Tag Archives: Edinburgh International Festival

BBC SSO / Canellakis

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Conductor Karina Canellakis has some big opera projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the coming season, with Janacek’s Makropoulos Case, The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz and Wagner’s Siegfried in the Netherlands where she is based, and Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at Santa Fe Opera. She may have begun musical life as a violinist, but her conducting career shows an affinity with singers.

That was very evident at the Closing Concert of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, when she was clearly enjoying the performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in the work that brought this year’s classical music programme to a close, Rachmaninov’s The Bells.

It was also the work that concluded the tenure of Aidan Oliver as Chorus Director, as he moves to Glyndebourne and is succeeded by James Grossmith. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland conducting graduate inherits a choir on very fine form indeed, wonderfully crisp in their opening utterances in the work’s “Sleigh Bells” start and then in lock-step with the orchestra for the climactic third movement.

The soloists – tenor David Butt Philip and then soprano Olga Kulchynska – have relatively smaller roles until the funereal finale when the chorus partners the baritone, Alexander Vinogradov.

If the symphonic arc of The Bells covers nothing less than human existence from cradle to grave, the two works of the first half were more basic in their concerns. The strings of the BBC Scottish gave Canellakis their best work as she shaped the distinctive sound of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This trailer for his opera features the famous Tristan chord, but after hanging in the air for much of the piece, it reached a glorious climax at the end.

For the work in between, Scriabin’s Le Poeme de L’Extase, extra horns and trumpets, harps, celesta, organ and even, handily, bells were added. The composer sometimes referred to this 17-minute tone poem as a symphony, but it really has more in common with the Wagner or modernist works to come in the 20th century.

For all Scriabin’s mystical leanings, the wave upon wave of instrumental climaxes and cascading orchestration in the music seemed to suggest activity rather more physical than cerebral. Canellakis and the SSO paced the work beautifully to its orgasmic last bars.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Simón Bolívar / Dudamel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The benchmark for Edinburgh Festival Mahler performances by orchestras of a younger membership was well and truly set by the Gustav Mahler Jugendrochester under Claudio Abbado in the 1990s. Their Mahler 7 has gone down in the annals as seminal, exceptional and thoroughly mind-blowing. The same cannot be said for the performance on Saturday of Mahler’s First Symphony by the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela.

True, the Venezuelans are officially no longer a youth orchestra, but age eligibility remains limited at the upper end to 28, so they resemble in that sense their Vienna-based counterpart. And just as the GMJ benefited way back from Abbado, the Bolívars have as their champion and music director the now internationally-renowned Gustavo Dudamel. Not even his presence on Saturday, however, nor the numerous pockets of Venezuelan flag-waving fans cheering amid the near-capacity audience, managed to raise this Mahler to the levels of brilliance we might have hoped for.

It began promisingly, a magically-suppressed strings pianissimo challenged by the distant prodding of offstage trumpets, establishing a mood of threatening unpredictability, excitable wonderment that would prevail in various guises for the ensuing hour. Dudamel knew exactly what he was about, clearly envisioned, a paragon of authority and self-belief. 

What he didn’t always get was the same in return. While much of the bigger picture was fundamentally impressive – a wild symphonic adventure through earthy Ländler and parodic Klezmer, the ironic funereal play on the tune Frère Jacques, the whooping delirium of the finale – the devil was in the detail, and an orchestral response less self-assured in its finer execution. Shaky intonation, evenness of tonal balance, even nervous attack moments were frequent irritations.

The concert had begun on home territory, with recent music by two Venezuelan composers. The first, the hi-energy Guasamacabra by Paul Desenne, who died earlier this year and was a cello alumna of the orchestra, was fittingly dedicated in this performance to the composer’s memory. It’s sidestepping charm, insatiable energy and volcanic complexity made for an ear-catching opener, yet Dudamel unearthed beneath its deceptive, John Adams-like freneticism a golden melancholy that offered flashes of emotive depth which the later Mahler could well have done with. 

Gonzalo Grau’s Odisea (Concerto for Cuatro and Orchestra) proved the novelty act, featuring the popular Venezuelan cuatro ( a small 4-stringed guitar) player Jorge Glem. Glem, in his trademark red hat, cut a cool figure, the focus of the work more geared towards showcasing him, perhaps, than offering anything of much interest for the orchestra. 

They operated mainly in a support capacity, much of it benign underscore with the periodic requirement to emerge with link material. Yes, it was colourful in a classical-folk-rock cross-genre sort of way, and Glem’s freely extended technique, combined with exotic percussion dialogue, was a crowd-pleaser. His quirky encore quoted everything from Bach to Beethoven and Bizet, but seemed a tad indulgent when the concert was already running well over time.

Not that this prevented Dudamel and the entire orchestra, itself, from unleashing their own carnival-style encores after the Mahler. It’s what we tend to remember them for. In showstoppers by Strauss and Bernstein (razzed up Caracas-style), they duly obliged.
Ken Walton

EIF: Tannhauser

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It will be a shame if 2023’s big Wagner opera in concert at Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival becomes known as “the Tannhauser of the music stands”, but understandable. Not only did the titular tenor hero of the piece require one to rest his score on, but the one supporting the copy from which conductor Sir Donald Runnicles was working on the podium collapsed early in the evening and a front desk fiddle player abandoned her instrument to effect repairs while the music continued.

That incident did nothing to impair the performance, but the same cannot be said for Clay Hilley’s reliance on the music, which was clearly more than just an aide memoire. Understandably, when every other principal in the cast was singing from memory, he appeared self-conscious about it, and as soprano Emma Bell’s Elisabeth and baritone Thomas Lehman’s Wolfram began to use more of the available space at the front of the stage in their performances he looked more static as the tale unfolded.

In the final analysis, the rest of the ingredients more than compensated. Unlike previous concert Wagner operas at recent Festivals this was a visiting company production with all the principals, whatever their country of origin, associated with Deutsche Oper Berlin, who supplied the chorus and orchestra (augmented by players from the RSNO), where Runnicles is Music Director.

Like Hilley, many were singing their roles for the first time – and some were doing so on just a few hours’ sleep because of delays and cancellations in their travel arrangements. The vivacious Venus of Irene Roberts was among those and her angry responses to the grumbling home-sick Tannhauser were an early highlight. Both she and Bell brought the drama to the performance, alongside Lehman’s characterisation of Wolfram as a resigned narrator of the tale and Albert Pesendorfer’s authoritative Landgrave, but there was real strength in the smaller roles too, notably Meechot Marrero’s Young Shepherd, sung from the top of the organ gallery, and tenor Attilio Glaser’s contribution to the song contest as Walther.

