I know I often have a tendency to grumble in my weekly column but not this week…
The Swansea Festival is back!
The festival is back with a bang, a statement of intent, a concert featuring the best in the world who also represent the best of us…including; Sr Karl Jenkins, Huw Edwards, Catrin Finch and The Swansea Philharmonic Choir.
It’s been a tough 4 years but through a lot of hard work and determination the Festival returns with a special concert which I hope is a foretaste of things to come.
I don’t think any of us involved in the Festival could have imagined it would be so long until our return and along the road I think some people doubted we would ever have a Festival again. Just like so many organisations the Festival Board have met up on a regular basis over Zoom to discuss the Festival future including the very real question did it have a future at all.
It all seemed so different as the crowds left the Brangwyn Hall after the final concert of the 2018 Festival. During the previous week we had enjoyed a diverse programme of events including concerts by The Marmen Quartet, the Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and The Gould Piano Trio.
We had a day celebrating Swansea Composer Daniel Jones, A ‘Psychohistory Sound Installation’ at Swansea Museum, a commission which the Festival had helped fund. We had supported, Steve Balsamo’s Writing Circle, a concert by Guitarist Milos, The Swansea Fringe Festival as well as partnering with the immersive theatrical experience ‘Now the Hero’. An experience which started on Swansea Beach and ended up with Eddie Ladd walking down the Swansea Guildhall clock tower!!!
As you can imagine a Festival on that scale is a massive undertaking in terms of administration, planning and of course money. Whilst the Festival Board wanted to be ambitious in future planning we also realised that with the pandemic rearing it’s ugly head every few months we also had to be cautious in how we attempted to breathe life back into the festival without overcommitting resources.
At one of our regular board meetings in some of the darkest days of lockdown the subject of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was raised. It was mentioned that the Lord Lieutenant wondered if the Festival might consider arranging a concert to mark the event.
The Jubilee celebrations would start in June but would stretch out over the following year. The Swansea Festival has traditionally been an autumn affair. Looking at the time we had to plan and looking at projected figures and fears for the pandemic we believed a big concert in October 2022 might be possible…but where do you start.
Huw Tregelles Williams, Former Head of Music BBC Wales and Festival Chair
Huw Tregelles Williams has a remarkable CV and a wonderful contacts book. Born in Gowerton his prodigious musical talent resulted in a career as a soloist before moving into broadcasting where he became Head of Music for BBC Wales. He was for many years the Chair and Artistic Director for the Swansea Festival and is currently one of the Deputy Lord Lieutenants for West Glamorgan. There was no one better to ‘second’ to the role of Festival Planner, organiser and negotiator!!!
Launching the 2018 Festival with the help of sponsors Peter Lynn
I had been asked to take on the role of Chair of the Festival early in 2017. As I looked at the programme that had been planned by artistic director Lyndon Jones for 2018 the stand out event for me was The Final Concert. Lyndon had worked hard to commission a new work by Sir Karl Jenkins for a concert that would feature the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus. The reason I was so pleased was that I often think we are no different to other places in the world when we consider the Bible verse in John 4 v44
‘A prophet has no honour in his own country’
Sir Karl Jenkins conducting the ‘Stayathomechoir.com’
Sir Karl is one of the most successful living composers in the world. He has written music for Sir Bryn Terfel, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Evelyn Glennie and the London Symphony Orchestra. One of my favourite pictures of Sir Karl in concert is on his Facebook page. He stands facing a choir of thousands who are joined by many hundreds more on a massive screen.
Sir Karl with poet Amineh Abou Kerech at the Swansea Festival 2018
For our concert in 2018 Sir Karl had been commissioned to write a new work and chose to set a poem written by a young Syrian refugee. The Poem ‘Lamentation’ had won the Betjeman Prize and we were delighted that Amineh Abou Kerech and her parents could join us for its world premiere. As Amineh was presented with flowers and took her bow the whole Brangwyn Hall audience rose to its feet. It was a truly amazing moment which went far beyond a musical experience.
Sir Karl Jenkins shares his earliest memories of the Swansea Festival
That concert sold out in no time at all. We had visitors to the city from across the world because they wanted to be there for the premier of a new work by Sir Karl Jenkins.
In planning our first concert back after such a long break we wondered, might we be able to commission another new work from ‘The Maestro’ as I call him.
Huw Tregelles soon started making calls. The decision was made to construct a programme which reflected some of the most popular works associated with the 70 year reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The programme would include Royal favourites by Handel, Hubert Parry, Walton as well as works by a number of Welsh composers.
Harpist Catrin Finch
Sir Karl said he would be amenable to our commission and felt he would have enough time to write a new work. Huw thought it would be good to feature as many World Class Welsh artistes as possible. Harpist Catrin Finch had also featured in that final 2018 Festival concert. She had recorded an album with Sir Karl. Maybe the new commission could feature harp?
Then Huw approached the British Sinfonietta and the Swansea Philharmonic Choir and baritone Steffan Lloyd Owen.
Conductor Jonathan Rogers
The Choirs MD and conductor Jonathan Rogers is a local boy who agreed to conduct the Orchestra on the non-Karl Jenkins works. The Orchestra Manager David Danford had grown up in West Cross and his early orchestral experiences had been at the Swansea Festival. It really felt that we had people involved who loved the Festival and knew how important it had been encouraging them on their own musical journey.
Once Sir Karl heard he had a choir as well as Harpist and orchestra to write for it soon became clear this should be a choral work. Karl had written a work for the opening of the Millennium Centre and had worked with Welsh Poet Grahame Davies. Grahame was approached and also said yes. The title of the work would be ‘This Faithful Life’ to reflect the significance of 70 years of service by the Queen.
With such a prestigious concert on our hands we knew we needed the right person to host the concert. Within days of a request being sent to Huw Edwards we had an email saying he would be delighted to join us.
This will be a very special concert. We are expecting to welcome to the region people from all over the world who want to be there for the Premier of a new Choral work by Sir Karl Jenkins.
These are baby steps for the Festival but with your help and support we really hope to build on this and extend the Festival year on year.
For more information and to book tickets please go to https://swanseafest.com/