With consummate timing, pianist Malcolm Martineau assembled his pals – singers Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams, violinist Sijie Chen and cellist Ursula Smith – to mark Sir Walter Scott’s 250th on the eve of the great writer’s actual birthday. More immediate matters of synchronisation then presented further challenges.
This was a Queen’s Hall concert par excellence, regrettably not at the Queen’s Hall, but in the Festival’s temporary “polytunnel” in the courtyard of the oldest part of the University of Edinburgh half a mile down the road. Needs must, and an impressive response to pandemic restrictions, but the habitual broad smile of baritone Williams disguised the fact that his accompanist was clearly struggling to hear the voices, at least at the start of the recital. For someone as sensitive and attuned to nuances of vocal delivery as Martineau this must have been excruciatingly frustrating.
From an audience point of view, however, the uncertainty of tempo at the start of the programme was swiftly overcome, and easily ignored. There was so much of fascination in this programme, alongside gloriously familiar music given an unforgettable performance.
That piece was Schubert’s Ave Maria, surely as well-ridden an old war-horse as there is in the repertoire, and one where the piano accompaniment is as firmly lodged in the mind as the melody. No matter what set up of microphones and monitors Watts and Martineau were having to cope with, their rendition of the song was superb, the soprano in heart-stoppingly glorious form and the pianist immaculately responsive to her phrasing.
It is an ill-divided world, and Watts had the best of this inventive programme, with Williams’ solos almost punctuation between her finest moments, an impression not contradicted by the fact that he, unlike her, was using a score. In the Schubert settings from The Lady of the Lake, the character of Ellen has the best songs, and Watts had already let us hear Mendelssohn’s less grand setting of the prayer to the Virgin.
Of the less well-known songs, it was the baritone who was called upon to demonstrate facility in a range of languages in songs by Glinka and Meyerbeer, the latter’s La pauvre Louise neatly juxtaposed with Watts singing Parry’s Proud Maisie.
There are no intervals during this year’s concerts, but the pair ended what would have been each half of a Queen’s Hall recital with a duet, and the strings took part in the opening Haydn and closing Beethoven sequence. The Monks of Bangor’s March is probably the meatiest of Beethoven’s Scott settings, which few would argue are essential elements of his canon.
Williams had the last word, however, with what he described as a “musical bon-bon” that he had composed as an encore by the whole ensemble. Like a rediscovered parlour song, it captured, precisely, the ambivalence of the contemporary reader – and student – to Sir Walter’s works. Reverence is always better for being tempered, even on a 250th birthday.
For those in the audience for whom this was a longed-for return to live opera in front of an audience in a theatre, to cavil at all is absurd, but the truth is that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s last opera sat much more comfortably in a car-park. The director’s own designs took full advantage of the environment at Scottish Opera’s technical centre in Glasgow’s Edington Street, and will doubtless do so again when the show reaches the semi-outdoor space of US co-producer Santa Fe Opera.
From the absence of the ribald sleaze in the arrival of Sir John’s busy bed onstage at the opera’s opening to the closing pageant of costumes and puppetry in Windsor Park, making still-magical stage pictures but lacking the spooky edge of happening in the real outdoors, this was a contained version of the show that opened a month ago. Rather than rebuilding a Shakespearean theatre, the set is an image of one within a proscenium arch.
That said, there are obvious advantages to being back in the opera house. This production has become a sort-of-tribute to the late Graham Vick, who died from complications of Covid-19 after it opened. The company’s controversial director of productions in the 1980s, he commissioned both Amanda Holden’s English libretto and Jonathan Dove’s reduced orchestration when he founded Birmingham Touring Opera in 1987. Both are displayed (surtitles included) to much better advantage this time around, with the orchestra behind the singers and set on the Festival Theatre’s huge stage (although still, I think, amplified). The balance between voices and instruments is more or less perfect throughout, and the detail of Verdi’s music, which was already very well played, even more clearly audible. The same goes for the clarity of the text, and Holden’s superb choral cry of “Apotheosis!” ranks with Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing “Onomatopoeia” in the canon of Great Backing Vocals of the 1980s.
That chorus is now located in the wings, and where the canal-side trees were revealed behind the set in Edington Street, the orchestra is now revealed to the audience in the last act. The singing of the cast remains as fine as ever, and it is a particular joy to hear Roland Wood’s full-voiced characterful baritone without a microphone in the title role. His is a very considered and rounded portrayal of Falstaff, even in the broadest slapstick-comedy moments. When he sings of the “harvest of my late summer” it is impossible not to apply that to the work’s composer as well, and Scottish Opera does that achievement proud in this staging.
