Taking over a music festival in the time of Covid is an unenviable task. But at Cowbridge, it looks as though two leading musicians have it fully worked out. Here, Nigel Jarrett chats to the artistic directors of the Cowbridge Music Festival, Rosalind Ventris and Joseph Fort.
No music festival at a double crossroads could show a more positive attitude to surviving and emerging from the Covid lockdown than by appointing not just one new artistic director but two. Husband-and-wife team Rosalind Ventris and Joseph Fort have taken over from Cowbridge Music Festival founder Mary Elliott-Rose as the festival begins its second decade.
Their appointment augurs well, because they are both professional musicians: Rosalind is a leading UK viola player and Joseph is a conductor and musicologist based at King’s College London. You don’t have to be a musician to run a music festival but it helps.
Returning to post-pandemic “normality” in 2021 will be an added challenge. Rosalind said that, nevertheless, she and her husband had been trying to think creatively about the opportunities offered by not being able to construct the usual programme. More flexibility, use of digital technology, and the need to work with local businesses were just a few of them. ‘It’s a chance for all concert promoters to be imaginative in more ways than we usually might, perhaps, and we want to make the most of this.’ But as well as these immediate considerations, a vision for the festival was needed.
‘If you had to describe what is at the heart of the Cowbridge Music Festival, it’s world-class music in a warm, welcoming atmosphere,’ she said. ‘Our first job is to help perpetuate and enhance this, by continuing to draw wonderful musicians to perform here. We also want to do more to bring audience members to this beautiful part of Wales: the festival is already well known and loved locally, and we hope that we can promote it more widely to a public that might enjoy visiting Cowbridge and everything this market town has to offer.’
Joseph said a festival should be about concatenation – the throwing together of disparate entities within a single, short time frame, and how they might illuminate and bounce off each other. It’s this area the two were focusing on—thinking about how they could unite future festival programmes around cohesive themes that elicit exciting and compelling combinations of works.
As professional musicians – Rosalind appears widely as a solo artist and in chamber settings, and Joseph is director of performance at King’s, where he directs the choir in recordings on the Delphian label – they have an edge in planning programmes, though Rosalind said the Cowbridge audiences would have to be the judge of that. ‘From a programming perspective, we have an intimate and broad knowledge of music, which helps us to construct programmes and make exciting links between different juxtapositions,’ she said. Joseph thought a good address book was useful when booking musicians. ‘Perhaps most of all it’s the engagement with audiences: as professional musicians we are always thinking about the audience in front of us—what effect the music will have on them—and this is what we’re trying to do here in just the same way,’ he said.
Mary Elliott-Rose and the festival issued a mission statement ten years ago, aimed at demolishing music’s perceived “élitism” while bringing “international artistic excellence” to Cowbridge. The new directors will be continuing to achieve these ideals. Joseph said: ‘Excellence and elitism aren’t the same thing. Excellence speaks to the quality of something, while elitism carries connotations of exclusivity. We square these dual objectives by doing all we can to make excellent music-making available to all, through very reasonable ticket prices for audiences, our outreach programme to schools and care homes, and our various programmes for young performers.’
Another aspect of the festival to which they’ll be giving attention is its traditional mix of genres – classical, folk, jazz etc. – which in other places sometimes leads to a lack of sharp focus. ‘The mix that Cowbridge is known for has grown largely organically over the Festival’s last ten years, and by the demand of its audience,’ Joseph said. ‘Taking a bird’s-eye view of the programme as a whole, one might ask about its structural cohesion, but the value of this wonderful mix lies in an audience member’s “on the ground” experience of it, and the fact that each audience member can forge his/her own pathway through, choosing between the folk, jazz, classical and so on. This is what really matters to us – having something to cater for the tastes of everyone in Cowbridge – and past audience numbers show that the Festival does this really well.’ Rosalind added: ‘Looking ahead, we are planning to introduce a light-touch theme each year, to illuminate natural links between different genres, but not at the expense of diversity and breadth!’
