EIF: Opening Concert

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

It hardly seems credible now, but in the early 1980s the permissive attitude of the licensing authorities in the capital permitted striptease – by women who would most kindly be described as semi-professional – in a number of city bars, including The Pivot in Infirmary Street, which is now The Royal Oak. It is probably safe to assume that this grubbier side of the history of the hostelry is not referenced in the world premiere from composer Anna Clyne that opened this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

PIVOT is a brief, punchy work that it is easy to imagine will as readily find a place in the repertoire as Clyne’s BBC Proms commission Masquerade. Beginning, appropriately, with a brass fanfare, it quickly introduces the echoes of Scottish traditional music sessions that Clyne has picked up from the heritage of the licensed premises just off “The Bridges”. Many have been the composers who have found inspiration in Scottish folk down the years but there is something particularly Max-esque about the way Clyne uses layering and underscoring with those rhythms and her other themes over the five minute duration of the piece.

That re-purposing of older musical material was the thread that connected all of the music in the Opening Concert of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, given – as the first performance of the Royal Albert Hall Proms season had been last week  – by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its Principal Guest Conductor Dalia Stasevska.

There will doubtless be those who say otherwise, but the Festival has surely acted only as responsibly as it should in maintaining social distancing and other precautions of the pandemic era at the three special venues it has built to house its 2021 programme. The Edinburgh Academy one, between Ferry Road and the Royal Botanic Gardens, is a most impressive structure, safe and quite comfortable, and save a few seats, full for the opening concert. A compact edition of the BBC SO filled the sizeable stage, and both orchestra and, later, the singers were amplified.

There were some issues with that for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a work of 1920 that is more often heard in its orchestral suite incarnation. With the vocal contributions of mezzo Rosie Aldridge, tenor Filipe Manu and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian it is at once a more substantial and more complex beast. It is easy to hear why Stravinsky’s response to the scores of Pergolesi and his contemporaries that he was given to work with has been dismissed as pastiche. Under Stasevska, however, it assumed a more exploratory character so that the instrumental music around the arias in the third movement and the Allegro and Tarantella of the fourth are Stravinsky at his original, pulsating best. Although it is impossible not to smile at the scoring of the Vivo, and the part written for principal bass Nicholas Bayley in particular, it was characterful rather than simply comic.

The singers were better individually than together, their first ensemble in that third movement rather ragged, and Aldridge made the strongest impression, more or less disregarding the microphone in front of her.

Between Clyne’s new piece and the Stravinsky, Respighi’s Trittico Botticeliano sat well in its use of the ninth century antiphon Veni, Veni Emmanuel to evoke the Renaissance painter’s Adoration of the Magi, even if its evocation of Advent was oddly timed. The first bassoon led the way in a splendid performance by the winds on that movement, while the pastoral feel of the opening Spring was mirrored in the closing Birth of Venus, with the gentle sounds of harp, strings and flute punctuated by a glorious Wagnerian swell. The orchestrating genius of Respighi revealed that the sonic character of this custom-built alternative to the Usher Hall will be a happy compromise for these difficult times.

Keith Bruce

pic of curtain call from EIF/Ryan Buchanan