Review: MusicFest 2012

IT’S that time of year once again when the start of the Proms season sees classical music reaching the public eye, or, at least, it would do were it not for the 24/7 Olympic coverage that seems to have taken over to the point that any other form of entertainment is viewed as blasphemous and naysayers are shunned from dusk to dawn for a lack of patriotism, ‘Olympic spirit’ and general joie de vivre.

It was refreshing then to see such an impressive display of musical talent on show in Aberystwyth at the annual international festival of classical music that is MusicFest. This year’s festival held a special poignancy following the death of long time supporter Sylvia Kingswood earlier this year, to whom the proceedings were dedicated.

The opening night kicked off with wonderful series of cello concertos from Guy Johnson, a virtuoso performer displaying masterful style and accompanied by Tom Poster, a previous winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Yearwho is a regular performer at MusicFest. The only dubious notes of the performance were those included in the score for the Kiss on Wood, described in the programme as a gesture of love; presumably it can only be love for the performer that would make someone subject their eardrums to the piece. Beethoven, Faure and Brahms concertos more than made up for the one questionable piece, however, and allowed cellist and pianist together to demonstrate exactly how a good concerto can be best performed.

Poster, who performed in a number of concerts throughout the week’s packed schedule, and was described by one regular attendee as “very close to genius”, said:

“It is always a great pleasure to play in Aberystwyth and I’ve enjoyed this year’s concerts more than I have in quite a while.”

The week’s programme included lunchtime and evening performances and everything from masterclasses on conducting to a students’ summer school and even a practical psychology workshop on dealing with stress. The level of talent on display, from talented young school pupils to those in the evening of their careers was impressive to say the least, and it would surprise me greatly if even the most seasoned performer didn’t find something of use to add to their repertoire through the course. I should point out to one of the lecturers, however, that I’m pretty sure “yummily” is not in the OED.

The programme was further enhanced by a series of ‘Foyer concerts’ in the Arts Centre before the main performances each evening, giving up and coming musicians an opportunity to showcase their talents, while Cello music took centre stage once more as a series of performances of Russian and American Cello Music were opened for free to all comers.

Wednesday saw the Orion Symphony make their 2012 MusicFest debut, the first of two concerts, with the second closing the show on Saturday night. Led by their principal conductor Toby Purser, who also took conducting masterclasses through the course of the week, the orchestra made an immediate impact with the breathtaking Schumann Symphony No 4 in D minor. This was unfortunately followed by the world premiere of a piece which, while I’m sure it was well played, seemed to have been written by a man who thought that freeform jazz just didn’t go far enough in terms of lack of tonality, rhythm or congruity. Having been unable to dissolve from my chair, in spite of the grating aid provided by what we shall, for want of a better term, call music, the interval provided a welcome respite and a much needed stiff drink. It was with a certain amount of trepidation therefore that I returned to the auditorium in the second half; fortunately, such bravery was rewarded by one of the best sessions of the entire week.

Personal highlights of the week were the performances of the Sacconi Quartet, who played two concerts with numerous other performers, and who have also been playing this year’s Proms in London. Particularly impressive was the Welsh Premiere of Paul Patterson’s Quartet No.2, which took an old English Morris Dance theme and adapted it for such diverse forms of music as American Boogie and Australian Waltz, somehow incorporating Waltzing Matilda while doing so.

Speaking to The Courier, Robert Grayston, the assistant event organiser, was pleased with the outcome of the event, saying:

“Everything has gone very well. The concerts have been enjoyed by the students attending the summer school, as well as members of the public coming in from Aberystwyth and elsewhere. Friends of MusicFest, who have worked particularly hard to help bring the event together, have been particularly enthusiastic, and most importantly everyone has been really enjoying the music.”

The enthusiasm of the long standing supporters ‘Friends of MusicFest’ was also inspiring, with their work through the course of the last year raising £10,000 in support for students to attend the masterclasses. Perhaps my greatest regret about the week was the somewhat stratospheric average age of the audiences; granted, classical music is not best known for its following amongst the young, and out of term time, Aber’s student population dwindles hugely, however I suspect that with better advertising MusicFest could find at least a core of dedicated younger advocates in the years to come, it certainly deserves to.