Herefordshire People: Organising the Three Choirs Festival

PUBLISHED: 16:13 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:40 28 February 2013

Geraint Bowen

Geraint Bowen

Geraint Bowen talks to Nigel Jarrett about organising the annual, ancient and enduring Three Choirs Festival.

Geraint Bowen talks to Nigel Jarrett about organising the annual, ancient and enduring Three Choirs Festival.

WHAT goes around comes around every three years with a fond farewell and then a welcome from Geraint Bowen, Hereford Cathedral's organist and master of choristers, and his counterparts at Worcester and Gloucester.

The roundabout in question is the Three Choirs Festival, probably the oldest event of its kind in the world, with rotates among the three cathedrals each summer, this year stopping at the portals of Hereford's from August 8 to 15 for a celebration of another cyclical event - the passing of time.

That theme has emerged from the programming for 2009, which includes Haydn's oratorio The Seasons in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's death, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and Britten's Spring Symphony, as well as the sublimely autumnal Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss.

Although the three cathedral heads of music aid, comfort and confer for what is an enjoyable but onerous task each August, it is down to the one at the host cathedral to bear the major responsibilities of organisation and performance. This year, Geraint Bowen is at the helm.

Musical history wouldn't have been the same without the influence of the church in preserving manuscripts and providing the congenial surroundings for monks to maintain musical traditions and develop them. So a cathedral-based music festival shouldn't come as any surprise, and the days when secular works and even controversial religious ones raised eyebrows or hackles have more or less disappeared.

However, the Three Choirs still has its critics, who believe it is too conservative and too deferential towards Elgar and his musical ilk, considering it has the best part of 300 years of musical history to draw on. Mr Bowen thinks the reputation undeserved. He also dismisses suggestions that the festival's very longevity might be a burden

"We should remember that Elgar's relationship with the Three Choirs wasn't as straightforward as people assume," he said. "None of his three choral masterpieces - The Kingdom, The Apostles and The Dream of Gerontius - was commissioned by the festival or first performed at it. But, nonetheless, he was intimately involved with the festival for all those years. He was friends with the organist here and there are at least two people alive in Herefordshire that I am aware of who sang under Elgar's direction at the festival when they were choirboys.

"I don't think that the festival's long history is a burden. But it could be. We still have to make sure that people think of it as a modern musical event and not as something set in some 1920s aspic. That's because not far behind Elgar you have Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, two great figures closely associated with the Three Choirs."

And many others from that time on, steadily moving away from the years when even oratorios were frowned upon, Elgar's Catholic Gerontius was rebuffed by the Anglican authorities (the Dean of Gloucester banning it from 'his' cathedral even when it had been accepted at Hereford and Worcester) and, much later, when audience applause was still conventionally stifled.

One of the more recent blows in this gradual relaxation of stiffness was struck at Gloucester in 2001 with the performance of A Mass of Life by the ferociously atheistic Delius, who in 1904 would have brought the Dean out in a cold sweat. Festival organisers and cathedral authorities are now much more broad-minded

"What's really very important to remember is that the festival has had a great commitment to commissioning new music, certainly throughout the 20th century," Mr Bowen said. "We are now right up there with those who are continuing to do that. A perception may have grown up that the festival is conservative but the trouble with perceptions is that they often lag behind the reality. I don't think Three Choirs can be accused of conservatism now."

This year's composer-in-residence is John McCabe, who is celebrating his 70th year and can claim to be a favourite of Three Choirs, which for 2009 has commissioned from him, and will be presenting, an orchestral arrangement of his Songs of the Garden, originally conceived for vocal and other forces. More seasonal fare. There will be other 'firsts' for him and the festival closes with his The Gathering Wave, a community event involving young and adult singers from across Herefordshire.

"When we commission a choral piece the composer has to understand that it is not going to be a work that the choir will be able to rehearse to the exclusion of everything else," Mr Bowen explained. "It has to slot in with the other works being sung. We don't want something ridiculously easy and unchallenging but at the same time if we get something written, say, in 16 parts, it's going to take us, as an amateur choir, four times as long as usual to learn and rehearse. These are strongly practical considerations."

