Culture

World premiere of new work by acclaimed composer will celebrate outspoken poet

20 Sep 2021 5 minutes Read
Brian Hughes

The world premiere of a lasting tribute to the outspoken Welsh poet Harri Webb will take place at a top music festival.

The new piece written by acclaimed composer Brian Hughes, who lives in Gresford, near Wrexham, will be performed at the North Wales International Music Festival in St Asaph on Sunday, October 3.

According to Hughes, it will be a belated celebration of the centenary of the “magical poet’s birth in Swansea in 1920, a milestone that went largely unnoticed last year.”

The festival is returning with a hybrid event after being held solely online in 2020.

Organisers say the support of the Arts Council of Wales and festival sponsors was crucial in enabling the event to go ahead.

The headline sponsors are the arts-loving care organisation Pendine Park via the Pendine Arts and Community Trust which supports arts and community-based activities across Wales.

This year five concerts will take place in the festival’s traditional home, St Asaph Cathedral, with the London Tango Quintet featuring Craig Ogden on guitar performing on the opening night, Thursday, September 30.

Other highlights include chamber music group Ensemble Cymru, resident orchestra NEW Sinfonia with American pianist John Frederick Hudson, and harp virtuosa Catrin Finch performing with kora player Seckou Keita on the final night, Monday, October 4.

There will also be the Welsh premiere of a new piano concerto by royal composer Paul Mealor which was jointly commissioned by the festival, along with the world premiere of another accomplished Welsh composer, Jon Guy.

Family Affair – Miriam and Daniel Hughes

Brian Hughes is also part of Family Affair, including son Daniel and daughter Miriam, who will also be performing at the festival with tenor Dafydd Jones who will be singing the songs based on Webb’s poetry.

Part two will be a virtual festival starting on November 15, when recordings of the concerts in the cathedral will be available online, along with a series of other performances recorded elsewhere.

Hughes revealed that one of his biggest regrets is that he never responded to a letter which the poet wrote to him many years ago.

He said: “It was one of those times when other things in life got in the way and I never got round to replying but I always wished I had.”

Hughes hopes his new work may in some way make up for the lack of a major Harri Webb centenary celebration.

It is a cycle of nine songs inspired by Webb’s first collection of poetry The Green Desert, which was published in 1969.

Hughes said: “There is no doubt he was a riotous personality, a diehard socialist and a bohemian character with a capacity to outrage especially those in political circles and leading figures of the church.

“But his talent for satire and the sharpness of his wit are in my view unsurpassed. His turn of phrase can be beautiful, or pointedly comical but he was also something of a mystic man and some of his expressions are deeply soulful. I want to honour Webb’s words.”

‘Wonderful’

Webb’s poetry texts will be screened in the cathedral as the new song cycle composition is performed.

Hughes, 82, is widely regarded as among the foremost choral and orchestral composers in Wales.

Born in Ponciau, he began playing piano aged seven and as a child he would often go with his father, who was the Rhos Male Voice Choir’s accompanist, to listen to the choir rehearse and perform.

On reaching adulthood he went on to enjoy a lifetime career in music including as chorus master and head of opera music staff at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. His compositions have been widely performed by professional and amateur choirs and leading names in the music profession in Britain and his talented son, Daniel, on clarinet.”

He has also been regularly commissioned to produce new works, including for Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Cymru, and in 2016 he was commissioned to write a grace for Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge.

While The Green Desert Song Cycle premiere takes up one half of Brian’s festival concert appearance, the other half will see him performing with Family Affair, a small ensemble comprising himself on piano, his daughter Miriam on flute and his son Daniel on clarinet.

They will perform a repertoire of songs and dances from Norway, Romania and Wales featuring works by Grieg, Bartok, and Brian’s own arrangements of three traditional Welsh folk songs.

Ann Atkinson, the festival’s Artistic Director, said: “It will be so wonderful to be back actually in the cathedral with a live audience and we are very grateful to the Arts Council of Wales and festival sponsors for their continued support in helping us do this.

“But we are also deeply aware that last year’s digital festival reached a worldwide audience. With that in mind part two of this year’s festival will be a series of free online concerts in November for the people who’ve been following us from America, from across Europe, and right across the world as far afield as New Zealand – as well as those closer to home.

“This will give us the best of both worlds because, as well as providing the opportunity to enjoy live music in the cathedral once again, we will also be able to reach out to a global audience.

“The concert with Brian Hughes and Family Affair will be a real treat. Their programmes always embrace the old and the new, the familiar and the unknown, with the emphasis always on presenting a vibrant and stimulating experience for the audience.”

Festival tickets are available online 24/7, from Theatr Clwyd, Mold – 01352 344101 (Monday – Saturday, 10am- 5pm) or Cathedral Frames, St Asaph – 01745 582929 (Wednesday – Friday, 10am – 4.30pm). For more information about the North Wales International Music Festival please visit www.nwimf.com

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