The festival sits in close proximity to another one – the Vale of Glamorgan Festival – which has an international reputation for the contemporary, including the commissioning of work. ‘Cowbridge Music Festival also has a tradition of commissioning works as part of its programme,’ Rosalind said. ‘This year we have commissioned the extremely talented, exciting young Welsh composer Sarah Lianne Lewis to write a work that will be premiered in our 2021 programme.
‘Fortunately, there’s so much wonderful music being written today that there’s very little risk of overlapping programmes with the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and the fact that both festivals have such distinctive personalities and offerings means that we cater readily to our audience bases. Personally, we’re both deeply committed to contemporary music: as we speak I’m working on some solo recordings, prepping to perform new works in the Presteigne Festival in August, and will be recording a CD including commissions with my trio (Trio Anima) for Tŷ Cerdd later in the year too. Joe is just about to record two discs of contemporary choral music by British composers.’
Commissioning costs money, which increasingly often these days comes from private sources as well as public subvention. Sometimes, as in America, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Do the new directors feel there’s any pressure to conform to the expectations of the festival’s supporting groups, particularly those without whose grants it would not exist? ‘Yes,’ said Joseph. ‘But these are perfectly reasonable expectations and are absolutely in line with the Festival’s aims already. Take, for example, the expectations from Welsh grant-giving bodies that funds are used to employ Welsh artists: this makes total sense, and this is what a Welsh festival should be doing anyway. All festivals are reliant on outside funding, and funders have a right to decide how their money should be spent; if the objectives of a charity don’t already fit with the Festival’s own priorities, we don’t apply for the funds in the first place!’
The 2021 festival programme was completed long before the two were appointed, because it was largely rolled over from the cancelled 2020 one. They have been putting some finishing touches to the 2021 programme, ready to unveil it soon. They’ve already started on 2022’s festival.
So what’s special about the Cowbridge Music Festival? And what might the new incumbents do that’s different?
‘Although we probably wouldn’t be the only festival to say this about ourselves, there’s something about the warmth of Cowbridge that seems to be particularly special, and that audiences and performers always speak to,’ Rosalind said. ‘Our first aim will be to continue to foster this, as this really is one of the factors that draws people to us—both performers and audiences.’ Joseph agreed: ‘It’s one of those things that can seem nebulous but is also tremendously important. Why do people go to carol services around Christmas, for example? It’s not necessarily for the music, or for the readings, or for the candles, but for that warm, holistic bodily experience of being in the place. You can’t sell this in a bottle, but you can help to perpetuate it year to year.’
And will all these responsibilities impinge on the two’s professional lives? Joseph spoke for both: ‘It will do the absolute opposite of impinging! (We wouldn’t do it, otherwise!) Being a musician today is about more than playing a lot of notes—it’s about planning projects, creating collaborations, dreaming up and realising ideas. Everything is organic, and everything feeds off and nourishes everything else. For example, we both teach a lot, and are often struck by the ways in which teaching something can clarify our own ways of doing the same thing ourselves.
‘Directing the Festival is about having ideas, making plans, drawing on connections and the like, and these flow easily between the different areas in which we work. Fortunately, we are both the sort of people who thrive on being busy and active, and throwing ourselves into new projects and ideas—and the chance to do this together is of course a very special one to us.’
Since 2014, the violinist Nicola Benedetti has been the festival’s patron. In 2017, Welsh international pianist Llŷr Williams became its associate artist. The festival takes place in the Autumn. Details soon.
Photo Credit: Patrick Allen
Nigel Jarrett writes and reviews for Jazz Journal magazine, and contributes a column called Count Me In. Based in Monmouthshire, he also writes on many subjects for Wales Arts Review. He is the winner of the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Prize for short fiction, and the author of three books of stories, a poetry collection, and a novel. In the last year, he has completed a second novel-type work of fiction, a second poetry collection, and a fourth collection of stories.