I’ve just returned from a land of legends on the Gower Peninsula, in south-west Wales, where wonderful music has been drifting out of tiny churches and across the green hills that seem to roll into the sea.
For me, the Gower Festival is up there with all of those classic British summer season treats – the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, RHS flower shows, Glastonbury and the Proms. Better still, it’s a little less crowded!
Tickets to the festival are accessible, from £5-£13, and although they do get harder to obtain when world-class musicians, such as local composer Sir Karl Jenkins, graces the festival at a chapel where there’s only capacity for 60 guests!
Lark supported a concert at the delightful St George’s Church in Reynoldston, where pianist Craig White and outstanding young cellist Jamal Aliyev, set my heart on fire with a recital of romantic cello music.
Jamal Aliyev and Craig White receive an encore at St George’s Church, Reynoldston
The concert was 120% sold out with 105 people packing into the beautiful church, just off the village green and next to the fire-cum-ambulance station.
It’s no wonder Jamal is fast-becoming one of the most sought-after cellists, so look out for him making his debut performance at the BBC Proms on July 20 for a celebration of composer John Williams' 85th Birthday.
Cellist Jamal Aliyev signs autographs in Gower
I stayed in Gower for another night and at St Cenydd's Church, which dates to the 6th century and overlooks the sea at Llangennith, Russian piano duo Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy also demonstrated why they are such stars of the piano world. Their mesmerising performances of Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor for piano four hands, Divertissement for piano four hands was nothing short of astonishing.
Every one of the 14 venues is a sell-out – so how does this festival on a remote peninsular of Wales manage to attract such sought-after musicians? Well, each church has fine acoustics, the settings are sublime (standing outside the church in the early evening sunshine with a glass of wine during the interval was another delight!) but, according to the locals and musicians, it’s all down to the hard-working festival team who are led and inspired by artistic director Gordon Back.
Gordon, himself an internationally acclaimed pianist, has been putting back everything he loves about music in his former home county.
“Gower is a small but unique festival and it has become a great passion of mine – a home from home,” Gordon told me during a concert interval.
Pianists Pavel Kolesnikov, right, and Samson Tsoy, take a bow at St Cenydd’s Church, Llangennith
Gordon ensures there is music for all from string quartets to jazz, the Wales International Academy of Voice singers and even the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra arrived this year – so just imagine the organisation and logistics to get everything running smoothly.
Even the festival’s Steinway grand piano has to be moved from church to church, and tuned each time during the fortnight, and it was entertainment watch it been so carefully rolled down the hill at St Cenydd’s ready for the concert.
The festival's Steinway Grand piano graces St Cenydd's Church
Host families put up musicians in the local villages, as well as ferrying them to and from the station and venues’ volunteers serve drinks during the evening, they dress the venues with floral arrangements and even arrange shuttle buses to more remote settings. Everything works like clockwork.
Gordon said: “We are lucky to have such accommodating hosts but we had to use a hotel for the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra and that was stretching it! Luckily we found a kind sponsor.”
I found the Gower Peninsula a place of history, myth and legend – and enjoyed the slalom past Welsh ponies, sheep and cows where Arthur’s Stone stands tall on Cefn Bryn.
It’s said that King Arthur found a pebble in his shoe, threw it across the Burry Estuary and it landed on Cefn Bryn – having been touched by the hand of the King, the stone grew and grew and was held up by the other, smaller stones in admiration.
To me, it seems that Gordon Back is fast-becoming the 21st-century legend in beautiful Gower, ensuring different and exciting music is performed to the highest standard in a part of the world where music has always been so important. Perhaps with such wizardry, I should call him Merlin!
The Gower Festival continues until July 15, 2017. Looking ahead to 2018, become a Gower Festival Friend (annual fee £10 or £15 for two people living at the same address) so you can apply for tickets one month before the box office opens to the public.