Being in charge when the festival comes to Hereford means that Mr Bowen, with a little help, decides on the programme and oversees it. This year, with Haydn's anniversary, the 250th anniversary of Handel's death and the 200th of Mendelssohn's birth, some of the choices, if not their specifics, were already made.

"We could have been very lazy over anniversary-related programming," he said. "This is especially true of these three composers, who had such strong attachments to Britain (Handel became a British citizen), and the challenge was what to leave out.

"My idea of a theme of the changing seasons resulted from those early deliberations. We chose Haydn's The Seasons because it's not all that well-known. Someone said it was just about the weather, but I thought - well, that should appeal to British audiences. But, seriously, it has some great music."

For each of the three directors, of course, there is also the practical consideration of discharging the regular duties of musical observance and running a festival at the same time. It's done partly by dovetailing.

"The evensongs sung by the cathedral choirs are at the heart of the festival," Mr Bowen said. "They were there at the beginning and it was how the festival came about. We still get huge congregations for those services. One of them is now broadcast each year by BBC Radio 3 in its choral evensong series."

Then there is the 180-strong festival chorus, an amateur choir drawn from each of the three cities and including the lay clerks from their respective cathedrals. It's the thunderous core of the week's music-making, responsible for performing all the choral works, which this year include Gerontius and Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, the former not heard at Hereford Three Choirs since 2000. Though not a festival commission, Gerontius finds its spiritual home at Three Choirs, Mr Bowen believes. (In 1904, the Elgars went to live at Plas Gwyn, Hampton Park Road, Hereford, where among the works written by the composer were the two symphonies, The Kingdom and the Violin Concerto. They left for London seven years later.)

The festival provides opportunities for choristers to renew acquaintances, talk about the music to be sung and enjoy the social life that commitment to the week's activities entails. Each city contingent starts rehearsing in about April, then there will be mass rehearsals of all three together up to the starting line, with a break just before the 'off' that depends heavily on the skill of the choir in memorising what it has already learned or recalled.

"Each festival programme will reflect the interests, enthusiasms and character of the director," Mr Bowen said. "In the three I've taken charge of, I have tried to present less well-known works by great composers. It would, however, be perverse not to have any Elgar at all, though in my first festival there was no major choral work by him.

"Having decided on The Seasons for 2009, all sorts of other related possibilities arose, including a performance of The Rite of Spring. I'm incredibly excited about that, as it's not a work one would normally associate with the Three Choirs. Then we began looking at works composed around the same time as each other, including the Britten symphony and Finzi's Clarinet Concerto, which was premiered at Hereford in 1949."

The economic recession has placed all annual festivals on alert, not least Three Choirs. Hereford is the first to be engulfed by it. But not for nothing has the festival survived the centuries. The ship's timbers remain sound, though vulnerable to storms of unusual severity.

"We've been astonished by ticket sales," said Mr Bowen. "All of us in the world of festivals have been holding our breath with regard to how people will respond but here it's been incredible. And programming is really about keeping an eye on the box office. If we don't pay our way, we shan't be there next year. It's as simple as that.

"Much depends on the weather, of course, but there is traditionally an extraordinary atmosphere here in festival week. There is a Festival Club, with much discussion and milling about the cathedral precincts. Above the socialising, though, one does always have to remember, as the host, that there are concerts to be performed in the evenings!"

Mr Bowen lives with his wife, the singer Lucy Bowen, and their sons, Gwilym and Ruairi. At 46, he already has considerable cathedral experience, having been assistant at St Patrick's, Dublin, then assistant at Hereford, then organist and master of choristers at St David's, Pembrokeshire, where he also directed the cathedral festival, from 1995 to 2001, before returning to Hereford as the chief helmsman.

The Welsh, or Celtic, connections are therefore strong, apart from the fact that Herefordshire is border country and that at least on one notable occasion beguiling and al fresco Welsh voices inspired Elgar to write one of his Plas Gwyn pieces. Mr Bowen has been 'bowled over' by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and it will be returning to the festival this year to perform Mahler's First Symphony.

Good weather in festival week will be a topping. Thanks to Geraint Bowen, the musical programme is already set fair.

* Full details of this year's festival can be obtained from its comprehensive website, (also Ticket office phone: 0845 6521823 ( Administration: 01432 359453 (

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