If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.
Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?
A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.
Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.
If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.
All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”
Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.
At the heart of the first in this new series of Thursday online concerts by members of the SCO is James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, written in 1991 in memory of the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, it sits powerfully within the programme’s common thread of wind-string chamber combinations, but its grim, often painful, countenance gives it an agonising central presence, Britten’s early elemental Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s ebullient Quintet offering less anguish either side.
That’s not to underplay the depth of engagement in all three performances. As an opener, Britten’s student composition is illuminating as an early insight into the composer’s later signature voice. The extreme clarity of texture – a primal two-note opening motif expanding as a springboard towards the oboe’s first languishing melody – is far from naive, and a powerful preemptor of Britten’s ability to express his thoughts with intense nuclear precision.
This is a vital performance with exemplary playing from the string trio and, above all, Amy Turner’s exquisite and dominant role as oboist. An ending that returns to the opening material is all the more effective as the dissolving resolution to this all-embracing interpretation.
The limelight shifts to clarinet for the MacMillan, critical from the outset where an emerging breathy hiss transforms into a single chilling note, agonisingly repeated. It’s a dramatic moment, right up clarinettist Maximiliano Martin’s street, from which this lengthy lament unfolds with agonising grief.
Like the Britten, it is representative of MacMilllan in his early years of mainstream composition. The seeds are there: the bare theatricality of isolated unison notes rising to deafening crescendos; keening glissandi that evoke a rugged Scottish primitivism; harmonics that throw a ghostly halo over hymn-like harmonies. These are like a blueprint for later, greater MacMilllan.
At the time of its origin, one critic said of Tuireadh that “MacMillan has written nothing better”. The fact is he’s written lots better ever since, though that is not to dismiss what is a genuinely moving reflection on the mood of the time in the wake of a disaster that took so many lives.
There is, nonetheless, a sense of fragmentation and consequent prolixity, together with a noticeable presence of stylistic borrowings, which are hard to ignore even in such a heartfelt performance as this. Yet Maximiliano and his colleagues find everything that is powerful in its deep-felt message. It remains a tour-de-force in MacMillan’s now epic canon.
The concert ends on a cheerier note with Prokofiev’s Quintet Op 39, a six-movement suite made up of music from his chamber ballet Trapèze, written in 1924 while he was living in Paris. Scored unusually for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and bassoon – he wrote for the ensemble he was presented with – the music is typical of Prokofiev’s acid pen, combining satire and nostalgia like a bittersweet pill. The SCO ensemble revel in its playful irreverence while respecting its warm and affectionate undercurrents. Ken Walton
Is the future of Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School reaching a musical conclusion? A series of “cultural conversations” aims to state the case. KEITH BRUCE explains.
He may have been born in Glasgow, and designed buildings and monuments all over Scotland, but neo-classical architect Thomas Hamilton is most especially associated with Edinburgh, and there with two public buildings whose recent fortunes have been very different.
The Dean Orphanage, which sits above the Water of Leith in the West End of the capital, is now styled SNGMA2, an extension, across Belford Road, of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, previously simply the Dean Gallery and before that for many years a teacher training facility.
Beyond the East End of Princes Street, on Regent Road opposite the monolithic Scottish Office building, St Andrew’s House, is “The Old Royal High School”, as it has been identified ever since the school moved to Barnton, far out the Queensferry Road, in 1968.
Some recent media coverage of plans for its future has insisted that the building has been “unoccupied” in the half century and more that has passed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the years after the school pupils for whom it was designed and built moved out, it has seen a great variety of tenants, and often occupied a very prominent place in the discourse about the future of Scotland.
What is beyond debate is the quality of the building itself. Built in the 1820s, it was greatly admired in its own century by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, and more recent architectural historians have called it “the architect’s supreme masterpiece and the finest monument of the Greek revival in Scotland”. With a commanding position on the side of Calton Hill in “the Athens of the North”, it is unsurprising that it was considered in the 1970s to be the natural home for a Scottish Parliament in the run-up to the 1979 referendum, which failed to clear the hurdle to establish such a body.
Nonetheless the debating chamber that had been created inside was pressed into service as the meeting place for the “Scottish Grand Committee” – as distinct from the Scottish Select Committee – a gathering of all of Scotland’s Westminster MPs. By the time Scotland did vote to have its own parliament, the old school building was judged to be inadequate to the purpose, and had, perhaps, become too closely associated with the campaign for more than devolution.