With two dozen RSNO players involved on and off stage, the Berlin instrumentalists were superb, from the muted ensemble of the opening bars of the overture onwards, the winds joined by metronomic strings and expansive brass. The much-garlanded Deutsche Oper Chorus was also as magnificent as its reputation, and heard to better advantage here than would have been possible in a staged production.

Tannhauser is a work from which the highlights do leap out, and favourites like Elisabeth’s greeting to  the Hall of Song, the Pilgrim’s Chorus and Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star were all superb, but ultimately it was the sensation of Runnicles leading an ensemble he knows inside out that made this Tannhauser, despite its superficial deficiencies, sensational.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Oslo Phil | Bluebeard’s Castle

Usher Hall / Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

In the second of its two Usher Hall appearances, the Oslo Philharmonic presented a star-studded programme. On the one hand they were joined by a pianist with a reputation for risqué showmanship – Juja Wang chose a tasteful dress collection for her two Ravel concertos – and on the other, chose to end with Shostakovich’s incendiary, hard-hitting Symphony No 5. This was also a first chance in these parts to experience live the impact the 27-year-old Finnish conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, has had on his Oslo orchestra since becoming music director in 2020. 

What was instantly revealed in the Ravel concertos was a musicianship of extraordinary perception, vision and clarity. Mäkelä was as respectful to soloist Wang’s insistent self-belief as he was in driving his own agenda. They worked as a dream team, the opening volcanic tremors and graduated eruptions in Wang’s intense delivery of the Concerto for Left Hand aligning dramatically with a kaleidoscopic orchestral backdrop that Mäkelä masterfully shifted in and out of focus.

It was the perfect scene-setter, too, to the very different Piano Concerto in G, reflected in Wang’s rapid offstage change from slinky red dress to sparkling yellow. Again, the incisiveness of her finger technique and reading of the textural subtleties were a sheer delight. The prevailing tone was dizzy ebullience tempered by super-charged delicacy, and a generosity that allowed prominent instrumental counterpoints – the magical harmonics and glissandi from the harp, for instance – to shine through. 

The Shostakovich shifted the focus exclusively onto the orchestra, and a performance that took a conclusive approach to an equivocal symphony. Was the composer, in his so-called “just response” to vicious criticism from Stalin, kowtowing to the powers that could so easily make him disappear, or had he laced it with vicious, vengeful irony?

Mäkelä’s superbly-paced reading asserted the latter, couched in cool perfection but also unmistakable provocation. The ecstatic final bars – their empty triumphalism – were a gripping summation to a harrowing journey, one that variously explored the ominously quiescent, or the downright truculent and grotesque. Mäkelä had its every measure. He and the Oslo Phil are a world-beating team.

Just as mind-blowing is Theatre of Sound’s radical take on Bartok’s short opera Bluebeard’s Castle at Church Hill Theatre. Stage director and author of a new English translation, Daisy Evans, doesn’t mess around. She goes for the jugular in the sense that Bluebeard and his latest wife Judith are no longer the dark protagonists of a Gothic-style horror in which Judith encounters the hideous fates of her predecessors; she’s now an ordinary housewife in a simple family house, suffering from dementia and its impact on her marriage.

It’s an uncanny fit with Bartok’s music, but it completely restyles the nature of Bluebeard, exhausted and frustrated, wondering what to do, sanguinely played and powerfully sung by Lester Lynch. In the end, though, this is Judith’s story. 

Susan Bullock’s show-stopping performance guarantees that. From first note to last she is all-consuming and unwaveringly believable. You live through her confusion, feel the pain (and her husband’s) as she grapples with the memories contained in a single trunk and visions of younger versions of Judith personified by walk-on roles. There’s implied family tragedy too.

This is a hugely brave exploration of a sensitive issue, which does nothing to destroy the integrity of Bartok’s original. Even music director Stephen Higgins’ ruthless reduction of the orchestral score heightens rather than diminishes its impact, especially when he has the dynamic forces of the Hebrides Ensemble to hand. Rarely will you see opera so true to human experience. 

(Bluebeard’s Castle is at the Church Hill Theatre till 27 Aug. Cast varies)

Ken Walton

EIF: Child of Our Time / Davis

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While the bulk of Sunday’s Usher Hall audience will have known what to expect with Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, fewer will have been familiar with his Concerto for Orchestra. This pairing constituted an intriguing snapshot into the 20th century English composer’s complex, personalised sound world, delivered consummately under the seasoned baton of Sir Andrew Davis.

The former, a stirring 1940s wartime response to human violence and oppression, ranks among the composer’s few instantly-accessible pieces, notable for its thrilling climactic use of Black American Spirituals, their spine-tingling harmonies and tearful pathos. 

The Concerto, however, is later Tippett – commissioned for, and premiered at, the 1963 Edinburgh Festival – the language by then more testing and austere, the milder dissonant complexion of Child of Our Time consigned to the past. Yet, as these engaging performances illustrated, a commonality persists – an elusive, mystical personality arising from complex objectivity. In other words, a consistent and recognisable musical voice.

Davis knew instinctively how to extract that personality from the RSNO in the orchestral opener, serving up exactly what it says on the tin, a concerto for orchestra, in which no-one gets an easy ride. It played out like a quick-fire conversational theatre piece, multi-layered characterisations ricocheting off each other with unceasing changeability. It featured delicious solos for flute, cello, even timpani, and sparky ensemble cameos – a parping tuba paired with piano, for instance – but also a concealed lyrical thread that formed a cohesive backbone to this fascinating, iridescent work.

That same unyielding determination fed through A Child of Our Time, Davis calmly in charge, but generating, through judicious pacing, an organic sense of the epic. The Festival Chorus took their lead accordingly, solid as a rock, openly expressive – especially in the unison singing – but sensitive, too, in shaping the big picture. Within the solo quartet, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s soprano was an exuberant foil to Dame Sarah Connolly’s burnished mezzo, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Michael Mofidian equally generous as a pairing. As a complete team they were resplendent. Once again the RSNO were faultless. 

The outright winner, of course, was Tippett, so often maligned and misunderstood – not unreasonably in certain cases – but reconfirmed here as a legitimate and unique voice in what was a turbulent, sometimes unfriendly, 20th century musical landscape.

