Lockdown Life for Fergus Linehan, EIF Director
With a second spike in COVID-19 likely to undermine the return to normal for Scotland’s live concert scene, maybe it’s time to accept that a radical new norm is the only option. EIF director FERGUS LINEHAN is veering in that direction, he tells Ken Walton
Whatever time it takes to quell the presence of COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on the Edinburgh International Festival will be game-changing, says its director Fergus Linehan. But don’t expect it to happen overnight. “2021 will only be the journey back,” Linehan cautiously predicts. “Probably 2022 will be the great celebration.”
If he’s right, the timing is perfect. 2022 is the year the Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary. What better moment to embrace the catastrophic consequences of the current global dilemma and apply its lessons – and opportunities – to revolutionising the established norm.
We spoke in the wake of this year’s virtualised programme, in which – for classical music – streamed concerts on You Tube from The Hub replaced the traditional daily live Queen’s Hall series, orchestras were reduced to skeletal proportions in works such as Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and opera became cinema (Scottish Opera’s terrific film version of Menotti’s The Telephone).
According to the EIF, a global audience of around 1.5 million tuned into the entire Festival rescue package, double the number of previous audiences. It didn’t do much for footfall in the city, of course, but it has opened Linehan’s eyes to new priorities, new opportunities, and lessons to be learnt through enforced adversity.
He was particularly surprised, for instance, by the extent to which the virtual audience signed up. “You know, usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged. A lot of people went ‘now I know how to play You Tube only television, or now I know how to hook up my speakers’. So what we started to see was not just us going to them, but those who never looked at culture online suddenly coming to us. That’s a huge change.”
Before Festival fans choke in their soup, be assured that Linehan has no plans to minimise the live experience. It’s a way of enhancing it, he says. “It has put us together with a whole range of people, whether it’s television production companies of filmmakers, who we’ve never really been together with before. I can see ways of really enhancing performances with it, where if you did a particular series, you could then have something online that people could go to before and after, like an extended equivalent to programme notes.”
We missed a few things this time round,” he admits. “I keep thinking of people tuning into Edinburgh for some of the music, say, where we might have had a merging of the performance with a video essay about different parts of the city, like a journey through Hopetoun House to Haydn’s music. It’s another art form and a way we need to start thinking.”
Whatever transpires, future Festival content is likely to reflect the inevitable anxiety over international travel that will be the fallout of COVID. Linehan is convinced the formerly accepted model of artists constantly on planes is going to change. “I do think we’re now going to need more localised culture. The idea of this constant flow of global stars is lovely, but it’s not really sustainable.”
But what Edinburgh really needs in order to bolster its global appeal, he insists, is a commitment by the city to improve its cultural infrastructure. And surely the most immediate priority is to resolve the bureaucratic bickering that is delaying and compromising the completion of the new 1000-seater concert hall of St Andrews Square, which will serve as a home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and as a much-needed world-class venue for mid-size Festival events.
Linehan is in prime position to influence that, having recently been appointed the project’s interim co-chair in the wake of previous chairman Sir Ewan Brown’s sudden resignation. It won’t be an easy ride – the current squabbles require the plans to be redrawn to lower the building so as not to spoil the views of a new hotel next door, incurring increased costs and inevitable delays – but he is optimistic of a positive outcome.
“We really need this hall,” he insists. “I think anyone who has been through a major capital development will know it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are always going to be turns in the road. I think it’s up to every generation to leave some great infrastructure behind. We do struggle as a city to build infrastructure at times. Maybe it’s because we have such a beautiful historical legacy that the necessity to add to it never seems so urgent. But as I often say, if someone hadn’t built the Usher Hall, we’d never have had an Edinburgh Festival.”
The enforced rethink, he adds, together with the practical realisation this year that technology has a key role to play in shaping future programming, might even be to the venue’s ultimate advantage.
“I do think that any infrastructure now needs to think about how it’s going to feed into broadcast. Everyone says how technology has threatened live music, but actually it’s created more. When people listen to more music they go to more live music. The disrupter has never replaced it in any sense. All it really serves is to widen the area of interest. The new hall must recognise that.”
Finally, Linehan’s vision for EIFs-of-the-future is one that looks beyond three weeks in August. “I think what is becoming clear is that the future is not about everything or nothing, but a question of what the 12 months look like, about taking some of the emphasis away from August. That might mean looking at an extended season.”
“We’ve got to think a lot more about what Scotland’s cultural calendar looks like and what’s our collective duty towards that? Earlier in the year do we need to gravitate towards things that are more like public art, or more outdoors, and then to skew things in another way?”
In short, expect future Edinburgh Festivals to free themselves from time-honoured convention. “It’s going to be a constant testing, a constant moving forward,” he predicts. And maybe it’s a message to all involved in the performing arts, given the COVID wake-up call, to get real with radical change.