Pending the construction of a new parliament building at Holyrood on the site of a demolished brewery, the devolved administration set up temporary camp at the other end of the Royal Mile and Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical masterpiece began a longer and more uncertain phase of its existence, but one which may at last be approaching a conclusion.
What is notable during that time, when responsibility for the building returned to Edinburgh City Council, is that the arts have often enlivened it, and been at the heart of plans for its future.
In 1998, Fringe impresario Richard Demarco moved in with a programme of performances and masterclasses during the Edinburgh Festival in a partnership with the European Youth Parliament.
In 2004 the Edinburgh-resident former press secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, Michael Shea, was the main spokesman for a multi-million pound proposal to convert it into a national museum of photography, an artform in which Scotland had produced a good number of pioneers, but which still lacks a major gallery. The plans failed to find the necessary Heritage Lottery backing.
Ten years later the Old Royal High School was pressed into service as a venue for the Edinburgh Art Festival, then in its own tenth year, with film installations in the main chamber and neon artwork on the façade.
Since 2014 speculation about the future of the building has centred around controversial hotel plans, while a proposal by St Mary’s Music School, currently housed in buildings not far from Hamilton’s Dean building, to return it to the realm of education, for which it was designed, has steadily gained ground.
With planning consent for the hotel proposal now lapsed, and the council open to offers for the site, the Royal High School Preservation Trust and St Mary’s have joined forces on the Perfect Harmony Development Board to drive forward the plan for a national music centre and national music school, with substantial backing promised from Carol Grigor’s Dunard Fund.
Part of that public awareness campaign will be a series of monthly Cultural Conversations online, informing people about the plans for the redevelopment of the building and the work of the school.
Vox Carnyx is delighted to be involved in these, with Keith Bruce and Ken Walton putting questions to key people involved in the project before open question and answer sessions. Architects and engineers, teachers and alumni will be taking part in the webinars running from March to August.
The first of these is on Friday March 5 from noon, when Keith Bruce will be speaking with William Gray Muir of the Royal High School Preservation Trust and Carol Nimmo of the Perfect Harmony Development Board.
With opera engagements on hold, Edinburgh-born Catriona Morison has been focussing on her recital career. She talks to KEITH BRUCE about her debut solo album.
Catriona Morison should be rehearsing in Bordeaux for Laurent Pelly’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff, playing Meg Page alongside the Alice Ford of Veronique Gens.
A staging with production partners in Spain, Belgium and Japan, the plug was only pulled on its March opening in mid-January, three weeks before rehearsals were due to begin. Such is the uncertainty of life for a singer in time of pandemic.
If she is disappointed, and hopes very much that the show will go ahead at some point in the future, as Opera National Bordeaux intends, the mezzo-soprano is far from downcast. Morison is only too aware that she has been dealt a hand that others in her profession might envy in this fraught era.
Her diary is not empty, even if it is less frantic than it was. There are recitals in May in Amsterdam and Bilbao with pianist Julius Drake and more in June, and a St Matthew Passion with the Rotterdam Phil, set to be live-streamed in April under the baton of Scotland’s John Butt, is still on her schedule. Whether the conductor is permitted to travel for that one is perhaps uncertain – for the Berlin-resident singer that is less of an issue.
And before all that there is the release of her debut album, a collection on 25 songs by Edvard Grieg, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Josephine Lang – whose music she is keen to champion. With master accompanist – and fellow Edinburger – Malcolm Martineau at the piano, and master producer Philip Hobbs at the controls, it was recorded at Crear in Argyll over a year ago, its release postponed as successive attempts to organise some concerts to promote it fell victim to the health emergency. In time – perhaps later this year – those dates may happen, but for now her most recent appearance in Scotland was at her alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in January 2020, with Julia Lynch at the piano.
Compared with those studying there now, Morison is aware that she has many blessings to count.
“I am lucky that I have started my career and have years behind me, and not coming out of university or college now with all the worries of Covid and Brexit. And I am fortunate to live over here so that travel is possible.”
Possible, but far from straightforward, as she recounts the complicated process to enable her to spend five days in Italy in December to perform a Christmas Oratorio with Trevor Pinnock, which involved much testing and form-filling in the accepted languages.
“It is currently a bit of a lockdown lottery, depending on where you are in the world. But there is a lot of humanity there too. In a time of desperation and need, there is a lot of positivity and hope. If we don’t have hope, we don’t have anything.”
