COMPOSER Helen MacKinnon says that she did not see the job of administrating Perth Festival of the Arts heading her way, and I am sure that is true. She is, however, such a good fit to step into the role so ably filled by Sandra Ralston for an incredible run of 22 previous annual events, that hindsight makes it hard to credit.

Ralston, her successor now recognises, was well ahead of her on that one. As she contemplated stepping down from the job she loved, for health reasons, the long-serving festival administrator had overseen a commission to MacKinnon to write a piece of music for the 2016 programme. That had been followed up by an invitation to join the committee of the festival – a very hands-on board of directors who shape the event in partnership with one full-time member of staff. When Ralston told her colleagues of her decision to leave after the 2018 festival, MacKinnon’s immediate reaction was to help organise the search for someone else, unaware that it would quickly be suggested that she was ideal for the post.

In fact her CV might have been written with it in mind. Resident in the area since primary school and involved in its music as a teenager, she took a job in arts administration with a Dundee-based theatre company after her degree at Glasgow University before working with the Association of Voluntary Service in Perth and Kinross for 12 years, becoming its chief executive. And all the while the Perth Festival had been part of her life.

“We moved to Milnathort from Lochgilphead when I was seven, so I have grown up in the Perth & Kinross area and went to school in Kinross. I’ve been here ever since, apart from student days in Glasgow, and I live right in the heart of Perth now.

“I had a really musical family. My gran was a piano teacher, mum was a church organist and a singer with her own choir, and I played in the Perth Youth Orchestra.”

Mackinnon recalls taking her fiddle to a children’s classics concert in Perth City Hall aged eight or nine in the earliest years of the festival. She and her mother cannot agree whether it was Manchester’s Halle or the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra onstage, but at one point the youngsters were encouraged to bring out their own instruments and play along.

Seven shows to see at Perth festival

That is her first memory of the festival and she subsequently played with the local youth orchestra at its regular appearance at the festival’s Sunday service. She’s been a regular ticket-buyer since then as well, with the first appearance in the city of the John Wilson Orchestra just one of her fond memories as an audience member.

“I was getting into my teenage years when I started to really enjoy writing music and that is when I decided to go on and study at university. So I went to Glasgow and studied, initially with Graham Hair [the Gardiner Chair of Music before the present incumbent, the Dunedin Consort’s John Butt] and then with William Sweeney. It was Bill who took me through my dissertation and final year composition assignments.

“My dissertation was on composer Eddie McGuire, and when I stepped into the festival role the boxes of festival files that Sandra handed over include this big score of his violin concerto which Perth Festival had commissioned in 2000. It has pride of place in my home office now.”

When she graduated in 2002, however, MacKinnon admits to having been at a bit of a loss about what to do with her life.

“I had a wonderful time at university but I lacked any life experience and the reality was that I came out thinking: ‘I love composing, but what do I do from here?’ So I ended up, not by design but just the way life took me, working in the voluntary sector. It was a completely different world, all about public policy and the integration of health and social care. That was my professional career path but I continued with music as a hobby, playing in the Perth Symphony Orchestra, singing in the operatic society.”

Then in 2015 she entered a choral composition competition in Italy, and won an award for her setting of Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which has gone on to be performed internationally.

“I had been working with choirs in Scotland, mostly arranging and writing some small works for them. But it is only in the last few years that I have started composing again to the standard of the work I was doing at university, with that degree of complexity.”

The competition opened a door for the composer and an invitation to create a work for a conference at Oxford University followed, with her modern setting of Psalm 96, Sing to the Lord a new Song, following at Perth the same year.

“That was the catalyst for me getting involved in the festival because I joined the committee after that, and it was great to be asked and an example of how the festival supports local artists.”

As it looks forward to its 50th birthday in 2021, Perth Festival remains a shining example of incremental development and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it philosophy”. Resisting pressure from funding bodies and elsewhere pushing the arts towards other business models, it still operates with a committed volunteer board making programming decisions in partnership with the administrator.

Far from finding the structure old-fashioned, MacKinnon is adamant that it works.

“I have found the committee a real strength because of the diversity of interests on it. Some of them live and breathe classical music, but others have different eclectic musical tastes. It brings different ideas to the table and we have good debate. We ask how things will work for the audience, the festival and for Perth.

“There is a five-year plan taking us to our big anniversary and we need to keep the diversity alongside the high quality classical core of the programming that compliments other things that are happening in Perth. At the same time we are asking how can we appeal to an 18-year-old who is not interested in classical music?”

That question was comprehensively answered with the astute booking of Lewis Capaldi to play the festival’s second Saturday at Perth Concert Hall shortly before the young singer-songwriter’s reputation went stratospheric.

“We have programmed more for a younger audience this year and that was taking a bit of a leap and we’ll see how that works. But I was not prepared for the effect on the day we announced Capaldi, or how quickly he has become such a big name with such a big following. When tickets went on general release it sold out in four minutes.”

As others have pointed out, it has meant MacKinnon has set herself some target to surpass in her first year.

“I spent a good few days listening to indie rock bands and I really enjoyed that. It is pushing my tastes, and of course we all test the water with young people we know. We have a certain age demographic within the committee, and I am near 40 now so I am not necessarily in tune with what a 20-year-old likes. But I have some students from Perth College on placement with me and they’re studying hospitality and music business and have their finger on the pulse. If you surround myself with people of different ages and background you can learn what will work.

Seven shows to see at Perth festival

“We’ll have our first big programming meeting about the 50th after this festival is over. We certainly want to celebrate that fact and, without saying anything before we have discussed it, there must be some looking back, and that may mean inviting some favourite artists from over the years. Whether it takes a certain theme or has a certain focus I don’t know yet. But it will have to be a bigger, bolder, stand-out festival.”

Perth Festival runs May 16-25.