Ken Walton

EIF: Castalian Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It’s just over a month since the excellent Castalian String Quartet struck a particularly refreshing note at Fife’s East Neuk Festival. On that occasion, the repertoire was mainstream Mozart and Dvorak, the music stirringly revitalised by astute characterisation and an entertaining spirit of playfulness. At the heart of Friday’s Edinburgh International Festival appearance, the key challenge was to introduce an entirely new piece, the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake.

As it happened, the stakes were raised twofold. With regular second violinist Daniel Roberts ruled out through illness, his place was taken last-minute by the young London-based Japanese violinist Yume Fijise. To fill Roberts’ boots in such a rushed way, and on such a prominent platform, would have been no easy ask, yet Fujise responded not only with laudable efficiency, but a sense of musical compatibility that grew more easeful and confident as the programme progressed. She’s no stranger to quartet playing, being leader of the award-winning Kleio Quartet.

Turnage’s new string quartet – an uncharacteristically understated creation by a 63-year-old composer more associated in his younger days with musical hooliganism – was in safe hands. Inspired by the black Polish-African violinist, George Bridgetower, who famously impressed Beethoven, and to whom the latter’s Kreuzer Sonata was originally dedicated, a solo violin has first say, establishing an air of elegance and calm that is seldom seriously challenged throughout the two movements, their soft political message implicit in the titles, Bridgetower 23 and Shut Out.

This performance emphasised the reflectiveness and genuine attractiveness of the music, even where a hint of a rock ostinato emerged in the cello, abating rather than dominating as the opening movement subsided to near nothing. That plaintiveness persisted in the second movement, this time a jabbing repeated motif offering the only real threat to its languid countenance. What was so surprising about this piece was also a mark of its incredibly beauty.

The Beethoven connection prevailed either side of the Turnage, if effectively one step removed in Janacek’s String Quartet No 1 – subtitled the “Kreuzer Sonata”, though directly in reference to Tolstoy’s novel – which opened the recital. It’s a nervous piece at the best of times, frenetically buzzing ponticelli like some restless obsession, the focus of which took time to settle here, but when it did, embraced its excitable allure.

To end with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op 130, and its original Grosse Fuge finale (later numbered separately as Op 133), was to send us away mentally exhausted. The opening five movements provided neat and precise stimulation, from the gentle whimsy of the scherzo and lapping waves of the Alla danza tedesca, to the lyrical sweetness of the Cavatina. Then the full force of the Grosse Fuge, like a wild uncontrollable force of nature, courting danger at times, venturing close to collision, but ultimately providing the explosive catharsis Beethoven unequivocally intended.

Ken Walton

EIF: LSO/Rattle | Phaedre/Minotaur | The Threepenny Opera

Usher Hall / Lyceum / Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As befits an Edinburgh Festival posing a question about the direction of travel in this century, the third weekend of the programme offered an excellent opportunity to hear and see crucial works of the last one.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, Benjamin Britten’s dramatic cantata Phaedre and Kurt Weill’s breakthrough music-theatre work Die Dreigroschenoper are all essential to an understanding of the art of their creators, even if the Britten is from the very end of his life.

Phaedre has not been heard at the Festival for almost 20 years and this staging by Deborah Warner featured a visceral acting performance from mezzo Christine Rice that made the work a chamber opera. Using a piano version of the score, played with percussive propulsion by Richard Hetherington, the instrument itself became one of the simple props (alongside sheets, a chair, shoes) at her disposal.

If the structure of the work is Handelian, the emotional heft of Britten’s setting of Robert Lowell’s text is searingly contemporary – the work is not yet half a century old. Rice conveyed the passion of her character’s incestuous love powerfully, but more moving was the mix of wistfulness and regret she found in the work’s closing bars.

Warner partners the work with a danced version of the story of Phaedre’s sister Ariadne, played by Royal Ballet artist Isabel Lubach. The sound collage by Eilon Morris was a long way from Britten but its broad palette served the classical line of Kim Brandstrup’s choreography well, Lubach partnered by Tommy Frantzen and Jonathan Goddard.

The work of Elizabeth Hauptmann that Bertolt Brecht used in the writing of the adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera half a century earlier is no longer unacknowledged. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s Berliner Ensemble production of The Threepenny Opera may be very self-consciously “Brechtian” in much of its conception, but he is as admiring of Brecht’s collaborators, especially composer Kurt Weill.

The score was performed by an authentic seven-piece pit band led by Adam Benzwi from piano and harmonium, and the singing actors had varying levels of musical ability, with Gabriel Schneider’s charismatic Macheath and especially Bettina Hoppe’s soulful Spelunken-Jenny the best of them.

The distancing achieved by Rebecca Ringst’s somewhat grandiose designs – six tall multi-platformed towers moving up and down stage on rails – might have fitted Brechtian philosophy, but while the performers went out of their way to engage with the audience front-of-cloth, they only rarely engaged with one another. Doubtless this was deliberate, but it sometimes made the Festival Theatre stage look very large for the show. And for a script with a lot of sex – and a Kosky production – it wasn’t very sexy.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila is all about sex, alongside the Tristan and Isolde myth, Eastern music, birdsong, and his devout Catholicism. The fact that the composer saw no contradiction in any of these elements is what makes it so thrilling.

There will be few performances of this massive piece from the mid-point of the 20th century as thrilling as the one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle that brought the orchestra’s Festival residency to a close. There was a real sense of occasion before a note was played, as Rattle’s tenure as music director of the LSO comes to an end, Festival director Nicola Benedetti opening the evening’s two concerts with a lavish encomium to Rattle’s place in British music.

He reacted, as he only could, by moving swiftly on to talk about “The Road to Turangalila”, the title given to the three works in a preceding early evening concert that influenced Messiaen’s masterpiece. His comparison of Pierre Boulez’s reaction to the work with Fringe perennials The Ladyboys of Bangkok, encamped across Lothian Road, was wittily provocative.

The Fanfare from La Peri by Dukas, Milhaud’s La creation du monde, and Debussy’s La Mer paved that road. If 11 LSO players made the fanfare sparkle and the full orchestra gave a wonderfully rich account of the Debussy, with terrific soloists and a choral quality to the strings, the Milhaud was the revelation.

An alto sax has the lead line at the start of the piece, but the jazz content of this 1923 piece really kicks in with arco bass and a “Hot Five” front line of trombone, trumpet and clarinet from the 20-piece ensemble. Here was evidence from this side of the Atlantic to support Duke Ellington’s argument against labelling genres of music.