Morison first stayed in Berlin as an Erasmus student in her third year as an undergraduate (a course no longer open to young British talent), and she returned to build her career in Germany, first in Weimar and then in Wuppertal. While applications for German citizenship made in Berlin have been taking up to a year to process, Morison made hers while still in the Ruhr valley and it was completed in a little over four months. She became a German citizen before the reality of Brexit and the pandemic struck.
When she won the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2017, her teacher Professor Siegfried Gohritz, of Weimar’s University Franz Liszt, was in the audience to witness her triumph.
“I still see my teacher as regularly as possible to maintain my voice, and coaching is still allowed over here,” she says. “It is very good to have someone like that in your corner – you get a different kind of feedback than from elsewhere.”
She has also kept up-to-date with all the latest thinking about re-opening halls and theatres.
“There have been studies in Germany about the effectiveness of masks in auditoriums and a recent study in Dortmund found that with up to 40% of the seating capacity, transmission risk was very low.”
Such thinking is helping the prospects of her upcoming recital dates, even if her opera engagement is on ice. The programme for those is the result of specific requests from promoters, but it is clear that Morison is looking forward to the prospect of singing the music she selected for her debut album as soon as that is feasible.
“Brahms is definitely my go-to composer because he wrote so incredibly well for the mezzo voice. The Grieg Sechs Lieder are a charming set of songs that I have particularly enjoyed singing since I visited his summer house in Norway. The Schumann Opus 90 songs are quite different from anything else he wrote and go to places he doesn’t explore elsewhere, especially the Requiem.”
The six songs by Josephine Lang may be much less familiar, but sit well in the company. A friend in the US sent Morison a Spotify link to a selection of under-appreciated female composers, and the singer was immediately drawn to the work of Lang. She was tutored by Mendelssohn, who wrote to his sister Fanny about her.
“I think it is important to champion the work of women composers, if it is of quality, and I was astonished that I didn’t know these songs. There is that Romantic era feel, but she has her own voice and doesn’t sound like any of the other composers. There is an understated emotional connection through the text and music, and a quirkiness and subtlety. She does compare to the greats of the Romantic period and deserves to have her music played.”
Morison made contact with Lang’s biographers, Harald and Sharon Krebs, and was rewarded with an unpublished early song, from 1833, Gestern und heute, which shows the 18-year-old Lang to be already a sophisticated and expressive writer. Its inclusion adds a premiere recording to the album and its first line supplies the title of the disc, The Dark Night Has Vanished.
Discussions are currently underway about the set’s follow-up, likely to be of English repertoire and recorded with Martineau later this year. Morison is regretful that a return to the isolation of Crear to record it may now be impossible. “You are away from the world with no distractions, so you can knuckle down and get to work.”
What the pandemic has allowed her is the opportunity to get to know her adopted home well.
“I wouldn’t have liked to come here with no German, because it is such an international city. Instead it has felt like coming home, even though I always go back so happily to Edinburgh. And I’ve been able to explore it in a way I couldn’t have if I’d been busier, and get to know all the lakes, and parks and green spaces. Even though I am not at concerts, you do meet other artists and feel part of an international community.”
The Dark Night Has Vanished by Catriona Morison and Malcolm Martineau is released by Linn on Friday February 26.
WITH the new year lockdown across the UK impacting on the making of concert films already announced – including the SCO’s contribution to Celtic Connections with Pekka Kuusisto and Karine Polwart – it is fortunate that the orchestra already had “in the can” its early acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky.
As a full online programme note for the transmission by David Kettle makes very clear, it is not hard to find parallels between the genesis of Stravinsky’s use of Russian folk tales for a small touring ensemble and our own straitened times. In the aftermath of the First World War and in the midst of the global Spanish Flu epidemic, the celebrated composer of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, then living in Switzerland, created compact works for a small number of musicians as an economic necessity. In fact, as the leader of the group for this performance, violinist Siun Milne, points out in her spoken introduction, the tour was then abandoned when the musicians contracted the disease.
In that context, the players involved here eloquently illustrate the strength-in-depth of the SCO’s current squad, with sub-principal violin Gordon Bragg stepping up to conduct, and Milne herself, a back desk SCO first violin, a sparkling soloist on the instrument around which much of the narrative is formed. Her partnership with Nikita Naumov is one aspect of the bassist’s work, his other eye on a rhythm section role alongside Louise Goodwin, whose playing of an orchestral drum kit is quite outstanding. The octet of performers also includes Maximiliano Martin demonstrating a huge range of tone on clarinet, and the cornet of Peter Franks a shimmering presence throughout.
