Tag Archives: Fergus Linehan

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

Linehan’s EIF Swansong

Fergus Linehan talks to Keith Bruce as he launches the programme for his final Edinburgh International Festival.

When he stood to unveil the line-up for the 75th edition of the Edinburgh International Festival to Scotland’s arts journalists, director Fergus Linehan revealed his personal delight in being able to introduce a full-scale live public event for the first time in three years when he spoke for the whole industry.

Edinburgh, he said, was “the mothership of festivals – and that gathering is something that our whole industry has really missed.”

“While we are obviously concerned about the actual shows that we are putting on, the assembly that takes place every August is incredibly important for an industry that has been through something really difficult.”

“All the signs are that everyone is coming back this August. It will be a big moment for cultural life, not just for Edinburgh but for the whole of performing arts.”

Linehan has made “Welcome” – usually in friendly black capitals on a yellow background – the one-word slogan of Edinburgh. This year, it is both “Welcome back” and “Farewell” from the Irish director, after eight years in post, the last few dealing with the challenges of the health emergency.

He has taken the Festival into areas – particularly popular and alternative experimental music – that it had not visited before, and his legacy will take time to come into focus, but how does he see his own contribution to the EIF’s development as he hands over the reins to his successor, Nicola Benedetti?

He begins by saying he concurs with his predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, that Edinburgh “is good at picking Festival Directors for its time.”

“The Edinburgh Festival doesn’t move in fits and starts but it does change, and the question is how do you loosen the Festival and allow it some flexibility – because we are in a slightly more informal world – while maintaining the rigour.

“I think we have managed that. Some people might say: ‘You’ve loosened it too much’, but I like to think that the person coming after has a bit more flexibility to do what they will – and I hope that Nicky feels that.

“After the last two years, most of the team is still in place and we are able to come out with a full programme. What we did last year was limited compared to a normal year, but I am really proud that we did manage it at a time when it was still touch-and-go whether you could do anything.”

It has also meant that Linehan departs with the Festival in respectable financial shape.

“We raised a lot of money over the period of the pandemic so that we could do last year with tiny audience capacities. And we weren’t doing fully-stage opera and theatre, and we weren’t flying in many people to the city, so there were savings. For now the Festival is in reasonable condition; we are not carrying any deficit.”

From Benedetti’s point of view, what Linehan believes about the core concern of the Festival is probably crucial.

“Music is at the very heart of the Festival and you expand out into other genres in a meaningful way. It is not a theatre or a dance festival, and that is important in the balance with Edinburgh’s other festivals. The Traverse will always have significant theatre offerings. The music at the International Festival is sort of non-negotiable.

“But beyond that, there is maybe more flex than I realise, and looking back I now see there’s more flex than I thought. One of the great things about our supporters is that they are not prescriptive, whether its donors or Creative Scotland, it is not a completely blank sheet of paper, but it is never ‘you must do these 10 things.’ There are strategic goals we have to meet, but there is great flexibility.”

Although he says no-one believes him, Linehan is adamant that he has no new job lined-up, despite lots of offers.

“We are moving to Australia, for purely personal reasons because my wife’s family is there, but I have no masterplan.”

That’s because, he insists, he is unconvinced that jobs like the one he is vacating are the way forward for the arts.

“I am not tired, but I do want to have a look around and get a sense of the way things are going to be. There are obviously these big environmental, sustainability questions, and questions about what leadership in the arts should look like, and the future of the producer/director polymath who tells everyone what to do!”

He laughs, but he is making a serious point. “I am not sure that jumping in as the director of a big company with hundreds of employees is what I want to do right now, because I think things are shifting. People will always need support and there is always work to be done, but maybe it is going to be constituted in a different way in terms of leadership.

“It is an interesting time to get a sense of what way the wind is blowing generally. There have been huge changes in terms of the arts, and in particular the subsidised arts, and where they are going.”

And he thinks he owes that recalibration to his family as well.

“On a personal level, this job is all-consuming and a little bit more 50/50 with my wife is sensible. In 2019, I was away from home about 50 times, so that’s every week. I am not saying ‘poor me’, it was amazing to do all that, but there is a personal balancing up that’s important.

“And I have got a lot of the summer to think about it – because I don’t need to be working on the 2023 Festival!”

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

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Edinburgh International Festival 2022

It may be couched in terms of sustainability, and the avoidance of needless consumption of resources in the pursuit of artistic excellence from around the world, but the programme for the 75th Edinburgh International Festival also looks back to the shape of the event in the years after the Second World War with its residencies by companies and orchestras bringing more than one programme of work.

That the founding director of the Festival, Rudolph Bing, was a refugee from conflict is also marked in the programme – a thematic strand that has proved more appropriate than the EIF team could have foreseen as they shaped the anniversary event.