If jazz and movies are the great cultural developments of the 20th century, Turangalila is the musical expression of widescreen cinemascope. Rattle’s partnership with pianist Peter Donohoe on this work goes back to his time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Donohoe was as important as the LSO to the spectacular success of this rendition. So too, of course, was Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot, with its unique swooping proto-synthesiser sound, but it was always very carefully placed in the mix, and the other solo voices in the orchestra, as well as every detail of the percussion (requiring 10 players), were equally favoured.

Beyond argument, Turangalila was one of the events for which Benedetti’s first Festival will be remembered; the fact that the Usher Hall was full for the concert was also a notable achievement.

Keith Bruce

Ayanna Witter-Johnson & LSO Percussion Ensemble

The Hub, Edinburgh

Since Ben Tindall created a home for the Edinburgh International Festival in an abandoned Church of Scotland building on Castlehill in 1999, the architectural confection lumbered with the prosaic name of The Hub has presented a challenge for successive directors of the event. Although there have been successful one-off concerts and productions there over the years, it possibly achieved maximum usefulness as a studio for filmed chamber music during the restrictions of the Covid pandemic.

Nicola Benedetti’s solution to the use of the place during the three weeks is an eclectic series of recitals reflecting the range of the wider programme, which she hopes will make it a venue for the conversation she wants to have with the audience about the future direction of the Festival.

Few of the musicians performing there will encapsulate that range more individually than songwriter and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson. She last appeared in Scotland as a member of Peter Gabriel’s touring band and at EIF as a composer, her specially-commissioned work, Blush, paired with Judith Weir’s woman.life.song, performed by Chineke! and Andrea Baker during those Covid years. That piece, which plundered the archives of 70s jazz orchestration and Blaxploitation movie soundtracks, suggested a restless musical mind which her cheerful engaging combination of soulful performance and virtuosity here quickly confirmed.

Her collaborators were jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and the long-serving Principal Percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra Neil Percy with three of his LSO colleagues from the section. The Hub stage was filled with their instruments, tuned and simpler, but the metronomic beat of much of the music came from a foot-pedal and woodblock operated by Witter-Johnson herself, as, standing, she also played riffs and improvised on her long spiked cello, both bowed and pizzicato, and sang quite beautifully. As her solo encore of Sting’s Roxanne, complete with Bach-like introduction, demonstrated, she developed that startling one-woman-band technique to perfection before success brought her the luxury of these musical partners.

Her relationship with the LSO goes back more than a decade to her youthful involvement with the orchestra’s composers’ hub (every arts organisation has to have one) initiative, but it has reached a new level with the release in October of an album by this ensemble, Ocean Floor, on the LSO Live label. This concert was a showcase for that recording, built around her suite that gives it its title.

There are tragic stories, historical and personal, behind the music Witter-Johnson has composed for the project, but you might not guess that on an initial listen. She has a gift for joyful melody, both instrumental and vocal, and the complexity of her own writing teamed beautifully with Neil Percy’s improvising and Simcock’s arranging of her earlier tune, Chariot, in a distinctly Steve Reich style.

Simcock’s own composition for the album, Holding, although expansively introduced by the pianist, was less successful, probably because the short theme which it explores is less interesting in itself, but it did give each of the other players – David Jackson, Tom Edwards and Sam Walton (also a member of Colin Currie’s quartet) – their own moment in the spotlight.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Dunedin | Yeol Eum Son

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Fresh from their success with Mozart’s Mass in C at the London Proms, John Butt’s Dunedin Consort turned their attention to J S Bach for an Edinburgh Festival Queen’s Hall performance of all four Orchestral Suites. They are fascinating works, the composer drawing together prevailing features of the 18th century Italian and French styles to create a high Baroque sound that, if arguably German in character, is unarguably Bach.

Few understand that better than the excellent Dunedin players, responding to Butt’s innate knowledge of the composer and his refreshing and personable insight into Baroque performance style with complete assurance, mixed with an almost self-governing freedom and bountiful spontaneity. There wasn’t a moment in this concert where the music spoke without natural sparkle and captivating expressiveness.

What gave it all a pleasing aesthetic balance was the inherent diversity of the various suites themselves: two opulent D major ones, Nos 3 and 4 respectively, topped by glorious phalanxes of oboes and trumpets and which Butt, directing form the harpsichord, sensibly placed as the opening and closing works; the more delicately-scored C Major (No 1) and flute-dominated B minor (No 2) providing a softer, creamier centre. 

Stars emerged, but never out of context. Katy Bircher’s flute playing in the concerto-like B minor Suite was subtly prominent, the tenor of her performance proudly virtuosic yet generously integrated, tempered naturally by the delicacy of her period instrument. Minimum strings made for a sinewy, compact unit, fired by Bach’s dazzling writing and their own swashbuckling counter-play. In the larger-scaled suites, it was the martial thrill of the trumpets and timpani that blew us away. Bach as it should be, stimulating and sublime.

Tuesday’s Queen’s Hall recital by South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son came from a later time zone, the heady Romanticism of the 19th century in the wake of Beethoven. That composer’s presence was both the climax of the programme and its fundamental starting point. Son’s second half featured a single work, Beethoven’s late Sonata, the ‘Hammerklavier’, and one that must have startled its original audiences.

For this pianist it seemed to represent a logical product of the composer’s earlier, though in many cases equally provocative, sonatas. She immediately embraced the irascibility of the opening, its splintered rhetoric and impatient questioning, a beast that is never fully tamed in the volatile first movement. Her Scherzo evoked, as it should, a more even temperament, crisp and lithesome, yet still with darker shadows hovering. There was tenderness and thoughtfulness in her Adagio, more cool than ethereal, tossed brutally aside by the sheer bullishness of the closing fugue.

Leading up to all this, Son chose a series of mainly variation-type concert pieces that traced a notional lineage from Beethoven’s pupil Czerny, through his own pupil Liszt to Bizet and the troubled French piano virtuoso Alkan. It was a colourful journey, beginning with Bizet’s kaleidoscopic Variations Chromatiques, a flowering of imaginative diversions germinating from the most perfunctory of themes. 

In Czerny’s Variations on a Theme by Rode (’La Ricordanza’), Son flouted her immaculate finger precision and effortless facility, not least in a final variation sounding like stride piano before its time, but not before stilling the atmosphere with the work’s simplistic theme. Liszt’s Trancendental Study No 9, also subtitled ‘Ricordanza’, emerged almost like a postscript, yet characterised by its own expansive eloquence.

