Opening your international festival with a community event is a big statement. It shows the world where your loyalties lie.
In the year when Edinburgh International Festival is importing most of its shows from the Far East, all credit to the new director, Alasdair Nicolson, for putting his local community first. A cast of 100 local performers assembled on Friday to bring their Orcadian touch to the magical, if occasionally storm-tossed, island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The cast clearly relished the ambitious project, putting in impressive performances all round.
Enjoyable production tricks included dividing Ariel into three people – two nymphs of tattooed thigh and one juggling acrobat – so they could spin and dance around Prospero, speaking at times as an effective stereo.
Three oboes, not a combination at which my heart would normally leap, provided surprisingly appropriate and beguiling music (written by Nicolson).
Wonderful spirit urchins (Ariel’s Gang) from Glaitness and St Andrews Primary School moved from human pyramids to running packs of wild dogs as if it came naturally. Electronic effects were occasionally more of a hinderance than a help – one lonely human voice won’t be heard over recorded storm noise.
And although the audience clearly loved the Radio 4 references, (Shipping Forecast to open, Sailing By to close) it was the triumph of human endeavour and talent in this production that touched the heart.
London Sinfonietta – Maxwell Davies and Messiaen, St Magnus Cathedral, kirkwall
Did the Festival Director know, when he programmed Quartet for the End of Time, that the ancient orange stone of the Cathedral and glowing blue light of the midsummer night with its low orange moon would wrap the mesmerised audience in just the colours that Messiaen, who heard in colour, used to describe the soft cascades of his harmonies – “these streams of blue-orange lava”? If not, he got lucky.
A work about infinite truth and beauty is a technical and emotional challenge, so all credit to London Sinfonietta for this performance. Clarinettist Andrew Webster conjured notes so quiet they seemed drawn from the air around him, before rising up as if to shatter the windows.
His low melodies of sorrow in ‘The Abyss of the Birds’ snaked around the pillars of the cathedral in the shadows of the dusk.
Olly Coates, with his “infinitely slow and ecstatic” Praise movement, built with compelling shape and range to the climax, finding more in himself and his cello when you thought there couldn’t be any.
The Scherzo could have had a bit more cabaret in it, and if you don’t like an intense and quivering interpretation of Messiaen’s instruction ‘vibre’ (vibrate) then this performance might have been less to your taste.
To end, Alexandra Wood took us towards Paradise with typically accomplished violin playing. Perhaps a little bit more frailty and searching at the start of the ascent would increase our sense of bliss at its final arrival.
Let it be said that the Quartet coped admirably with both a late start to the concert, and with the unhappy curse of ringing phones. Audience, please note, it helps nobody to shout at someone with a wayward mobile.
Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Into the Labyrinth, Peter Maxwell Davies, St Magnus Cathedral, kirkwall
This cantata for tenor and chamber orchestra was a pivotal work for Maxwell Davies, who only picked up the conductor’s baton for the first time when others failed to master the complexities of the song cycle with its twisting rhythms. Consequently he conducted for a recording and continued on the podium until his 75th birthday.
Into the Labyrinth was performed at the St Magnus Festival by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1993 and as Maxwell Davies told the audience in a pre-performance talk at this year’s festival: “I am sure those there at the time won’t mind me saying that it didn’t work. It’s easier for me as I hold the rhythms in my head.”
This intense work draws its words from The Well by his friend George Mackay Brown exploring the influence of modern times on an ancient island way of life, a common theme for the Greenvoe author. The relentless moving sea through rushing strings pins the work as the four natural elements are praised.
Conflict and discord grows, images flicker before our eyes as the earth is neglected and we are taken with it. Tenor Robin Tritschler warns of how wealth and science cuts our roots with the past. As is often the case with Mackay Brown, we finally have hope as water trickles over stones.
A beaming Maxwell Davies shook hands with conductor Thierry Fischer who had obviously got the timing right, both for the composer and for the audience.
Continuing the Scottish island was Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Hebrides op. 26 and Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) both inspired by the composer’s visit to Scotland. Mendelssohn’s idyllic view following his visit to Staffa contrasted sweetly with Maxwell Davies’s dark and moving piece. A well balanced triumph.