Meurig Bowen: Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival

PUBLISHED: 14:30 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Meurig Bowen

Meurig Bowen

As the new director of the Cheltenham Music Festival, Meurig Bowen feels he is privileged to be able to express his eclectic tastes to a more diverse audience. Words by Katie Jarvis; photography by Mark Fairhurst.

IF you want to know more about Meurig Bowen, the new director of the Cheltenham Music Festival, you only need look at this year's eclectic programme. Within it, you'll find music from eight centuries, beginning with a piece written in Paris in 1198; there's choral music; English music from Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten; and some rather cosmopolitan additions, too. "We've got the fantastic Romanian gypsy band, Taraf de Haidouks, coming to perform, as well as Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell with her band," Meurig says.

Indeed, the programme reflects many of Meurig's passions. Having read music at Cambridge, where he was choral scholar in King's College Choir, he spent time managing musicians who specialised in medieval, renaissance and contemporary music. In 1995, he moved to Sydney, where he spent six years as artistic administrator of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. And he has worked as director of the Lichfield Festival and head of programming at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Of Cheltenham Music Festival, he says, "My own taste in music is wide-ranging, and it's a privilege for me to be able to curate a programme that is both, I hope, sensitive to the needs and expectations of our core audience, and yet able to reach out and appeal to a wide range of musical tastes. Classical music is so incredibly richly-layered - it has national flavours, it spans eight centuries, it reflects massive historical and societal changes, and its sounds range from a solo piano to the thrillingly loud blast of an orchestra at full throttle. That's what the Cheltenham Music Festival is about - the diversity, the colours, the emotional range."

Where do you live and why?

In Uckington, two miles out of Cheltenham - the first human inhabitant of a converted barn: I don't think the cows would recognise it now! Originally, I was looking for a town house in Tivoli, near the Cheltenham Festival offices, but the right one didn't turn up when I was looking. I have a bit of a history with barns, having lived in two others, in Staffordshire and Suffolk. Where I've ended up is just a 20-minute bike ride from work, but you get a very strong sense of being out in the countryside.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

Just five months., Up to now I've allowed my work - probably to the detriment of my private and social life - to dictate where my life has taken me. The logistics of moving I've learnt to be reasonably good at; but it's the fact that you have to pretty much start your life again from scratch that is really challenging, and it doesn't seem to get any easier. I really want to stay here for a while. It feels right - the job, the location, the possibilities.

What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

I ran this past a friend of mine last night and he fondly, even wistfully, recalled a weekend in a hotel in Chipping Sodbury years back with a woman he was really keen on: I suppose that might be some kind of perfection... Otherwise, I think it would involve a round of golf on one of the exquisite courses I've spied driving around; some vigorous tennis with someone slightly better than me; a big walk; and a mighty dinner knocked up with extemporary brilliance by me and some friends.

Actually, a few of my weekends are spent 'working' - attending concerts in London or festivals around the UK and abroad. I regard my festival role as a sort of menu planner for a banquet. You don't put things down on a menu without knowing what they're going to taste like, and the same applies to festival programming. That's why I'm out on the road a lot, going to competitions, checking out new talent, having meetings with agents, publishers and composers. I think it's incredibly important to have heard what you put into a festival because only then do you have a feeling for how pieces and performers are going to come together and make sense as a whole.

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

My fantasy home would be elevated and quiet but close to a train station; beautifully proportioned but with some unusual corners, with an indoor/outdoor pool and tennis court... Maybe a Georgian building fashioned out of something Tudor, yet with some strikingly contemporary additions too.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

Bang next door to a busy road.

Where's the best pub in the area?

I'm a bit of a reactionary with pubs, I'm afraid; I can't stand noisy, music-driven pubs, whether live or juke-boxed. I'm very comfortable in the Beehive in Tivoli. It seems to me a happy mix of old-style drinkers' pub and something a bit more chi-chi and contemporary.

And the best place to eat?

If you ask me in a year's time, I'll give you lots of out-of-town answers but, at the moment, it's The Daffodil (in Cheltenham). It's a seriously classy place, both architecturally and gastronomically. I never saw it in its previous guise - just with its newly-dished up Llewellyn-Bowen look; it's absolutely gorgeous and a great jazz venue as well.

Have you a favourite tearoom?

It would be coffee - but I'd choose either Moka or Hot Pepper Jelly, both in Tivoli. Their individuality reminds me of the caf scene in Sydney and Melbourne. Britain seems to have become enthralled with Americanised franchise-culture; you can still find places with personality, but they're like rare jewels to be treasured. In Australia - rather like France and Italy - cafes and restaurants still tend to be family-owned and individual. The Cotswolds seem to have many establishments that value this kind of individuality: something bespoke and created with care.

What would you do for a special occasion?

