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Creating a serious Festival in a seriously momentous year

Amid everything else that is clamouring for attention in Scotland in 2014, there is a scale and seriousness to his eighth and final Edinburgh International Festival programme which ensures that the contribution of director Sir Jonathan Mills to the nation's cultural identity will be remembered for many years to come.

ARRESTING: The programme sees a return from the Pina Bausch Tanztheater of Wuppertal, with the work Sweet Mambo. Picture: Oliver Look
ARRESTING: The programme sees a return from the Pina Bausch Tanztheater of Wuppertal, with the work Sweet Mambo. Picture: Oliver Look

This is a year of legacy consciousness, and while he distances himself from an approach to shaping a festival that relies on "a family of collaborators", there is much about this year's Festival that has the Mills stamp. It is there in the returns of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera with a production of Berlioz's The Trojans, a work that has a significant history of performances in Scotland, and of dancemaker Lemi Ponifasio from New Zealand with a work, I AM, that looks at the legacy of the First World War in his singular style. It is there in the particular character of the opening concert where the RSNO and Edinburgh Festival Chorus under the baton of Oliver Knussen perform Debussy's Martyrdom of St Sebastien and in a closing Virgin Money Fireworks Concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Garry Walker that opens with the warrior rhetoric of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and closes with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and finds room for less familiar but completely relevant Mendelssohn in between.

The unmistakable theme of the whole programme is the marking of the centenary of the First World War, and the charting of its beginnings and its longer term effects, and beyond that to look at how artists deal with the whole area of conflict from the earliest times to the present day. As such, it is perhaps the easiest to read of any of the programmes that Mills has offered - and the breadth of the work that is on offer is exceptional.

Alongside the Trojans - "the first truly grand opera" in Mills's opinion - in opera there is, from Aldeburgh, a production of Britten's exploration of conscientious objection, Owen Wingrave, directed by Neil Bartlett and conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, recently appointed music director at English National Opera. From Turin comes a concert performance of Rossini's William Tell, the tale of the struggle for Swiss independence, conducted by the Teatro Regio's music director Gianandrea Noseda. Britten's music elsewhere in the programme of course includes his War Requiem, performed by Sir Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia and the Festival Chorus with the NYCoS National Boys Choir with the stipulated Russian, British and German soloists.

Visiting orchestras in Edinburgh include the Festival debut of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, also under Davis, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with Mariss Jansons and soloists pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and violinst Leonidas Kavakos and the Czech Philharmonic and Jiri Belohlavek, joined by mezzo Bernarda Fink and our own Nicola Benedetti, playing the violin concerto of Erich Korngold, a refugee from Second World War Austria who made his home in Hollywood. Bendetti also has a chamber recital at the Queen's Hall, where her group includes her cellist partner Leonard Elsechenbroich and regular pianist Alexei Grynyuk.

The return of the Greyfriars Kirk series of early evening music affords the opportunity to hear two early music interpretations of a medieval song about the fear of the battle-ready warrior, L'Homme Arme, as the Tallis Scholars include Palestrina's response in a mass using the popular tune and The Hillard Ensemble, in one of their final concerts, sing Dufay's version. At the Usher Hall, The Sixteen add Josquin Desprez's, on the evening before Jordi Savall and his specialist consort present a special programme of music of War and Peace in Baroque Europe.

That Usher Hall programme also includes the return to the Festival of Ute Lemper, accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on songs of Weill, Eisler and Stravinsky, and two concerts by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as Donald Runnicles conducts Holst's Planets suite, and Ilan Volkov a work by the festival director himself, Sandekan Threnody, an oratorio commissioned in his native Australia to commemorate the sacrifice of the British and Australian prisoners of way who died on the death marches in Borneo in the Second World War.

As well as Ponifasio, the dance programme also has a return from the Pina Bausch Tanztheater of Wuppertal with one of the late choreographer's final works, Sweet Mambo, a production that supplies one of its most arresting images in the festival brochure, whose cover of Scottish bluebells linked by barbed wire is one of the most arresting of recent years. Those who recall Peter Brook's famed Hindu epic Mahabharata in Glasgow in the 1980s will be booking early to see Akram Khan's Gnosis. The celebrated choreographer was one of the youngest members of the vast ensemble cast of that show, and the EIF production is his more condensed version of the some of the same material. That cultural heritage is also part of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a show from Australia's Back to Back Theatre which explores the appropriation of the swastika by the Nazis from its Hindu origins.

Among many visitors from Commonwealth nations in the year of the Commonwealth Games, from South Africa come Willliam Kentridge and Handspring Puppets, now well-known from their work on the National Theatre of Great Britian's War Horse, with an earlier triumph, Ubu and the Truth Commussion, which marries the characters created by playwright Alfred Jarry with the hearings that followed the restoration of democracy in South Africa 20 years ago.

That anniversary is also celebrated in Inala, a world premier from choreographer Mark Baldwin, with music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that teams Zula dance traditions with Western ballet.

Russian director Vladimir Pankov brings another entirely new show from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, with The War, in which his innovative "sound drama" technique explores the world of a group of young people in Paris in 1913 on the eve of the conflict.

FRONT is an adaptation of classic First World War book All Quiet on the Western Front and other texts by Thalia Theater of Hamburg, directed by Luk Perceval, whose Andromache was at the Festival a decade ago.

Canadian Stage bring a post-Second World War noir tale, Helen Lawrence, created by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock, and documenting the edgey world of Vancouver in 1948, immediately after the Edinburgh Festival came into being.

Introducing his programme in Edinburgh yesterday, Mills made reference to that time as the inspiration of the theme of his final Festival, as much as the centenary of the First World War.

"It was the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and rationing was stilll in force, but the message in 1947 was that the future is better and that a spirit of optimism can emerge from the darkness. The response of artists to war and conflict is not negative or sombre but can be uplifting, joyous and defiant," he said.

Having brought a global perspective to the Festival over his tenure and bringing together the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain as producing partners for Rona Munro's previously announced plays about Scottish kings, James I, II and III as one of the initiatives in his final festival, Mills can justly lay claim to those adjectives for his own work as well.

Tickets for EIF 2014 go on sale to the public on Saturday March 29. eif.co.uk

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