'You can tell if people are getting hooked after a few concerts. You can see it in the eyes'

ORKNEY not be the place to go for a tan, but then you wouldn't go to Chios for a shot of high culture. This collection of islands is famous for many things: its liberal littering of world-class archaeological sites from Maeshowe to Skara Brae; its very long summer days (this year seen through a light and persistent drizzle); but perhaps most famously, for music lovers, the St Magnus Festival.

The brainchild of eminent and vastly enthusiastic British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who has made the Orkney Islands his home since the 1970s, this idiosyncratic mix of contemporary, classical and traditional music and culture has been pottering along for 30 years. From amidst the varied musical strands of this year's festival, the opening weekend belonged to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, in residency, and James MacMillan, the featured composer this year, increasingly taking to the conductor's podium, much like his predecessor as composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies himself.

But on the opening night in the Pickaquoy Centre (an adaptable sports hall) it was conductor Paul Daniel, formerly of English National Opera, who held sway - often quite literally, with his rather balletic conducting style - skipping the BBC Philharmonic through MacMillan's 1994 orchestral fantasy Britannia.

It's a curious piece, full of honks and blasts and "patriotic themes", and rather unsettling in this respect, although its humour, if that is indeed the right word - one suspects that MacMillan has ulterior motives here - caused as much delight amongst this eager crowd as it did when I last heard it under the RSNO on their inaugural trip to Paris last year. That said, Daniel's much more unsettling, jumpy interpretation made it an almost unrecognisable piece from the more ethereal, good-natured approach of RSNO music director Stephane Denve.

The BBC Phil has its own distinct smooth sound. James Ehnes, the Canadian violinist, followed up with a rather cultured approach to the Prokofiev Violin concerto, whilst Daniel gave an unashamedly Romantic interpretation - his take on the Adagio one for the sentimentalists - of Rachmaninov's Symphony No 2 in the second half.

St Magnus audiences - dress code: arctic fleece and polar survival jackets - are faithful, as evidenced by my neighbours at the second in the BBC Phil series the following evening, who have been making the journey up from London for the past 15 years. "You can tell if people are getting hooked when you see them after a few concerts. It's in the eyes," they assured me.

There is certainly something very seductive about the St Magnus Festival. It could be that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies takes such a fatherly approach to his "off-spring"; he was a sprightly, ever-smiling presence at every concert over the weekend. It could be the incongruity of a contemporary music programme in such an unlikely venue - despite 30 years of the St Magnus Festival, Kirkwall has no concert hall and the larger symphonic events have only recently moved from the diminutive yet dourly spectacular red sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall to the airy sports hall box of the Pickaquoy arts centre in the surrounding flat rolling farmscape - both with their own idiosyncratic acoustic.

But there's also the fact that Orkney's towns are diminutive enough for visitors to mingle with the musicians - indeed, peek behind the tarpaulin erected in the Pickaquoy to improve the acoustic and you can see the assembled musicians backstage packing up their instruments. Not that they've far to go. Some of them are camping with the holidaymakers outside in true "festival" spirit. And after the late night concerts - a real highlight of the festival week - there's the Festival Club, the Albert Hotel bar and disco, which on Saturday saw musicians and audiences mingling over a pint of 59, the local lager.

Back on the concert circuit, and the opening late night concert of the festival plundered another recent string of the St Magnus - the relationship with the RSAMD. After last year's brass it was the turn of the strings, although the opening gambit of both the Cardo and Alba Quartets seemed to suffer slightly from literally hot-footing it from ferry to cathedral stage. But their appearance the following day out at Orphir Church (take a left at the Ring of Brogdar), an airy unadorned chapel half an hour out of Kirkwall, saw an improvement from the Alba Quartet, the more advanced of the two, who fielded a finely judged account of Debussy's String Quartet in G minor with real musical skill. Back in the cathedral, to whose acoustic they are ideally suited, early vocal music group Capella Nova bolstered some Scottish mediaeval polyphony, elegantly sung, with a helping of both Maxwell Davies and MacMillan - providing a different slice of the latter's output with religious motets Nemo te Condemnavit and Videns Dominius.

With both composers contributing to the prestigious Orkney Conductors Course this year - presided over by conductor Martyn Brabbins, whose account on Saturday with the BBC Phil of Sibelius 2 maximized the composers affinity for brass - this is a good year for the students. The talking point for them - later seen dancing with James Ehnes in the legendary Festival Club - was what MacMillan would make of his own seminal work, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie on the podium on Saturday, in the event a moving, subtle elegiac response to his own work which he himself describes as a requiem.

But if conducting "trainees" were anticipating MacMillan, the crowds were anticipating Max himself. Literally leaping up onto the podium on Saturday night, he introduced his 1998 work Temenos, written after he moved from the "very vertical" Hoy to the "very horizontal" Sanday, bringing home the fact that this festival, despite its international line-up, is inextricable from the sense of place itself, and keenly anticipating the concerts of the week ahead.

• For more St Magnus coverage, read Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman on Wednesday

Back to the top of the page