St Magnus Festival

Kirkwall, Orkney

Keith Bruce

five stars

There is no other event, certainly in Scotland, that blurs the boundaries between community arts and the professional world as relentlessly as Orkney's St Magnus Festival. It would be more true, in fact, to say that since its inception St Magnus has simply ignored such distinctions, with professional writers and directors making theatre work for a community cast just as founding composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote music for the Sanday Fiddle Club with the same pen he deployed for star soloists and that year's visiting orchestra.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this year's visiting band, have themselves been in at the forefront of outreach work, and it is no coincidence that the orchestra's 40th birthday in 2014 will be swiftly followed by the 40th St Magnus Festival next year. It was fitting, then, that the piece Maxwell Davies wrote for the SCO's anniversary, Ebb of Winter, was reprised at the start of Saturday's concert at the Pickaquoy Centre. Intended by the composer as a coda to the ten Strathclyde Concertos he wrote for the orchestra when he was composer-in-residence, it sounds quite definitively like an SCO piece, if as clearly inspired by the meteorology of the Orkneys. What is just as remarkable is that the musicians, under Spanish conductor Antonio Mendez, played the work so clearly within that decades-old tradition, although the number of players who have been with the band since then is only just into double figures. As Max commented: "It is in their genes."

That concert, which including a reading of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony by Mendez that I found rather less crisp and brisk than the work requires, also featured the St Magnus Festival Chorus, a true community enterprise where everyone is welcome without audition and far from all of the members can read music. There may have been moments of uncertainty of intonation on Mozart's Vespers and Haydn's The Storm, but the ensemble sound was often superb, with the tenors in particular making a mighty impression despite their fewer number and the sometimes unforgiving acoustic of the venue.

On the previous evening, the orchestra's strings had been joined by members of the Orkney Camerata, the strings of the Orkney Schools Orchestra and those of the Traditional Music Project for a concert that took its title from Eddie McGuire's Ring of Strings, a piece inspired by the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar and custom-made for exactly that mix of musicians when it was premiered at the 2006 St Magnus Festival. The new generation of young players took ownership of the work, with the low strings accompaniment to the reel the composer includes for fiddle soloist Jennifer Wrigley a particular joy. Wrigley's own Air for John Rae, in an arrangement by festival director Alasdair Nicolson, and Fionn McArthur's The Kirk on the Shore, arranged by Douglas Montgomery, sat alongside The Day Dawn by Sally Beamish in the rest of a highly atmospheric programme.

Beamish also featured in the late concert of solo violin pieces in St Magnus Cathedral, commissioned by Fenella Humphreys to complement the Chaconne from Bach's Second Partita in a programme which ended with the virtuoso fireworks of Ernst's Grand Caprice on Schubert's Erlkonig. It was striking how much tonal ground was shared by Beamish's Hardanger fiddle-inspired Intrada e Fuga and Maxwell Davies's beautifully entitled Sonatina for Fiddle Alone, both of which were receiving their world premiere alongside Adrian Sutton's structurally contrasting Arpeggiare Variations.

Those for whom the singular experience of a violin in the cathedral acoustic was incapable of being topped missed the Wrigley sisters at the top of their game in the Festival Club tent at the back of their home venue, The Reel. After an introductory set of flute tunes from McGuire, Jennifer and Hazel goaded each other through a set that ranged from the Northern Isles to Ireland without pausing for breath, the musical interplay between fiddle and guitar the sonic equivalent of the most practised and skilled improvising comedy double act.