Wednesday 26 February 2014

Every colour in the paint box - an encounter with John Metcalf

John Metcalf
John Metcalf
The 2014 Vale of Glamorgan Festival opens on 8 May and I caught up with the festival's founder and artistic director John Metcalf to talk about the festival and his rather distinctive approach to programming. A composer himself as well as being a former artistic director of the Banff Centre in Canada, Metcalf has devoted the Vale of Glamorgan Festival exclusively to contemporary music. He programmes only works by living composers (the 2014 festival's emphasis on the music of John Tavener being something of a special exception), with many works receiving performances after being consigned to the limbo into which works disappear following their first performance.

Quatuor Tana - photo Vincent Beaume
Quatuor Tana, who appear at this year's festival
photo Vincent Beaume
When John Metcalf founded the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1969 it was an innovative festival which pioneered such things as concerts in private houses and music sponsorship. They also did pioneering work in new music, programming pieces by Henze and Ferneyhough, but not exclusively so. Between 1986 and 1991 John was in Canada, as artistic director of the Banff Centre. When he returned to Wales he was asked to take up the active reins of the festival again. His response was that he would if he could devote the festival to just contemporary music. And that is what has happened.

John talks about longevity being important in new music, saying you cannot build an audience in three years. His devoting the Vale of Glamorgan Festival entirely to new music was partly a response to what he calls the ruses audiences use to avoid the new music elements in mixed programmes. If you attend the festival you cannot avoid new music, and John describes the decision as very liberating. Whilst he admits it has not been easy, audiences know what the festival stands for and they come for that.

Dyffryn House
Dyffryn House, one of the venues at this year's festival
The festival is based in the Vale of Glamorgan which stretches all the way to Penarth on the edge of Cardiff. This means that though they lack a concert hall, the major venues in Cardiff are accessible to them and the Vale of Glamorgan itself is blessed with beautiful castles, churches and priories. The pier at Penarth has just been re-opened after restoration, as has Dyffryn House and both venues feature in this year's festival.

John describes the audience as both loyal and forgiving, admitting that things do not always work out and that it is inevitable that an artistic director will make mistakes. The festival's programmes are aimed not at the specialist but at the interested person, described by John as the sort of people who would be interested to read the Turner prize short list. But he takes the perhaps unfashionable view that it is necessary to help the audience reconnect with new music. His programmes mix the wonderful with the difficult, the accessible with the less so. He talks of how occasionally a work comes along with which audiences connect in a big way and that he hopes eventually that they will join up the dots and develop their interest in all the music in between.

John candidly admits that he believes in getting more people into concerts by 'giving them sugar' on the basis that you can then help their tastes and interests develop. But he is firm that he has no interest in dumbing down. You only have to glance at this year's programme, with a 65 minute choral piece from Tarik O'Regan, a major John Tavener choral concert and a programme from Juice Vocals. John feels that it is important to flatter the audience's level of interest and to encourage them. He tries to do this by reclaiming the musical language of the vernacular for contemporary music.  But he is also a fan of challenging difficult music, he just does not want to be forced into a corner with a restricted vocabulary, and wants to have access to 'every colour in the paintbox'.

John describes the audience as mostly his own age (he was born in 1946) and comments that festival directors should invest more in developing their older members of the audience, pointing out that it is the older age group which has the time to devote to listening, learning and appreciating.

The festival has developed into a significant event. Partly this is a result of the economic climate, as other people are more careful with their planning, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival stands out and has been garnering more support and has just gone through a period of expansion. For John it helps that the festival has a clarity of purpose with its devotion to living composers and music written recently. He believes this makes it easier to pitch the festival to people.

Duncan Ward - photo Rachel Shakespeare
Duncan Ward who conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the festival
photo Rachel Shakespeare
John Metcalf clearly retains and enthusiasm for new music and talks of how much attractive new music there is. Though he feels that it is more difficult in the post-modern era as the critical framework is not so secure as under modernism. But this has advantages, he points out that nowadays you would never hear the sort of earnest discussion about whether women were as capable as composers as men, the sort of discussion he heard too frequently in his youth.

John was in Beijing in December judging a competition for young (under 40) composers and says that there are interesting things happening in China. John has selected one work from the competition and it will be played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at their concert on 14 May 2014.

Tarik O'Regan - photo Denise Ding NY Bhodi
Tarik O'Regan - photo Denise Ding NY Bhodi
Another work that John cites is Tarik O'Regan's Irish Colloquy, for choir, guitar and drum, pointing out that choral works without orchestra this length are rare and that is was nice to be able to feature a big single work, rather than the usual selection of shorter choral pieces. The guitar plays interludes during the piece, and these will feature on their own at the opening gala (May 8) which John describes as being like a table of contents to the festival. There are plans to move this concert earlier, to a month before the festival proper, and John talks of trying to keep a small presence outside the festival period.

There are other changes afoot. Though John will continue the policy of presenting composers' back catalogues, the festival will be doing more commissioning. John talks of how the Vale of Glamorgan Festival has always swum against the tide, and now that there is less money around for commissions, the festival is moving that way.

In many ways John Metcalf is an idealist. he talks of how repertoire should be the foundation of a festival and how a festival director should be able to programme the works and then choose the performers. Whereas too often at the moment he chooses the performers who then inform the repertoire choices. But John is an idealist with his feel firmly on the ground and you feel that the people of the Vale of Glamorgan have their festival in capable but interesting hands.

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival runs from 8 May to 17 May 2014, further information from the festival website.

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