The orchestras “in residence” are the Philadelphia, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and the Philharmonia, under the baton of new Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Sir Donald Runnicles, making his debut with them. The Czech Philharmonic also has two Usher Hall concerts with Semyon Bychkov, as do Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, one of them a concert performance of Strauss’s Salome with soprano Malin Bystrom.

The BBC SSO gives the Opening Concert, with Runnicles on the podium and the Festival Chorus singing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the RSNO gives the closing one, Sir Andrew Davies conducting the Chorus in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The RSNO also appears under the baton of Elim Chan to play Bartok and Tan Dun and with Thomas Sondergard to perform Mahler 3 with the RSNO Junior Chorus and the Festival Chorus.

The Chorus’s busy August also includes Janacek Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Phil and Beethoven 9 with the Philadelphia, while the National Youth Choir of Scotland sings in the opening and closing Usher Hall concerts as well as at the 2022 Festival’s free opening event at Murrayfield Stadium, which is expected to attract an audience of up to 20,000.

The Philadelphia’s residency also includes a free 75th anniversary concert at the end of the Festival, details of which have yet to be announced, as well as a further Usher Hall concert including Szymanowski and Florence Price, and Mozart chamber music at the Queen’s Hall, featuring Nezet-Seguin at the piano.

Douglas Boyd conducts the Philharmonia in the Festival’s only fully-staged opera, a Garsington production of Dvorak’s Rusalka by Jack Furness with Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and Runnicles conducts a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. In a further nod towards the Festival’s origins, its chamber music programme at the Queen’s Hall includes a String Trio by Hans Gals, another refugee who made his home in the Scottish capital and was a founding figure of the event.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has two concerts, one with Nicola Benedetti, the EIF’s recently-announced artistic director designate, performing Bruch, and playing Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland under the direction of pianist Wayne Marshall, the musical director of last year’s A Grand Night for Singing.

The Usher Hall programme is completed by appearances from Les Siecles and Francois-Xavier Roth, featuring music from 1913 by Lili Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky, Hesperion XXI and Jordi Savall with music from the 14th century, the LSO, Sir Simon Rattle and a Daniel Kidane premiere, Zubin Mehta conducting the Australian World Orchestra, Bernard Labadie directing Handel’s Saul with Iestyn Davies and The English Consort, and the Festival debut of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Malkki.

The Festival’s return to the Queen’s Hall after the pandemic includes Brett Dean playing with the Hebrides Ensemble, pianist Malcolm Martineau with Florian Boesch for Winterreise and with Steven Osborne and a quartet of voices, soprano Golda Schultz, mezzos Magdalena Kozena and  Anne Sofie von Otter, Richard Egarr, Dunedin Consort, Ronald Brautigam and the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

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Picture: Natalya Romaniw by Antonio Olmos

Edinburgh Festival 2021 Goes Live


In the wake of last year’s swiftly improvised online Edinburgh International Festival, director Fergus Linehan told VoxCarnyx that “2021 will only be the journey back; probably 2022 will be the great celebration.” The announcement of year’s programme, while still cautionary, goes much further than realistic hopes might have anticipated, even if Linehan’s predicted path remains the longer term likelihood.

Classical music fans will be pleased, as the continuing restrictions on social distancing and indoor performance mean that the overriding emphasis of the 2021 Festival programme – which runs from 7-29 August – is on live music performance, facilitated by three major bespoke outdoor venues.

These are to be located at Edinburgh Academy Junior School, Edinburgh Park and Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad, each prefabricated structure open-sided to allow ventilation, and capable of seating between 300 and 700 people. The music programme will be centred on two of these: 26 concerts featuring some of the UK’s top orchestras at the Edinburgh Academy site; 36 smaller-scale recitals at Old College, embracing what would normally have been the Queen’s Hall intimate chamber music series. Repeat shows will open up each programme to a wider audience.

The orchestral series, for obvious practical reasons, has stuck with UK orchestras, opening with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Dalia Stasevska, in the premiere of PIVOT by Edinburgh graduate and current associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Anna Clyne. Vassily Petrenko directs the RPO with guest pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, Sir Simon Rattle returns with the LSO, and the idiosyncratic Chineke! Orchestra performs Judith Weir’s song cycle woman.life.song with Scots-based mezzo soprano Andrea Baker.

Predictably, Scotland’s own orchestras play a key role. The RSNO performs several programmes, under Thomas Søndergård, Valery Gergiev and Elim Chan respectively, The SCO teams up with Kazushi Ono, while former RSNO principal guest conductor Marin Alsop conducts the BBC SSO in Peter Maxwell Davies’ A Spell for Green Corn and Jessie Montgomery’s Strum.

