the future. These are early days but I feel sure that, with careful persuasion, audiences will be enticed by the joys of new music in years to come.

Is it a good time to be a festival director in the UK?

Interesting question this one – certainly it has been a real pleasure to direct the Presteigne Festival for the last twelve years. Audiences are very good – just short of 80% in 2004, however, the general slow down in spending is a worry, and audiences for this year’s Hampstead & Highgate festival were down a little on 2004. Having seen the audiences at some of the Proms this year, Nicholas Kenyon’s job is not one I’d like to take on! Sponsorship is becoming even more scarce and, to be frank, I don’t believe the Olympics in 2012 will help in any way.

Do you read unsolicited scores?

No, I’d rather be contacted first by email or telephone, as I usually have a clear idea of a required work’s instrumentation and length; both at the Presteigne and Hampstead & Highgate there are natural limits to what can and cannot be performed – large-scale orchestral pieces and even big ensemble works are often out of the question due to size of venues and instrumental resources.

What excites you about a piece of music - what keeps you interested?

I am most excited by music which comes from a traditional background and is scored for traditional forces, but which, by way of its language and form, has something entirely new to say.

And what turns you off ?

Sprawling, formless pieces which are not practical – it is often quite difficult to persuade musicians to take on new repertoire, and I feel it really does have to be ‘user friendly’, and that they should not have to learn a completely new system of notation in order to perform it. Badly prepared material (whether it is hand-written or computer-set) is also a huge turn off.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

I’d like to see new music bringing people together, and not necessarily as some sort of contrived education project. I know there is an audience out there that has a taste for the new and thrives on good music – whether classical, pop or jazz, that doesn’t matter – but it does need to be good music, and composers really need to connect with their audience again.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Don’t write too much music
Maintain high quality controls on your output
Don’t be afraid to ask performers what they can and can’t do
Show your pieces to your teacher or another composer you hold in high esteem before they are performed
Never give up – you are the future

How can people find out more about you?
and if you’d like to see just how I put my programmes together:

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2023

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