Finally, Alkan’s Variations on a Theme of Steibelt took us to the interval, its childish theme mischievously deceptive, given the ensuing maelstrom of notes that increased exponentially as Alkan’s characteristic virtuoso demands breached the near impossible. Never a problem, though, for this engaging pianist. 

Ken Walton

EIF: KBS Symphony Orchestra / Inkinen

Usher Hall, Edinburgh
An important ingredient of any Edinburgh International Festival is the arrival of an orchestra few of the audience will have had an opportunity to hear before. As part of the partnership Focus on Korea in Festival and Fringe this year, the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) Symphony Orchestra ticked that box, bringing a very accessible programme of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under Chief Conductor Pietari Inkinen.

The works are close together chronologically in terms of composition – the Dvorak 1895, the Tchaikovsky 1888 – and share the characteristics of memorable melody, uncanny orchestration, and unbridled passion. Dvorak had to be persuaded to a second attempt at a cello concerto but the result is one of the most performed for the instrument, while Tchaikovsky combines some of his darkest moments with his most jubilant in the symphony.

Young Korean cellist Jaemin Han is a superbly exciting performer with all the qualities to propel him to the top of the profession. His technical ability is married to melodic sensitivity, razor-like sharpness and a sort of passive aggression that made his Dvorak far more than a fine performance of a golden oldie. 

The style and flair he displayed in the outer movements were surpassed by a communication with the orchestra in the Adagio, the tranquillity momentarily shattered by a robust middle section, real passion in the soloist’s performance.

Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen is in the first year of his appointment with the KBS, and the Tchaikovsky in particular suggested a relationship developing nicely. There was a lovely gradual ensemble build-up in the first movement, an excellent horn solo in the second and a memorable vitality to the waltz before the crashing chord that heralds the finale.

Czech and Russian music, played by a Korean orchestra, with a Finnish conductor: it is what an international festival is all about.

Garry Fraser

EIF: The Magic Flute

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

When actor Neil John Gibson bustled onto the platform with a gag in the local vernacular about the buses at the start of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, as well as laughter in the capacity house there was detectable bristling in some of the more expensive seats.

There is, however, nothing tokenistic about a commitment to access that runs through new director Nicola Benedetti’s first Edinburgh Festival programme, so hackles will have risen in vain at the pantomimic elements in the presentation of this most problematic of operas. That included baritone Gyula Orendt’s Papageno throwing sweets to the front row of the stalls as well as Gibson channelling the spirit of Gerard Kelly or Andy Gray in some of his delivery.

It certainly leavened some of the darkness in a story that includes sexual assault and attempted suicide alongside racism and masonic ritual – The Magic Flute is not without its challenges for modern audiences. The first of what are to be annual concerts of Mozart operas by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO, this was a bilingual version, readers Thomas Quastoff and Gibson working with a new English text by Sir David Pountney, and sung in German, with English supertitles.

Seated to the side, Quastoff and Gibson brought a range of voices to their contributions, while the singers were simply the high quality cast that we have come to expect of Festival concert operas at the Usher Hall. Tenor Ilker Arcayurek was an engaging Tamino from the start, who seemed as attached to his magical flute as he was to Julia Bullock’s rather serious Pamina, her characterisation perhaps deliberately in opposition to the playful charm of the Three Ladies, local hero Catriona Morison flanked by Elizabeth Watts and Claudia Huckle.

Of Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night – a role she has sung all over the world in all the best houses – there can be only the highest praise. Quite how she can stride out on to the stage and turn on an instrument operating at that pitch and power is beyond comprehension.

With Brindley Sherratt an imperious Sarastro, there was strength across the whole cast, Pountney even lightening the character of the darkest role, Peter Hoare’s Monostatos with the prop of a cricket bat – a daft visual pun on the sport’s use of the term “guard” that probably stumped as many in the audience as caught it.

With three youngsters singing more of the three boys’ music than is often heard in full productions, the other star vocal ingredient was the SCO Chorus, Emelyanychev ensuring that some of the finest music in the score – at the end of Act 1 and after Pamina’s aria in Act 2 – was given the fullest expression.

Ultimately, and despite the stellar competition onstage, this was the ebullient conductor’s show. His fingerprints were everywhere – on the casting, cueing the singers, in his superb relationship with the players and on the keyboard in front of him, where he added a few ornaments of his own to Mozart’s music.

This was a Magic Flute full of magical moments, and given its occasional emphasis on what used to be called “the battle of the sexes” suggested that the differently problematic Cosi fan tutte might be a good choice for next year – there were a few in this cast who would be good in that too.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Andrew Perry: Rachel Redmond as Papagena and Gyula Orendt as Papageno

EIF: BFO / Fischer 4

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Edinburgh Festival residency was one of diminishing returns. Or to put it another way, what began with the invigorating and enlightening razzmatazz of Tuesday’s beanbag presentations, and continued with Wednesday’s energised Hungarian collaboration with the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir, veered dangerously towards gimmickry for the orchestra’s valedictory appearance on Thursday.

It’s the BFO’s trademark to throw surprise and mischief into its performances, ideas that its reforming maestro Iván Fischer believes will “take the musicians closer to their audience”. While the placing of a split horn section raised either side to the rear made complete musical sense at the start of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, where pairs of horns correspond antiphonally, the decision to bring each section successively to its feet in the closing moments of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, Duke Ellington-style, took us dangerously into naff territory.

It also seemed strangely at odds with the tenor of the German Romantic repertoire that dominated the evening. Der Freischütz survived unharmed, the horns back among the regular ranks once the point of their segregation was made, and Fischer pushing the momentum on to satisfy the rugged, grumbling rhetoric of Weber’s score. 

Nor was there anything to necessarily rock the boat in the same composer’’s famous Violin Concerto, other than the somewhat mutable whims of the young Swedish-born soloist Daniel Lozakovich. There was no lack of technical assurance in his performance and moments where he beautifully extended the lyrical lines to sublime ends, but this was frequently undermined by rhythmic seizures that would suddenly thrust the tempo into overdrive, unnaturally so, surprising even Fischer and his orchestra in the process. 

Nonetheless there were clear calls for an encore, Lozakovich obliging with the mesmerising acrobatics of Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana – variations on the theme of Paganini’s most famous Caprice – and a steely virtuosity he had hitherto concealed.

