Orkney’s St Magnus Festival set to shine bright

Alasdair Nicolson. Picture: Contributed

Alasdair Nicolson. Picture: Contributed

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ON Friday, the curtain goes up on yet another St Magnus Festival. If you’ve ever visited this annual Orkney event you’ll appreciate me referring to it as the ultimate midsummer treat.

Literally so, because its six-day duration (20-26 June) traditionally revolves around the longest day of the year, meaning darkness hardly ever falls.

That factor plays its hand in shaping a programme that is packed full of events from early in the day to verging on midnight, and a festival atmosphere that finds you losing your sense of time and order. If anything sums up the St Magnus experience, it’s a feeling of escape as you immerse yourself in the welter of music, drama, literature, film, visual arts and social interaction of the bustling late-night Festival Club – but mainly music.

And in this captive island setting, it’s impossible not to find yourself rubbing shoulders in cafes and pubs with top-line visiting artists. This year, composer and festival director Alasdair Nicolson has enticed the BBC Singers (for the first time), the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard, celebrated oboist Nicholas Daniel, Norway’s exceptional Trondheim Soloists, baritone Sergei Leiferkus, Scots-born actor John Sessions headlining a theatrical tribute to Sir Harry Lauder, festival poet and Dundee’s “Makar” WN Herbert, Italian ensemble Laus Concentus and the Fidelio Trio, alongside such newcomers as the young Scots-based Astrid String Quartet.

This is Nicolson’s fourth festival as director, and typical of his relaxed style, there are linked threads, but nothing so suffocating as a single prescriptive theme. Instead he’s chosen to mark a number of significant birthdays relevant to Orkney and to its 38-year-old festival.

His programme takes note of such round-figure anniversaries as composer and St Magnus Festival founder Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ 80th birthday. Max, seemingly recovered now from a cancer operation, and fresh from the recent premiere of his 10th Symphony, will be around and about “doing his presidential bit”, Nicolson promises.

There are no new works from Max, but the BBC Singers, under David Hill, will include a rare performance of Westerlings, his 1977 choral setting of texts by George Mackay Brown. And in what promises to be an emotional highlight, former festival director Glynis Hughes directs a choreographed programme by Orkney’s school pupils of festival works that Max wrote for local schoolchildren between 1979 and 1982, and which became almost synonymous with the unique and creative ethos of the early St Magnus festivals.

“Glynis brought to my attention only recently that there was a BBC documentary made in 1982 about the ‘Songs of Hoy’,” says Nicolson. “I’m trying to find a way of showing that at the festival. There are people, still around in Orkney who took part in that as kids. That’s a wonderful connection with Max over time.”

Another big Orkney connection is the historical one with Norway, which is why Nicolson has chosen to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. “At one time the cathedrals of Trondheim and Orkney operated under the same bishop,” explains Nicolson, who has written a new work – 
Magnus – to be performed in one of several appearances by the Trondheim Soloists.

Special focus this year also falls on the beautiful Italian Chapel – an isolated Second World War Nissen hut transformed 70 years ago by Italian prisoners-of-war into the poignantly decorated chapel that remains today. Italian ensemble Laus Concentus fill its interior with “Music at the time of Caravaggio”, including works by Monteverdi.

Among the larger-scale highlights are performances of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast by the St Magnus Festival Chorus and BBC SSO, a concert featuring Nicholas Daniel in Strauss’ Oboe Concerto, and a poignant, somewhat moody, final orchestral concert by the BBC SSO in St Magnus Cathedral of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Shostakovich’s Symphony No 14 and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.

If you can’t make it to Orkney, that last concert is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

• The St Magnus Festival runs from 20-26 June, www.stmagnusfestival.com

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