Fergus Linehan’s EIF programme has a few surprises

EIF festival director, Fergus Linehan. Picture: Contributed
EIF festival director, Fergus Linehan. Picture: Contributed
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EIF director Fergus Linehan’s maiden classical package is a mix of new faces, old hands, and one or two surprises, writes Ken Walton

LAST week’s early release of the main orchestral and recital brochure for the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival, prior to next month’s full programme launch, was one sure way for Fergus Linehan to put a distinctive stamp on his first EIF programme as festival director.

There were several reasons for doing so, he says, ranging from the fact that, unlike other genres, the music programme is pretty much wrapped up before Christmas and may as well be shared with those who prefer to have that information at the same time as information from competing music festivals around the world; to the practical issue of getting the word out and dealing with what he describes as “the changing media landscape”.

“I felt it needed its own articulation,” he says. Does that mean he views the classical programme as a separate entity without reference or context to the overall festival? “No”, he says, insisting it lies at the heart of what defines the EIF’s DNA. “The structure of concerts and recitals has been the continuum throughout the history of the festival; the foundation on which it is built. Almost every other element of the festival you could shape in a different way, but what happens at the Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall, that level of music making, is at the core of the whole thing.”

This year’s self-contained brochure certainly backs that up. Nothing appears to be hugely different, with regular names surfacing at key points in the Usher Hall series: Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra’s festival finale of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in an opening concert coupling Brahms songs (sung by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus) with Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Also back are Sir Andrew Davis (directing a concert performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress), Nicola Benedetti, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, pianist Mitsuko Uchida (a solo recital featuring Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations) and Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Nor will the likes of Trio Zimmermann, Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau, the Zehetmair Quartet, Matthias Goerne and pianist Daniil Trifonov require any help finding their way to the Queen’s Hall.

So who are the new faces? Superstar pianist Lang Lang appears both in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 2 with The Philharmonia, and as a solo recitalist; Edinburgh-born Colin Currie makes his EIF debut in the Scottish premiere of James MacMillan’s Percussion Concerto No 2 with the RSNO, and teams up with fellow percussionist Sam Walton and pianists Simon-Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore in Bartok’s marvellous Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang plays Beethoven with the San Francisco Symphony, and appears with hot-shot violinist Leonidas Kavakos in Brahms’ violin sonatas at the Queen’s Hall. There’s also Gianandrea Noseda, conducting the European Union Youth Orchestra in Mahler 5.

Repertoire-wise, Linehan’s choice is nothing if not eclectic; everything from Anne-Sophie Mutter’s virtuoso orchestra in Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons, to lesser-known Charles Ives and, oddly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, performed in concert by Scottish Opera under Richard Egarr. Will a Festival audience really sign up to G&S? It’s contentious.

But it’s a programme with genuine festival credentials. Allesandro Striggio’s recently rediscovered Mass in 40 Parts has all the trappings of an epic. John Eliot Gardiner’s Berlioz package of Symphonie Fantastique alongside its curious sequel Lelio, with the stylised Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, promises to be thought-provoking. Rachmaninov and Sibelius symphonies from Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic look a passionate combination. And while John Adams’ Absolute Jest has already been performed this season by the BBC SSO, to hear it with the St Lawrence String Quartet, for whom Adams wrote his String Quartet (see Queen’s Hall programme), offers a refreshing perspective.

How does Linehan view his debut package? “When you step back, you begin to see areas of your own taste emerging,” he says. “There’s very strong dramatic music in there, a lot of singers, and a lot of very grand religious music. Part of that is my response to the Usher Hall, which I think is an epic, dramatic space, where choral music works so well.”

Ah yes, the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Besides the opening concert – and an additional pre-opener yet to be announced – the Chorus features in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Sibelius’ Kullervo, Mozart’s Requiem and Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. That’s plenty to sing about.

Epic in a more intimate sense is veteran Czech pianist Rudolf Buchbinder’s survey of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas at the beautiful Playfair Library in Edinburgh University’s Old College. A fresh venue to explore.

Linehan eschews thematic shackles, and is more interested, he says, in building long-term relationships with interesting musicians – “those in-depth conversations we’ve had in the past with artists like Charles Mackerras and Alfred Brendel. Rather than saying we’re all going to gather round this central idea, it’s much more about – let’s take a number of artists across the genres and see what kind of relationship they want with this festival. Let’s chart that over a period of time.”

That long-term approach looks like informing his approach to staged opera, details of which will not be announced until March. He’s aware its status has dwindled in recent years. That won’t be a quick fix, Linehan says, adding: “We need more opera; it’s as simple as that. But you know, I’ve got five years, and it may take those five years to be able to really address that.

“Money is a key issue, but so is certainty. The one thing you do not want to be with opera is hesitant. You need to be saying now, that in 2018, this is what we’re doing.” Linehan, in conversation, exudes a quiet confidence, which is reflected in his maiden classical package.

• Full details of the 2015 EIF Usher Hall & Queen’s Hall programmes are available on www.eif.co.uk

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