The 2013 East Neuk Festival programme was officially unveiled over the weekend and landed on the doormat on Monday morning, an apple-green harbinger of high summer. Despite the cloudy future of St Andrews' Byre Theatre, the cultural forecast is not entirely overcast for coastal Fife. Artistic director Svend Brown calls this East Neuk's strongest line-up to date.
Certainly the theme is one that, for a festival that thrives on the play between natural landscape, music and language, seems a no-brainer: Birdsong. Now, think of birds in music and a few usual suspects come to mind. The picturesque chirruping in Beethoven's Pastoral; the fastidious transcriptions of Olivier Messiaen, whose long hours spent jotting down birdcalls in his garden resulted in monumental surveys like Catalogue d'oiseaux. There's the naturalistic vernacular of Leos Janacek, the kaleidoscopic evocations of Ravel's Ma mere l'oye.
And all of these composers do feature at this year's East Neuk. But when I sit down with Brown to discuss the programme he starts by playing me something completely different. From his tinny laptop speakers come the distinct calls of wood thrushes, tweeted out in Cagean snippets by piccolos and percussion, insistent and transfixing. This is Songbirdsong by John Luther Adams, a maverick American visual artist and landscape-inspired composer who has lived in Alaska since the 1970s and whose music provides the central intrigue of East Neuk 2013.
"He's a fascinating voice," says Brown. "Mystical, poetic, naturalist. If you know Copland you'll find the sparseness and cleanliness of this music recognisable. Despite the sense of isolation and desolation in much of his work, it's easy to get the hermit image out of perspective. He's one of a huge community of American artists who have been influenced by John Cage and La Monte Young, and his naturalist voice comes from the literary heritage of Whitman. He might be physically remote up in Alaska, but in terms of roots he's totally linked."
And yet his ravishing sound world is entirely his own. Brown has programmed two of Luther Adams's seminal works in settings to match. Inuksuit, a work for 30 percussionists, will be performed in the Victorian walled garden at Cambo House, with musicians stationed around the perimeter and audience wandering the flowery paths. Songbirdsongs will be performed by Red Note Ensemble in the Potato Barn at Cambo House: a great empty brick box of a space where the acoustics were tested, rather successfully, in a pair of concerts at last year's festival. With piccolos on cranes and dappled light projected around the darkened barn, the performance will be a "spatial, slightly hippyish thing," says Brown.
In fact, Cambo Barn looks set to be the large-ish, quirky-ish venue the festival has been searching for. The beautiful petite churches of south-east Fife's fishing villages make up the bulk of the festival's venues, but they're too small to house the house band (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra), while in former years using the Younger Hall in St Andrews felt (Brown's words) "a bit like going back to school". The Barn seems to provide a solution. As well as Songbirdsongs, this year it'll hosts the Tallis Scholars performing of Taverner's monumental Corona Spinea mass, and the festival closes there with an SCO concert conducted by East Neuk regular Christian Zacharias that includes Beethoven's Pastoral, Ravel's Ma mere l'oye and Appels interstellair, the solo horn movement from Messiaen's Aux canyons des etoiles.
Two days earlier Zacharias takes to the keyboard for a recital programme that is emphatically in the shade of B minor: Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor, Brahms's first Rhapsodie in B minor, Mozart's Adagio in B minor, Haydn's Sonata in B minor, Schubert's Impromptu No 3 in – you guessed it – B minor. If ticket sales remain true to form, says Brown, it's always Zacharias's concerts that book out first.
Another major event is the opening concert on July 3: the Tokyo Quartet gives its last ever European concert, 44 years after the quartet founded, three days before their farewell concert in the US. The programme includes a suitable tearjerker: Schubert's final chamber work, the magnificent Quintet in C, with SCO principal cellist David Watkin. "East Neuk is where quartets come to die," laughs Brown, pointing out that the Belceas changed formation after playing the festival and the Alban Bergs gave some of their final concerts there.
"We're going to get a reputation - But we also support young quartets," he says, referring to returning Elias Quartet who perform a Mozart piano concerto in quintet format with Zacharias and full-length programmes that include Webern's Langsamer satz, Beethoven's Op 130 and the second quartets by Janacek and Schumann.
Other highlights? The London Conchord Ensemble – a collective of solo and orchestral players from around Europe – performing Poulenc, Messiaen, Mozart and Janacek in Cellardyke Church; Conchord's cellist Thomas Carroll, possessor of one of the most glorious legatos in the business, playing solo Bach and Dutilleux in Kilrenny; and the winds of the SCO with Dvorak's thick-set Wind Serenade, Ligeti's Bagatelles and Reicha Horn Trios in Cellardyke.
Brown describes his programming as a mesh of concentric concerts with threads winding obliquely through rather than slavishly obeying the overall theme. At four and a half days, the festival is as long as he wants it to be: "This is never going to grow into an all-Fife, all-encompassing megalith," he says, "because the sense of intimacy is critical. The knack is to find other strands that can sit alongside the music."
One such strand has come in the shape of Littoral, the festival's literature programme launched last year. A day of events (July 6, Cambo House) includes kids' activities and talks from John Lister-Kaye, Esther Woolfson, Conor Mark Jameson, Patrick Barkham and Miriam Darlington; other highlights include Andrew Greig and Mike Heron in old-fashioned ceilidh setting of storytelling and tunes (Anstruther Town Hall, July 5). A panel-led debate (July 7) focuses on the idea of a silent summer: what will happens if the birds fall silent.
The East Neuk Festival runs July 3-7. Public booking opens on February 7.