Interview: St Magnus director Alasdair Nicolson on this year’s festival

Alasdair Nicolson
Alasdair Nicolson
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“I like the slightly odd mix – it’s a reflection of something inside my own head, all the various strands of interests…” Alasdair Nicolson is talking about the rich and – yes, pretty eclectic – programme he’s devised for this year’s St Magnus Festival in Orkney. “Odd” is probably going too far, but with events ranging from the perhaps more expected concerts and recitals to street parades, lectures, masterclasses, poetry readings and even knitting workshops from Norwegian yarn superstars Arne and Carlos, all taking place right across the islands of Orkney’s archipelago, it’s nothing if not wide-ranging.

A thread that ties Nicolson’s programme together, however, is new music. “There aren’t many concerts that lack a brand new work, or at least one by a composer who’s still alive,” says the festival’s artistic director, and he’s right, with new pieces by Stuart MacRae, Geoff Palmer, Philip Cashian and others nestling in amongst his unconventional programming.

And one of the festival’s landmark events is a brand new piece from within the Orkney community itself. Created by Orcadian composer Gemma McGregor and writer Ron Ferguson, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson recounts nothing less than the life story of Orkney’s saint, the peace-loving Viking who ruled the islands in the 12th century and was betrayed and murdered by his cousin Hakon. “We have the commemoration of the 900th anniversary of St Magnus’s death this year,” explains Nicolson, “so it was obvious we should tell St Magnus’s story itself, and I felt it should really come from within the local world. So the event will involve the St Magnus Cathedral choir, various local people playing roles, Orkney brass players, boys from the Kirkwall Grammar School, and plenty more.”

And it’s St Magnus himself, as a Norwegian, who provides the inspiration for the festival’s big Norwegian focus this year, with visits from string group the Trondheim Soloists, Bergen’s Cathedral choir, and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra as resident ensemble. “We approached the Orchestra and extraordinarily they were available and more than keen to come. They’re quite like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a really historic orchestra that has become very innovative as well. I remember the first time the BBC SO came, and their truck was sitting outside the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall – for me and for the people of Orkney, it was a bit of a jaw-dropping moment. I’m sure it’ll be the same with the Norwegian players this year.” There’s even talk of the Norwegian ensemble expanding the festival’s reach into Scandinavia: “They’re planning to take broadcasts from the festival back to Norwegian radio – which would take us into another audience world altogether.”

Travel and migration also form the basis for Nicolson’s own major new piece this year – I, Pilgrim, which has its own Norwegian connections. “We get the premiere in Orkney, and then it travels to Nideros Cathedral and the St Olav Festival in Norway. I’d been aware of the idea of religious pilgrimage, but I was also very struck by watching on television people walking across Europe, or getting in boats across the Mediterranean, and I was aware that there’s some strange connection between the two ideas.”

There was travel involved, too, in the acquisition of the festival’s newest addition, a new Steinway grand piano that’s taken up residence in St Magnus Cathedral. Nicolson and pianist Steven Osborne voyaged to the Steinway factory in Germany to make their selection. “We met at some ungodly hour at Heathrow to fly for the day to Hamburg. It didn’t take as long as you might think choosing the piano. We had a room full of them to try, but quickly both of us were stopping at the same one. It didn’t work out last year to have Steven come for the inaugural performance, but I’m delighted he can come this year – it should be very special.” A spectacular evening, too, as Osborne’s demanding recital of Brahms, Rachmaninov and Debussy should show what the new piano’s capable of. A few days earlier, he gives a talk entitled “What does music mean?” – a subject broad enough to reflect the richness of the festival itself. ■

The St Magnus Festival runs from 16 to 24 June at various venues across Orkney, www.stmagnusfestival.com