Conductor George Vass: ‘I’ve commissioned more than 200 pieces of music’

George Vass

George Vass - Credit: Archant

The Parliament Hill conductor is celebrating his 60th birthday with a self-conducted concert at St John’s Smith Square

For more years than most of us would choose to remember, the conductor George Vass has been a sizeable figure on the North London music circuit, running not only the old Hampstead & Highgate Festival but a raft of other ventures from his home at Parliament Hill. So expect bunting in the street next week when he celebrates his 60th birthday with a concert, conducted by himself, at St John’s Smith Square.

Featuring his own Orchestra Nova, it will be a showcase for the kind of music he’s spent his life promoting: modern, British, tending to the lyrical rather than radical – though when we talked the other day he was keen to say that his tastes, against the usual tendency, have grown edgier with age.

Born in the Midlands, Vass first moved to Hampstead as a Royal Academy of Music student in the 70s. And it was at Smith Square that he made his professional debut in front of an orchestra: a baroque band playing 18th century repertoire.

But it was living British composers who claimed his lasting interest. In 1992 he took charge of the Presteigne Festival on the Welsh borders, turning it into a platform for the more accessible approaches to contemporary writing heard in works by John McCabe, Cecilia MacDowall or David Matthews. Landing himself a second festival in Hampstead/Highgate, he was able to give extra exposure to the new music he championed, bringing it to London after a Presteigne premiere.

“I’ve commissioned more than 200 pieces over the years,” he says, “and that’s probably been the most satisfying thing in my life: building relationships with composers, getting their music out there and valued.”

But another source of satisfaction has been moving into opera, which he’d never tried until, as he recalls “we decided to do Britten’s Curlew River in St Stephens’ Rosslyn Hill as part of the Hampstead & Highgate Festival. People told me no one would come. But we did two shows, they sold out, and I was hooked: a Eureka moment.

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“I love working with directors, singers, and the whole business of getting something on stage. I do it as much as I can, often with brand new operas. And I’ve got a major one coming up next year, a version of Miss Julie that Joseph Phibbs is writing. It premieres in the Cheltenham Festival and then, I hope, comes to Hampstead.”

More immediate, though, is the birthday concert which features, of course, an all-British programme of Britten Tippett, Vaughan Williams, alongside the London premieres of works written for Presteigne by David Matthews and James Frances Brown.

The Brown had what Vass calls “the most tumultuous reception for a new piece that we’ve ever had in Presteigne”. Which suggests it might be worth the journey to Westminster.

George Vass conducts Orchestra Nova, Wed 10, 7.30pm, St Johns, Smith Square. Booking: