Once a major port where hundreds of Irish set off for the New World, New Ross is now welcoming the arrival of many of today’s finest up-and-coming pianists.

This quiet town in County Wexford is certainly an out-of-the-way venue for a major piano festival. The nearest airport, Waterford, is so small that you can easily absently-mindedly wander through passport control without knowing you have done so until you see the provincial station-style sandwich bar on the other side. Then you have to either get a taxi, or – better option – hire a car to reach New Ross itself.

Tourist attractions include a full-scale replica of the Dunbrody Ship, now a museum commemorating the passengers who sailed on her from New Ross to escape devastating famine and start a new life in the States in the mid-19th century. Today much of New Ross consists of terraced housing from the 1970s which has seen better days, albeit exuding a quiet pride with its tidy streets. Yet this is the setting for what is now a rising international piano festival – indeed so relatively new is the festival that when I asked my hotel reception desk for directions to the festival’s main venue, St Mary’s Church, I was sent to the impressive-looking but wrong church, St Mary and St Michael.

St Mary’s itself is an attractive church, high on a hill overlooking New Ross, restored in the nave of a once even larger 13th-century church – the ruined chancel and transepts can be seen outside. Inside is a warm acoustic, an excellent Steinway piano (the reason the festival was set up in the first place) and seating for around 350 occupied by a warm, appreciative audience from all around southern Ireland and increasingly from overseas too.

This is Ireland’s only piano festival, founded in 2006 by a group of local music enthusiasts. Organising a concert, they were faced with the expense of hiring a decent concert grand and decided to make good use of it: why not hire it over several days and hold a piano festival? Dublin-born pianist Finghin Collins agreed to become artistic director. He can be seen not only performing at a number of concerts but his tall, willowy figure can also be seen regularly spending time meeting members of the audience during the intervals and after concerts.

Quite apart from the excellent venue and piano, there is a sense of a happy family-style community, musicians and their hosts mingling together in what seems to be endless rounds of post-evening concert parties with delicious food and drink. In this relaxed atmosphere you can really feel the pianists give of their best. In 2010 there were striking performances by the Chinese pianist Sa Chen and the Czech Libor Novácek (who gave a spine-tingling and in my experience unsurpassed performance of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). An unusual feature of the festival’s programming is that each day’s main concert features not a solo artist, but three different performers in succession. This year there’s a further spin in that the main feature will be piano duos, so the main concerts will each feature three pairs of pianists.

And the music-making spills over into the town itself, not least due to the festival’s distribution of "play me" uprights around the streets, inviting passers-by to have a go. I spent a very pleasant lunch seated al fresco in the street, munching locally bought pasta while pianist Colm O’Brien entertained us on an upright with Scott Joplin and Gershwin. This proved to be a warm-up to an impromptu concert in which members of the audience were invited to play their party pieces, ranging from a young boy playing “Für Elise” to a music teacher letting his hair down with Kinks songs. My hotel receptionist might not have been there – she may have got lost following her own directions – but here I felt was a festival which not only reaches out to the local townspeople, but one which the town genuinely embraces.

Five musical highlights

Piano Festival
Beginning on 22 September, the opening "fanfare" concert of the 2011 New Ross Piano Festival is free, and features Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa performing Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals in its original chamber scoring.

A most enticing lunchtime concert on 24 September – Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva play Brahms’s Haydn Variations, Milhaud’s exhilarating Scaramouche and Ravel’s dramatic La valse.

Here is one for more adventurous spirits: Finghin Collins and Charles Owen premiere a specially commissioned work by Stephen Gardner; then Enrico Pace and Igor Roma perform Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

High spirits for the final concert of the 2011 festival on 25 Sept: Stott and Ogawa play Lutoslawski’s Paganini Rhapsody, and Collins and Owen perform Poulenc’s Sonata for Two Pianos.

Wexford Festival Opera
Founded in 1951, this festival down the road from New Ross runs 21 Oct to 5 Nov. This year features rare operas, a double bill of one act operas by Menotti and Bernstein, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as well as recitals and an orchestral concert.

The article 'Musical destinations: New Ross, Ireland' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.