Between the Weber and Mendelssohn, the BFO again reverted to emblematic unorthodoxy, discarding their instruments to form a choir and deliver a creditable rendition of Fanny Mendelssohn’s a cappella choral setting “Schnell Flihen Die Schatten Der Nicht”, the fourth song from her Gartenlieder. It was sweet and sentimental, reflected Fischer’s belief that “all instrumentalists benefit from singing”, and revealed in Felix Mendelssohn’s sibling a comparable compositional expertise. Nonetheless, it bore only a token presence.

There was nothing superfluous about the “Scottish” Symphony, Fischer powering it forward incessantly, but not without regard for its opening sobriety, the sun-filled nonchalance of the Scherzo, the Adagio’s tender expansiveness, and the heroic denouement of the finale. It may have seemed rough in places, a lack of refinement in collective woodwind contributions, but there was plenty fire and soul, and a self-belief clearly communicated by the inspirational Fischer to his receptive players, never more palpable than in the rip-roaring Dvorak encore.

Ken Walton

EIF: Trojan Women

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Scottish Opera’s Ring cycle was not the only treat in Brian McMaster’s 2003 Edinburgh International Festival for those with the stamina for long-form performance.

That year’s programme also included a remarkably comprehensive introduction to the Korean art of pansori, sung story-telling stretching out over hours in which a single vocalist is accompanied by a percussionist on traditional instruments. Audiences for the shows were predictably small, but we select few had an unforgettable experience of what was acknowledged to be an endangered art-form, and a designated “national treasure” in its country of origin.

This flagship production of the Korean strand in the 2023 EIF programme is labelled “Music Theatre” in the printed brochure (although Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival commendably downplays such categorisation), but it might equally be described as “Opera”. It serves no worthwhile purpose to restrict that word to fully-staged productions of a limited list of works in Western culture beyond giving the smaller-minded something to froth about when there isn’t enough of it for them.

Trojan Women is not pansori, but that tradition is an essential ingredient of the magnificent production Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen has fashioned with the help of one of the surviving practitioners of the art, Ahn Sook-sun. She composed – improvised, really, as it was not notated – the music to which much of the text by Bae Sam-sik is set and which the cast have then learned, and was herself a member of that cast when the show first opened.

This work is presented by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, and changgeuk theatre is a larger form, with an ensemble company, sets and choreography and more musicians, which began with the five pansori stories that have come down to us before embracing narratives from other cultures, East and West.

Euripedes’ contemporaneous account of the fall of Troy and the war between Sparta and Greece is the basis of the story here, but the musical material used to tell it is all Korean, traditional and modern, Ahn Sook-sun’s pansori music combined with contemporary K-pop by the composer of the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, Jung Jae-il.

The result is not just operatic in its sound and appearance, most of the dialogue sung by the seven principals or chorus of eight and Cho Myung-hee’s set design, Scott Zielinski’s lighting and Austin Switser’s video projections using the language of current opera staging, but in details of the score, with Wagnerian leitmotiv and characters teamed with individual instruments of the accompanying ensemble.

The female chorus is terrific, their declamatory unison voices sometimes resembling Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of art pop band The B-52s from the Athens in Georgia, and the principal cast, led by Kim Kum-mi as the matriarch Hecuba, is without a weak link. All the characterisation is fascinating, the stylised movement married to naturalistic individual expression. The disbelieved Cassandra (Yi So-yeon) has bouffant hair like Ronnie Spector and a big voice to match, while the casting of male K-pop star Kim Jun-soo as Helen of Troy – possibly more bold in the current fetid climate of personal politics than it should be – is justified entirely by the poise he brings to the role and the piano ballad he has to sing.

The riches of this multi-faceted production are beyond number, as are the parallels with other forms of drama – Hecuba’s emphasis on endurance is Beckettian while her railing at the gods towards the end of the piece is unmistakably Lear-like, but her exchange with Andromache (Kim Mi-jin) could be from a TV soap. Most importantly, however, it is a fully-realised work from elsewhere that speaks to a global audience and to universal experience, which is exactly what the Edinburgh International Festival is all about.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jess Shurte

EIF: BFO / Fischer 1&2

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is not the only orchestra in the world to recognise that survival requires significant change. The key, of course, is how orchestras change. Some flirt with educational projects, others with the general staidness of traditional symphonic presentation, while others tinker in order to address funding whims. But few take the bull completely by the horns, rip up the rule book and think way out the box, as the BFO has done for decades under the radical leadership of its conductor Iván Fischer. A demo, effectively, on what it’s all about opened their residency at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Only the arthritic will have baulked at the beanbags littering the Usher Hall stalls, which turned out to be the best seats in the house for the purpose of Tuesday’s two related concerts. If there was a main gig, it was the later one, a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in which we beanbaggers could choose a position amidst or around the orchestra. It was itself scattered with Fischer standing centrally to conduct and compere simultaneously.

This approach, he said, is as much for the audience’s benefit as the players’. And sure enough, as observers we sensed immediately the electricity that sparked between sections or vying soloists, while the players, shooting winks and glances at some of us, seemed to revel in the closer contact. Near the start, Fischer stopped and sought our feedback. Faster or slower? Broody or brio? What do you reckon? He then proceeded to illustrate the consequences of the options. In his hands, interpretation is an open book, changeable at a whim.

Ultimately this Dvorak 8 was fascinating because it wasn’t a straight performance. There were several stops en route, Fischer asking the clarinets to think again about their melancholic response to a blissful statement by the flutes. “Imagine you are miserable street beggars,” he suggested. They duly obliged. If this was a snapshot of the orchestra’s regular demeanour, it must be fun to be a concertgoer in Budapest.

Importantly it was not a gimmick. Having seen the BFO rehearse and perform in other locations – recently in Mahler at the Royal Festival Hall – there is no question that the spontaneity of the preparation process feeds powerfully into the moment of delivery. While this presentation resembled something between an open rehearsal and a masterclass, it had a serious purpose, which was to say to us that we are all intrinsic to the concert experience.  

For the earlier event, A Model For The Future, Fischer took centre stage with Festival Director Nicola Benedetti to discuss the wider policies of his orchestra, and his long-held belief that reform is critical in ensuring the long-term survival of the species. His own model has been that exposed by Pierre Boulez, which is to regard the orchestra as a pool of musicians who can either appear en masse or in various smaller contingents that reflect their particular enthusiasm. 