If staged opera is inevitably limited, it has presented Linehan with one of the few opportunities this Festival has to go completely indoors. It means, of course, that only 370 people at a time (compared to the usual 1800 capacity) can attend Edinburgh Festival Theatre for any of the four performances of David McVicar’s production of Falstaff for Scottish Opera.

Otherwise opera is, says Linehan, “very much in concert form”. Further to its premiere in London this weekend (see latest features in VoxCarnyx), Dunedin Consort perform Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost, an imagined continuation of the story in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and starring South African soprano Golda Schultz. Sir Andrew Davis conducts a brand new concert staging by Louisa Muller of Strauss’ Ariadne aux Naxos with the RSNO and a cast led by Dorothea Röshmann in the title role.

It will be hard to avoid the presence of Nicola Benedetti, whose Festival residency makes full use of the Scots virtuoso’s growing versatility. Besides a concert focusing on Vivaldi, in which she appears with her new Benedetti Baroque Ensemble, she teams up with another handpicked ensemble for a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and goes solo in a presentation called The Story of the Violin.

It’s in the chamber recital series at Old College Quad that the Festival has preserved most its reputation for internationalism, given the lesser risk involved in flying single artists from around the   world as opposed to full orchestras. Thus a line-up that includes soloists Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Renée Fleming, Ronald Brautigam and the 20-year-old Anne-Sophie Mutter violin protege Noa Wildschut; notable ensembles such as the Zehetmair, Goldmund and Gringolts Quartets, alongside the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble; and a tribute to the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth by soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Malcolm Martineau.

On a lighter musical vein, Thomas Quasthoff, as well as starring in Ariadne aux Naxos, joins fellow German jazz musicians in an evening of vocal classics, while opera director Barrie Kosky and singer  Katherine Mehrling go cabaret with lesser known songs by Kurt Weill. Pianist Wayne Marshall directs a handpicked cast in A Grand Night for Singing, celebrating the classical musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein.

While the key emphasis of this year’s Festival is on live audience performance, eight of the Classical concerts will be accessible online.

General booking for the 2021 EIF opens on Friday 11 June. Full details are available at www.eif.co.uk

Image: Dalia Stasevska conducts EIF opening concert

EIF al fresco 2021

A concentration on outdoor events has been announced by the Edinburgh International Festival as it promises a full programme from August 7 to 29, to be unveiled at the start of June.

Although no artists have yet been revealed, artistic director Fergus Linehan said that most would be UK-based, “a lot of them Scottish”.

“Large ensembles coming in from overseas is not possible, so ensembles are likely to be UK-based. Individuals are still able to come in, but not a company of 250 Italians,” he said.

Likewise, the socially-distanced audience that will be accommodated in three specially-constructed pavilions is expected to be made up mostly of local people. The Festival will have an on-line element to cater to those further afield.

“There will be a programme of online running throughout, but it is primarily a live festival. What we are doing online is mostly recorded relays of the live events,” said Linehan.

Some small outdoor events are planned, but most will be staged in three locations, where a canopy will protect the stage and audience. One of those remains unconfirmed, but the other two are at Edinburgh Park, close to the Edinburgh Park Central tram stop, and at the Old Quad of Edinburgh University, on South Bridge.

Linehan said he was keen to take the Festival out of the city centre, and the Edinburgh Park pavilion, in the city’s commercial development on its western edge, has “excellent transport links and unlimited parking”.

“The Quad should be beautiful”, he added. That venue provides a link with the cancelled programme of 2020, when the Festival had planned to erect a Spiegeltent in the space, hosting a long series of musical events.

“We offered everyone a return visit and a few of those things have survived,” said Linehan. “We can’t really do anything with an ensemble bigger that 40 or 50, we can’t have very long evenings and we can’t do anything with a lot of brass and wind. And a lot of that would be our bread and butter programming in the Usher Hall.”

Nonetheless, music is expected to form the bulk of the programming announced at the start of June. Concerts will be shorter, and some will be repeated to allow another audience to attend. Public booking will open on June 11 and tickets will be strictly allocated, either to individuals, couples, small groups or families. EIF Executive Director Fran Hegyi said that everything was being planned in accordance with current government guidelines on social distancing and face coverings, and the possibility  of so-called “Covid passports” was not part of the discussions.

She added that considerations were “not just artistic ones, but also our role in having as many people working on the Festival as possible. We have been really conscious over the past 12 months of the responsibility that we have that the industry has work to do, because that is the workforce that has to come back.”

Linehan said that the 2022 Festival is acquiring increasing significance, beyond its existing status as marking the events 75th anniversary.

“It may be the first time that we are able to have unfettered mass gatherings again. So that is not just about concerts in the Usher Hall, but about every choral group and every dance group – all those ways in which we come together as communities that have had to come to a halt. There will a huge surge of activity next year that we will have to think about, and beyond what we normally  do.”

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