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.