Cue a bristling early music troupe, complete with sparkling recorder player, joined by a choir populated by others from the orchestra, which performed Monteverdi madrigals with stylish elan. Other integral ensembles took their turn: a steamy Argentine tango ensemble, a gritty Klezmer ensemble and a red hot traditional trio ramping up the momentum to a final of Romanian folk dance

Ken Walton 

EIF: Budapest Festival Orchestra / Fischer 3

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

On paper the third concert of the BFO’s residency at this year’s Edinburgh Festival looked a brief affair, with just half an hour of music before and after the interval. In practice it turned out to be a very complete evening, and that was down to more than the stage re-setting required for the different elements of the programme.

Most obviously that included bringing the concert grand to the front of the stage for Sir Andras Schiff to play the third and last of Bartok’s Piano Concertos. Designed by the dying composer as a legacy for his pianist wife Ditta to sustain her career in their US exile, in fact she quickly returned to Hungary after he succumbed to leukaemia and it was premiered by Gyorgy Sandor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946.

It is a very different beast from his rigorous Piano Concerto No2 and Schiff took a characteristic chamber music approach to its performance, engaging audibly and visibly with the superb wind principals of the orchestra in the opening movement and revelling in the referencing of Beethoven’s late string quartet in the Adagio religioso. The delightful transition into the work’s lively closing movement heralded a real vibrancy, poignantly suggesting that the composer was earnestly hoping not to die soon.

The personal content of that late work was framed by the practical music-making we heard on either side of it. The concert began with two performances of a selection of Romanian Folk Dances, Bartok’s orchestral transcription of 1915 preceded by a rougher version of the same material played by a folk trio drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, viola chords and slap bass accompanying the fiddle top line. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard essayed a similar lesson in a concert with the BBC SSO some years ago but it was a little po-faced next to this foot-stomping demonstration of Bartok’s way with traditional sources.

Alongside all the Budapesters on the platform, the local lasses of NYCOS National Girls Choir faced a challenge in performing Bartok’s Seven Choruses for Female Voices and Orchestra – one which, of course, director Christopher Bell’s young choristers rose to magnificently. As immaculately disciplined as always, with diction that non-Hungarian speakers could only marvel at, they performed entirely from memory and clearly beguiled Ivan Fischer, the conductor barely bothering with his instrumentalists to focus entirely on them. Beyond their musical excellence, the Fringe’s comedy awards panel should have been present to hear 75 young women being funny in Hungarian.

Bartok wrote his choruses to complement his colleague Zoltan Kodaly’s education programme, the music tuition method used by NYCOS today, so it was appropriate that the concert concluded with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. Like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances they celebrate their traditional sources in the superbly-crafted arc of an orchestral suite, and once again those Budapest Festival Orchestra soloists were immaculate.

Nor was it quite the end of the night, as Fischer re-made his resources of human talent into a baroque band and choir of 20 plus voices. The link between the encore of Monteverdi and the singing we’d heard previously was in the lyrics rather than music, and their expression of female experience – and this was one the NYCOS girls will surely remember for many years to come.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Ivan Fischer by Marco Borggreve

EIF: Buddha Passion

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Where Bach’s Passions narrate the Christian path to salvation – symbolised by the crucifixion and resurrection – Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion follows the young prince’s path to Nirvana and its foundation in compassion. If one were to draw any musical comparisons, it might be the mutual simplicity of Dun’s Chinese chants versus the Lutheran chorales used by Bach to provide the popular commentary, the voice of the people.

Either way, Dun’s epic conception was a powerful vehicle for the opening of Nicola Benedetti’s debut Edinburgh Festival programme as artistic director, a Scottish premiere performance conducted by the composer and employing the visual theatre of two choruses (the Edinburgh Festival and RSNO Youth Choruses), an exotic mix of solo performance traditions, and the powerhouse of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Dun has proclaimed this piece essentially a concert opera, a quality intrinsic in the literally thousands of murals in China’s historic Mogul Caves – many of them depicting musicians – that inspired its composition. As such, we witness beyond its purely musical strength a sense of animation, physical interaction and sensuous colourings. 

Its Edinburgh performance recorded maximum impact through the palpable engagement of its constituents. Dun drew from the adult chorus and its ethnic chants the most opulent of unisons, the singers equally happy to throw inhibitions aside when their role converted to primal laughter or dramatic gesture and exhortation. The youth chorus topped this with singing of pure and lustrous resilience.

With such a diverse team of solo performers, the key characterisations never failed to surprise, extending from the sparkling precision of soprano Louise Kwong and mezzo-soprano Samantha Chong, and cool-headed Western-style persuasiveness of tenor Chen Chen and baritone Sun Li, to the challenging unorthodoxy of Pipa player and dancer Chen Yining enacting a truly mesmerising choreography, indigenous singer Tan Weiwei, and the extraordinary subterranean vocal reverberations and harmonic overtones created by Mongolian throat singer (and morin khuur player) Batubagen.

Combined with the luxuriant orchestral score – a sound world constantly bouncing between Puccini, mystical avant-garde and unadulterated 20th Century Fox that proved easy meat for the RSNO – Dun presented us with an initially soft-centred, but ultimately profound performance. If spectacle, scale and originality are key to a successful EIF opener, this did the trick.

Ken Walton 

EIF: BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

For many of a generation older than Nicola Benedetti’s (specifically, mine) the question the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival is posing on the cover of her first programme and in the title of this concert, Where Do We Go From Here?, is less the last book completed by the Rev Martin Luther King before his assassination, and more a line from the debut hit single five years later by David Essex, Rock On.

It is not too flippant to add that in the case of the final work in this short concert, Three Screaming Popes by Mark-Anthony Turnage, the name of the teen heart-throb’s chart-topper would not be an inaccurate answer. Turnage’s youthful, visceral response to the paintings of Francis Bacon was by far the oldest work of the four the BBC Scottish played under the baton of Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, and its power and intensity, and dramatic conclusion with a referee’s whistle and  dying piano chord could only really have been placed at the end of the programme.

Where we journeyed before that, as Benedetti, writer and broadcaster Tom Service and the conductor guided us through a trio of 21st century pieces, was no less musically rewarding, especially the longest and most recent work, Hans Abrahamsen’s Let Me Tell You, with soprano Jennifer France.

The soloist has the commanding starring role in this three-part song-cycle which gives voice to Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, drawing inspiration from music writer Paul Griffith’s experimental novel. France was superb, but Wigglesworth’s introduction, deconstructing the composer’s method with the help of the SSO musicians, ensured that this audience was also paying close attention to the instrumental score.