If all the instrumentalists show vibrant versatility over the hour long duration, that is matched by actor Matthew McVarish, far more than the mere narrator of the story. There are many ways to perform this modernist fable, and McVarish uses the restrictions of social distancing to his advantage here, adding as many varieties of tone and accent to his cast of characters, from a stationary position.
This is an absolutely compelling re-telling of the familiar story of the consequences of trying to do a deal with Auld Nick which finds form in many cultures, and McVarish brings plenty of his own cultural background to the party in a Scots-accented tale that makes the most of the vocabulary available.
In that, it departs considerably from the source English version, by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, made for an Edinburgh Festival performance of the mid-1950s that featured Robert Helpmann dancing the part of the Devil, and recorded by the SCO thirty years later with narration by Christopher Lee. That’s some legacy to follow, but McVarish and the SCO team make The Soldier’s Tale very much their own.
Available on the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook channels until February 7.
An exciting new partnership between East Renfrewshire-based Linn Records and the Edinburgh International Festival is launched this week with the release of three new recordings featuring landmark performances from the 2020 Festival’s reshaped digital music programme.
The recordings were conceived by the EIF to counter Covid restrictions, which saw opera, orchestral and chamber music performances from various Edinburgh venues screened online to a remote Festival audience. Key to that initiative was the engagement by EIF of Linn’s award-winning senior producer Philip Hobbs to oversee much of the sound production.
This week’s trio of releases include: the world premiere recording of Klaus Simon’s reduced orchestration of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under its musical director Thomas Sondergard; Scottish Opera’s compelling film version of Menotti’s television opera The Telephone with soprano Soraya Mafi and baritone Jonathan McGovern as protagonists Lucy and Ben; and a compendium of highlights from the Chamber Music Series recorded at The Hub, featuring such classical stars as pianist Steven Osborne, mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison, tenor Mark Padmore, soprano Andrea Baker and the Elias Quartet.
Andrew Moore, the Festival’s head of music, welcomed the joint initiative. “I’m delighted that we are to bring highlights of our reshaped digital 2020 Edinburgh International Festival programme to music lovers through this new partnership with Linn Records”.
Hobbs, who last month added a prestigious Prise de Son from French classical music magazine Diapason to his long list of industry awards, and was recently named as the first ever visiting professor of recording at the Royal Academy of Music, acknowledged the potential of this new venture. “The result is some wonderful performances which will stand as significant contributions to the recorded catalogue for years to come.”
All three recordings will be released on Friday 18 December via key download and streaming platforms, and in Studio Master from www.LinnRecords.com
“Let’s go party in Paris”. Scottish Chamber Orchestra principal flautist Andre Cebrian might easily have uttered such an invitation – he more or less did – in his spoken introduction to Poulenc’s saucy 1932 Sextet, a work for wind quintet and piano that opens with a champagne pop and enjoys itself to the last. It was the opening work in the latest of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital chamber music series.
The other was the substantial Nonet by Louise Farrenc, a 19th century Parisian composer, known as “the female Beethoven”, and notable not just for the fact she was a woman who stamped her forcible mark in a 19th century man’s world, but because her music was especially good.
Poulenc’s “pop of the cork” had the impact it should, an immediate explosion of musical fizz to set in motion the raucous comedy, wicked satire, anarchic sentiment and rollercoaster energy that forever distinguishes his bittersweet style.
These SCO players lapped it up, capturing the acerbic inevitability of the opening Allegro vivace with its fruity melodies underpinned by vamped grotesquerie; filling the easeful comfort of the central Andantino with hints of exotic colour; and conquering the spicy duplicity of the Finale – where solo virtuosity vies with collegiate solidarity – through to its simmering conclusion.
Written around 100 years previously, Farrenc’s Nonet is more sobering, but no less intriguing. Symphonic in all but name, and scored for a mini-orchestra texture – wind quintet in partnership with violin, viola, cello and double bass – this was a performance that respected its shapely, stylish refinement.
The warmth that radiated from its gentle, meaningful slow introduction established a mood of composure that informed the ensuing graceful Allegro and subsequent movements. Farrenc’s writing flows effortlessly but with calculated brilliance – as the only female professor at the Paris Conservatoire she famously campaigned for equal pay and got it – which the ensemble embraced, minuscule slippages aside, in a deliciously tasteful, engaging performance. Ken Walton
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.