As the first Edinburgh Festival programme from new director Nicola Benedetti is announced, KEITH BRUCE delves into the musical treats in store
The question new Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti poses on the front of her first programme brochure derives from the recently-republished last book Reverend Martin Luther King wrote before his death. However, she also describes “Where do we go from here?” as a challenge to the Festival itself as it moves on from the celebration of its 75th anniversary last year.
Sharing the platform at the media briefing launching this year’s event with Creative Director Roy Luxford and Head of Music Andrew Moore was a clear indication of continuity, and her stated intention of making the most of the talent the virtuoso violinist and passionate music education advocate found in place in the organisation. Significantly she has not taken on Fergus Linehan’s role of Chief Executive, now filled by Linehan’s Executive Director, Francesca Hegyi.
And there is much about that brochure, and the shape of the programming, that will be familiar to regular Festival attenders, no doubt reflecting the fact that many of the building blocks of the 2023 programme were already in place when Benedetti was appointed. What is very different is the way the events are listed, not by genre or venue, but in sections that continue her engagement with the philosophy of Dr King: Community over Chaos, Hope in the Face of Adversity, and A Perspective That’s Not One’s Own.
That makes perusal of the print a different experience, but not radically so, and it is clear that the new director’s pathways to engagement with the work of the artists invited to this year’s Festival have followed the programme, rather than shaped it.
What’s there to see and hear – the actual meat of this year’s event – will please a great many people, and perhaps even fans of the most hotly debated element of any recent Edinburgh Festival. Opera magazine speculated in the editorial of its May issue that there would be “no major staged opera for the first time in decades” and those precise words are probably strictly true. However, there will be many for whom the UK premiere of a Barry Kosky-directed Berliner Ensemble production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the Festival Theatre is more than just the next best thing, and Theatre of Sound’s retelling of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle as a contemporary two-hander with the Hebrides Ensemble at the Church Hill Theatre in the Festival’s final week looks most intriguing.
Concert performances of opera, a regular highlight of recent Edinburgh programmes, maintain their high standard. It is perhaps surprising that Wagner’s Tannhauser will have its first ever performance at the Festival in the Usher Hall on August 25, with American tenor Clay Hilley in the title role as local hero Sir Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin.
A fortnight earlier, Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the orchestra to which he has just committed a further five years of his career in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Andrew Moore introduced this as the first of a series of concert performances of Mozart operas by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with its ebullient Principal Conductor. The same orchestra undertook the same project under the baton of Charles Mackerras in the 1990s – although The Magic Flute was not part of that series.
It was also in the last decade of the 20th century that Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra first wowed Edinburgh audiences and that team provides the first of this Festival’s orchestral residencies. Beginning with an evening of music presented in a transformed Usher Hall with beanbags replacing the stalls seating, the orchestra also plays Bartok and Kodaly with Sir Andras Schiff and the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s National Girls Choir. Benedetti is involved as presenter of the first of the orchestra’s concerts, and also joins the BBC SSO and Ryan Wigglesworth on stage on the Festival’s first Sunday for a concert of new music that poses the question on the brochure cover. The young singers of NYCoS have their own concert, with the RSNO, at the Usher Hall on August 13, preceded by a demonstration of the Kodaly music teaching method that is pivotal to its success.
If those events clearly reflect the new director’s commitment to access and education, her use of the EIF’s home, The Hub, below the castle at the top of the Royal Mile, is another crucial ingredient. She intends The Hub to be the Festival’s “Green Room” but open to everyone and “a microcosm of the whole Festival” and it has events programmed most nights, most of them music and often drawing in performers who have bigger gigs in other venues.
They include players from the London Symphony Orchestra, which is 2023’s second resident orchestra, playing Rachmaninov and Shostakovich under Gianandrea Noseda and Szymanowski and Brahms with Sir Simon Rattle before turning its attention to Messiaen’s epic Turangalila-Symphonie, prefaced by a programme of French music that inspired it, with Benedetti again wearing her presenting hat.
The final residency is of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare, prefaced by a concert by some of the musicians at The Hub. The Usher Hall also sees two concerts by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Klaus Makela and its programme begins with Tan Dun conducting the RSNO and the Festival Chorus in his own Buddha Passion and closes with Karina Canellakis conducting the BBC SSO and the Festival Chorus in Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Outside of the concert hall there will be free music-making in Princes Street Gardens at the start of the Festival and in Charlotte Square at its end, details of which will come in June.
With a full programme of chamber music at the Queen’s Hall as usual, a dance and theatre programme full of top flight international artists and companies also includes works of particular musical interest, specifically a new revival of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work using Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Edinburgh in 1978, and Deborah Warner’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra.
More information at eif.co.uk, with online public booking opening on May 3, and in-person booking at the Hub available now.