A week today, hopefully, the plans that started with a conversation nearly 2 years ago will finally come to fruition. Forgive me if I still sound nervous but the first Swansea Festival concert in 3 years has not been a straightforward affair.
As the curtain metaphorically dropped on the Swansea Festival in 2018 we knew that we would probably take a sabbatical as we regrouped and planned for the future. We had finished on a really high note. The final concert of the Festival featured a new festival commission, ‘Lamentation’ from Sir Karl Jenkins at a sold out Brangwyn Hall.
We knew that going forward funding was going to be an issue. With austerity biting hard and with food banks becoming an everyday part of many lives, looking for public funding was going to be harder than in previous years. But as we started to plan in 2019 for a new festival in 2020 nobody could have foreseen the tragedy of Covid and how the world would change.
Like many artistes and arts organisations our first move was simply to postpone planned events hoping that this disease would soon run its course. Whilst not being able to meet in person the board would regularly keep in touch via email or the new-fangled must have tool ‘Zoom’.
It was when we heard that the Edinburgh Festival had decided to cancel their 2020 festival we finally decided that we needed to hold fire on making any concrete plans and wait to see where the world was when the pandemic was all over.
It was in March 2021 that the idea was first mooted. Following a meeting with the Lord Lieutenant we explored whether we might be able to work together to plan a concert to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Right at the start of the conversation was desire to work with talent that had a world wide reputation but with local roots. With Sir Karl Jenkins being such a part of the success of our last concert we all felt it would be appropriate to approach Sir Karl with a proposal to commission a new work to relaunch the Festival.
Planning such a big concert requires wisdom and experience to pull everything, and everyone together. Huw Tregelles Williams has these talents in abundance. He had been Head of Music for BBC Wales and also Artistic director and Festival Chair for many years.
I’ve recently interviewed Huw for a podcast to help promote the concert. It was really interesting to hear how he had put a programme together using the music that has figured heavily in the 70 years reign of the Queen.
Right from outset Huw had wanted the concert to be a Welsh and Swansea celebration and with that in mind he contacted Sir Karl and started the journey to create a new piece of work. I think we were always aware that the Queen’s health was failing, and we needed to be aware of that as we made our plans. With that in mind Grahame Davies the poet was approached to write the text for Sir Karl’s new work and the title ‘This Faithful Life’ would reflect the Queen’s life of service as much as the Platinum Jubilee.
Huw also approached the Swansea Philharmonic Choir to add the Choral tradition to our concert and also asked their musical director Jonathan Rogers to conduct the choir and the British Sinfonietta.
Huw told me a proper Welsh celebration needed a harp. Former Royal Harpist Catrin Finch, as well as being a world class musician, had a long standing connection with The Festival and Sir Karl Jenkins. Huw got on the phone and booked her.
When it came to invite a host Huw had just the man in mind. Huw had a chat with BBC Newsreader Huw Edwards who agreed to host the concert.
The programme was set, the artistes booked, the posters designed, and the tickets went on sale.
What happened next drew upon Huw Tregelles Williams years of experience. As he told me, through years of working in broadcasting he was used to being prepared for the unexpected.
When Huw Edwards made the sad announcement of the passing of the Queen, Huw Tregelles Williams immediately remembered back to a time when he was Head of Music for BBC Wales. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales had been booked for a ‘Prom’ on the day of the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales. The decision was made that the programme would change to reflect the mood of the Nation and Huw decided to insert Faure’s Requiem. All these years later he made no apologies for making a similar, radical change to the second half of our programme.
But of course that scale of change has knock on effects. Faure’s Requiem features a soprano. Immediately the search was on to find a soprano who might be free. We were all delighted when Jonathan Rogers suggested Ellen Williams who had worked with the Swansea Philharmonic on many occasions.
On the whole the first half of the concert remained unchanged as it had been planned as a celebration, a programme full of traditional music associated with coronations; Zadok the Priest, Walton’s March ‘Crown Imperial’, finishing the first half with Hubert Parry’s ‘I Was Glad.’
In between these great ‘Royal’ works we have the new Commission from Sir Karl Jenkins together with 2 of his very popular compositions, Palladio and ‘Tros Y Gareg’.
Of course, once these changes had been made we then had to rename and redesign the concert and change all of the online and social media graphics.
There are so many people to thank for adapting so quickly. Firstly the Choir and Conductor who had already started rehearsing works for the previous programme. The Box Office at the Grand who have had to make numerous changes to our ticketing and of course to Susan Croall, long time Swansea Festival administrator who thought that she had finally given up her responsibilities in 2018 only to be brought back to guide us through all of the finer details involved in such a big undertaking.
As a board we realise that there will be a long road back to where the Festival has been in the past. As we respond to world changes and the new financial realities the new Festival will probably be different to the past. These are our first small steps, dipping our toes into the water, trying to plan ahead without exposing the festival to any unnecessary financial risks.
As a board we know the responsibility on our shoulders to ensure the future of the Festival. We would love you to join with us next Saturday for what promises to be a very special night indeed.
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