I'd book a table for 10 at one of the Cheltenham Music Festival's dinner-cabaret events at the Pittville Pump Room. On Saturday, July 12, an incredible octet of traditional Venezuelan musicians called Trabuco are performing. Think of Hispanic/Latino styles like salsa, flamenco, tango and fandangos, and you've almost got what they sound like. But they're something else again, uniquely, brilliantly Venezuelan.

Which shop could you not live without?

Now that every supermarket megastore tries to sell us everything, from clothes and furniture to books and CDs, I'd single out any shop that has its own personality, its own unique stock and which kicks against the soul-less, franchised shopping experience. Two very different shops in Cheltenham spring to mind. One is Sounds Good, a classical, folk and world music CD shop whose knowledgeable, passionate staff ensure that it fights its endangered species status in this ever-more downloading world. The second is Nara Kahkonen in Montpellier: a gorgeous, alluring lingerie and erotica emporium that celebrates sensuality with class, good taste and no embarrassment. I haven't been in yet - I dare say I will - but it's a helluva window display.

What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?

The acoustic of the Pittville Pump Room - a near-perfect combination of clarity and generosity of reverberation. I suspect the idea of different acoustics, good and bad, is a little mysterious to some; think of the difference between looking at a painting in a gallery with overhead natural light and viewing it against a flickering fluorescent tube. That's how different the same sound can be in two different acoustics. The Pump Room's acoustic (and architecture of course) is admired and beloved by musicians from around the world, as well as being one of BBC Radio 3's favourite musical homes: they're broadcasting nine of the Cheltenham Music Festival's 25 Pump Room concerts from there this July.

What would be a three course Cotswold meal?

Smoked trout with, I hope, one of the lemons I'm (vainly?) trying to grow on my tree (any tips gratefully received), accompanied by wine from the Three Choirs Vineyard (in Newent). I'm very interested in the growth and development of English wine and this vineyard is apparently leading the way: one of the few possible benefits of climate change;

My main course would be Cotswold lamb;

Followed by summer pudding, with the berry fruits gathered locally - always a pleasure.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

It would be seeing several hundred people - aged from six to 90 - watching our community gamelan players performing in Tewkesbury Abbey grounds on Monday, July 7. Everyone would go on to attend the concert that follows, which includes Tallis's 40 part motet and a piece by Messiaen that features those same Indonesian instruments in a 20th century French guise.

We at Cheltenham Festivals own a set of gamelan instruments, which we're taking into Gloucester Prison in July for a week-long programme of workshops. Like the Heineken ad, I'm passionate about reaching parts of the community we've not reached before. The gamelan is all about team work, about trust and interrelating with other people. It builds confidence, co-ordination skills... and sounds amazing.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

Stanton. I don't know it incredibly well (yet) but I've been there a couple of times and it has film set looks: almost implausibly beautiful; an extraordinary manifestation of harmonious architectural styles.

What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

Tewkesbury Abbey - magnificent inside and out. I ran the Tewkesbury Half Marathon this year and it was a magnificent backdrop to all the pain at the finish.

We have three concerts there in the festival and I can't wait to hear them. The abbey is another wonderful acoustic space - perfect for unaccompanied choral music, dreadful, I imagine, for anything amplified. I think there's a Christian rock rave coming up there soon. The medieval architects - there were no acoustic engineers back in 1200 - will be turning in their graves.

Starter homes or executive properties?

Plenty of starter homes, but on brown-field sites, with a very high eco-spec and well away from flood-prone greenbelt.

What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?

The newly-revamped Swindon Village roundabout heading out of Cheltenham, where there's a new Homebase and KFC. Planning regulations seem to have dictated that these bland metal barns be surrounded by what I'd regard as tokenistic dry-stone walls: a ridiculous juxtaposition, and a scandalous waste of lovely stone. I'd unbuild the walls and use the stone somewhere else more deserving.

What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Get on the Cheltenham Festivals' mailing list, make a note of the four festivals' dates, and plan your holidays elsewhere around them.

And which book should they read?

I look forward to reading The Diary of a Cotswold Parson by FE Witts - in particular the passages that apparently describe the building of Regency Cheltenham.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

As general reconnaissance, I'd walk the Cotswold Way, and stake out the favourites from there.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

All the festivals that are happening in Cheltenham; not just 'ours' - Jazz, Science, Music and Literature - but the cricket and the folk and the horse racing too. All this classy festival activity is something to be proud of.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

A few months ago, my answer would have been Gustav Holst but that, happily, has now been rectified. How about a memorial to Ralph Vaughan Williams? There's a lovely memorial to Elgar in Hereford, and I'd like to see something similar in Down Ampney, Vaughan Williams's birthplace.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

Peter Gabriel. Not only is he a legend of the Progressive Rock era - something I've got a rather dodgy and distinctively unfashionable interest in - he's inspiringly bright, articulate, and has continued to evolve creatively since his Genesis years. I'd ask him whether it's idle press speculation or something more plausible that he and the rest of Genesis might get back together to perform their 1974 masterpiece The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway again.

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