Orcadian Feast

Resourcefulness and imagination have never been so important in keeping events like the St Magnus Festival alive, its director Alasdair Nicolson tells KEN WALTON.

How many of us remember the perverse pleasure of the popular afternoon TV programme Ready, Steady Cook, where contestants challenged celebrity chefs to concoct a feast out of random ingredients purchased for a mere fiver? Despite such meagre resources, creativity and resourcefulness took flight, appetising results emerged. 

To some extent, that’s how Alasdair Nicolson has approached this year’s St Magnus Festival, the event he has directed for the past 12 years, and which is, he admits, still weathering the after-effects of Covid. “Right now, as things gradually return to normal, we’re having to be especially resourceful,” he insists. 

“There’s no overarching theme this year. The programme is more about a set of things I think are interesting, or a set of people I know – emerging artists or old friends – who are very good. Last year we were nearly back from Covid, but it was still odd. This year feels we’re getting there, still not at full capacity, but doing well with ticket sales.

A quick glance at the programme, which runs from 16-23 June, shows that the ingredients are infinitely more exciting than any arbitrary cucumber or carrot. The meat of the festival is still classical music, but complementing that are folk, ballet, theatre, poetry and visual arts events, with the traditional involvement of local performers offsetting the incoming presence of visiting artists.

As ever, Nicolson eschews the predictable. What is it with the accordion this year, I ask in relation to what seems like a veritable squeeze-box infestation, dominated by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s entire Accordion Ensemble? “I’m just a lover of the accordion,” he says. “As a composer, I’ve written for it in various combinations. I also taught a composition course for accordion in Lithuania. So, personally, I have skin in the game.”

Central to this major segment of programming is Scotland’s latest accordion sensation, the young Glaswegian Ryan Corbett. Following his solo triumph last year in Orkney, and his fast-rising profile further afield, he’s here this time in two duo partnerships, one with Edinburgh-born trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, the other with his own teacher Djordje Gajic playing Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in St Magnus Cathedral.

If that isn’t quirky enough, the charismatic Ragazze Quartet from the Netherlands, known for their unconventional approach to the medium, certainly are. Nicolson encountered them while sitting in his car. “I was driving and listening to the radio when I heard them playing Schubert’s Die Winterreise and thought, this is wonderful, but it’s not supposed to be on string quartet. It worked so well in refocussing Schubert’s original [song cycle].” The Raggaze will be joined in this by baritone Maarten Koningsberger. 

In another of their three programmes, the Quartet teams up with Dutch pianist Nikola Meeuwsen in Shostakovich’s ebullient Piano Quintet. Again, the idea came to Nicolson through chance. “His parents in Holland live next door to friends of mine, who told me about him. I tried him out and realised putting him together with the other Dutch musicians made complete sense.” Meeuwsen, still only 20 and the youngest ever winner of Amsterdam’s Grachtenfestival Prize, also plays his own solo recital, the Age of Refinement, on Saturday. 

Other artists this year include: the 17th/18th century specialist ensemble Florilegium, reenacting in one of its programmes Leipzig’s legendary Coffee House concerts with music by Bach and his contemporaries; and the Scots-based Hebrides Ensemble, including an “immersive promenade concert” “Solstice of Dark and Light – Wind Water Earth Fire” in St Magnus Cathedral, combining music, art and poetry.

Atmosphere plays its part, too, in two solo performances by the young Black Isle cellist Finlay Spence: one on Hoy in which he plays Bach, Boyle, Beamish and Berio; the other on South Ronaldsay which includes the world premiere of a new commission, Fadhail, by Uist composer Padruig Morrison. 

On a larger scale, Scottish Ballet brings its steamy, critically-acclaimed production of A Streetcar Named Desire to Kirkwall’s Pickaquoy Centre. “We had to ask them to bring another show as well, given that Streetcar comes with a high guidance rating,” Nicolson explains. “Otherwise, I’d have had to field the complaints!” The solution was Nutcracker Sweets, a potpourri from past and present Scottish Ballet productions culminating in scenes from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Equally exciting for Nicolson is the world premiere of Thora, David McNeish’s new play based on the mother of Magnus mentioned in the ancient sagas, directed by Gerda Stevenson. McNeish was a minister on Orkney and before that a doctor. “He worked on it originally when [Orcadian actor, theatre director and vocal coach] Kristin Linklater was still alive, and it was really meant for her,” Nicolson says. “It’s a powerful piece because it brings a woman into the Magnus story, and one who actually survived him.”

Ask the St Magnus director what makes the Festival tick today, seven years after the death of its iconic founder Sir Peter Maxwell Davies  and especially after the trials of Covid, and the answer falls somewhere between pragmatism and optimism. “If anything, we’re much more aware of how much everything costs. The challenge is to match the expectations people have from the Festival’s traditions and history against what is really possible. 

“The fact is, we’re still managing to do a largely music-based festival, trying to bring in things local people ought to see as well as setting out stuff that will bring audiences in from elsewhere. Most importantly Orkney folk themselves are still an integral element.” This year’s Johnsmas Foy – Waves and Tangles: A Countrywoman’s Diary – celebrates Orcadian poet and nature writer Bessie Skea, whose legacy was overshadowed by her more famous contemporary George Mackay Brown. The local Festival Chorus presents its own performance of Fauré’s Requiem under Hallè Chorus director Matthew Hamilton.

Times might be tougher, but with just the right ingredients and some creative flair St Magnus is making the best of uncertain times.

The 2023 St Magnus Festival on Orkney runs from 16-23 June. Full information at http://www.stmagnusfestival.co