Although no-one mentioned it – in an event that had clearly drawn a good audience partly because of its verbal component – Griffith’s other work as a librettist, on Tan Dun’s EIF-commissioned Marco Polo and Elliot Carter’s sole opera, What Next?, also chimed rather fortunately with this year’s Festival.

Between those two works, the presentation team employed the established tactic of having the orchestra play a new work twice to give the least well-known piece a chance to win us over. Elizabeth Ogonek’s vibrant as though birds is just four minutes long, so that was eminently feasible, and to my ears it sounded sharper, not in pitch, but in precision of performance, the second time around – but that could equally have been my ears.

The concert had begun with Virga by Helen Grimes, a modern pastoral piece which has at its heart some exquisite string-writing – and playing in this performance – decorated by harp, celeste and percussion and more robust brass and wind colouring.

Of the quartet featured, she was the only composer present in the audience. Would I have preferred to hear her talk about the work? Perhaps. But without the Benedetti attraction, this programme – an encapsulation of the director’s whole approach to her new job – would surely never have put so many bottoms on Usher Hall seats.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Jennifer France by Nick Cutts

EIF 2023

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.

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found


Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe’s second album for Pentatone comes within a whisker of being too cool for school. The label describes it as “an ecstatic journey containing music by outsiders, mystics, visionaries, who often have more than one identity”.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, it would be pushing the envelope for a vinyl release, but is formatted that way, with a clear side one/side two split between Oliver Leith’s Pushing my thumb through a plate (originally written for harp) and Meredith Monk’s Nightfall (composed for voices).

The repertoire runs from Monk’s 12th century forebear Hildegard von Bingen to jazzmen Chick Corea and Bill Evans, by way of mavericks Moondog and Julius Eastman. It’s eclectic certainly, but all in the best possible current hipster taste, perfectly designed to appeal to the audience Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan astutely identified for the strand of “contemporary music” he introduced to the programme.

It’s also electric, Shibe playing two amplified solid-bodied guitars, through an array of effects, most extravagantly deployed on the earliest music. Recorded less than half a mile from the EIF’s Leith Theatre venue in Great Junction Street, it roams the globe and the repertoire, including a world premiere by Daniel Kidane (inspired by lockdown and sitting nicely amidst Corea’s Children’s Songs) and an arrangement of Shiva Feshareki’s 2018 VENUS/ZOHREH (originally for string quartet).

The latter’s graphic score, and the one for Eastman’s Buddha, are reproduced in the booklet of a package that has the guitarist indulging his cos-play enthusiasm. If you are looking for a precedent for the cover art style of Shibe’s recent output, look no further than Icelandic avant-pop pixie Bjork.

All of which suggest a bold level of ambition, and the undeniable fact is that Shibe pulls it off. His playing is immaculate, and the soundscapes he builds flawlessly constructed, never in any danger of straying into prog excess, and beautifully recorded. The disc is also sequenced with great care, so that the more melodious works arrive at exactly the correct time. Admirers of the guitarist’s acoustic classical work will find much to enjoy, as will those fans less likely to take a cottage in Earlsferry to hear Schubert chamber music at the East Neuk Festival each summer.

In record company marketing terms, Lost & Found is probably a “crossover” album, but one that is far too plugged into the zeitgeist and modern taste to deserve the label. It stands a very good chance of knocking some of the more obvious products bearing that label off their perches in the classical charts, but is well worth an attentive listen anyway.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Thank You, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Playhouse

At the end of an Edinburgh Festival during which political issues, from the personal to the international, have been particularly to the fore, an appearance by Californian soprano Angel Blue was most appropriate. In July the singer withdrew from La Traviata at Verona Arena because of the Italian venue’s use of blackface in a parallel summer staging of Aida. Although her public statement was eloquent and reasonable, the social media response explains her absence from those platforms now.

The 75th Festival was blessed to have her on the stage of its largest theatre as special guest of The Philadelphia Orchestra for a free concert that was also streamed live to an outdoor screen in Princes Street Gardens. Her quartet of songs – O Mio Babbino Caro and Vissa d’arte by Puccini, Gershwin’s Summertime and Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow – are likely  to be the part many of the audience remembers best.

The event was the last of many innovations from Festival Director Fergus Linehan during his tenure, and if it can happen again, it should – the closing fireworks concert enjoyed a good innings, and 70-odd reinventions of the wheel can be regarded as sufficient achievement. There are countless ways in which this free concert format could now be developed.

For this year, the title of the event worked especially well. As Linehan explained in his introduction, it was not just meant to thank the city for welcoming the Festival back after the Covid pandemic, it was specifically a thank-you to those working in the NHS and care-homes, teaching children and delivering food and other essential supplies during the health emergency. We can assume there was an element of personal appreciation from the director to the city as well, and that should be reciprocated – there has been much to celebrate about Linehan’s tenure, and the way the Festival responded to the restrictions of the previous two years was especially admirable.

This concert was an upbeat way to mark all that, and Angel Blue’s contributions were perfect for the occasion. For some obscure technical reason she switched to a hand-held microphone for the Wizard of Oz hit, which did her voice no favours at all inside the venue but possibly made sense in the Gardens, but, that apart, she was in glorious form, on the popular Puccini every bit as much as her Grammy-winning Porgy and Bess.

The ebullient Yannick Nezet-Seguin and his orchestra are also well-suited to a concert of classical pops, able to launch into everything with the appropriate level of energy. We heard the Dvorak Carnival Overture again, and a repeat of the Third Movement of Florence Price’s Symphony No 1, but also Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie and the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 7th, both vibrant masterpieces of orchestral writing, opening and closing the programme.

Just as successful in the context, however, were the two new pieces they played in a concert that was a whistle-stop tour of recent work by the orchestra and its music director. Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers was from a slate of commissions to complement a planned cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and drew on the music of the symphony whose Finale followed, as well as from Beethoven’s journals for its title.

And Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which requires the players to cheer as well as play their instruments, could not have been more appropriate. It has become something of an anthem for the orchestra, after being written in 2020 as a sort of concert-hall equivalent of the UK’s clap for carers – a musical appreciation of the huge contribution of, and the sacrifices being made by, essential workers.

There was, of course, an encore after the Beethoven, and if a reappearance by Angel Blue would have suited the packed house perfectly, one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances was just fine too.

Keith Bruce

« Older Entries